We recently sent out a call from readers to ask Adam Conover, the star of TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, anything they wanted. The response was a wide-ranging assortment of everything from questions about his wardrobe to his understanding of contemporary international geopolitics. Adam did his best to answer as many questions as he could during our interview, and was even willing to disclose the extremely meta subject of an upcoming episode of his TV show.
1. Have you ever uncovered a fact in your research that’s so taboo or upsetting to people that you decided not to include it in an episode?
Adam Conover: No. There are topics that we’ve held off on doing because we wanted to make very sure we were doing them correctly. There’s a couple topics, such as our trophy-hunting segment, we didn’t do until our second year. But our show prides itself on being able to do very difficult topics. This year, we have a segment coming up on mammograms and breast cancer that is obviously very serious because of how many people are affected by breast cancer, and we think of those as being double-black-diamond segments where we work extra hard to get them right and be very careful so that we don’t take a tumble, but we do try to do them.
In terms of anything that’s too taboo, something that’s always really stuck with me—and this is not about my work at all—but a few years ago This American Life did a segment about pedophiles and pedophilia and about how that subject is so taboo that we don’t do nearly enough societally to deal with it. Pedophilia is very poorly understood psychologically because almost no one studies it, because the taboo is so strong, and pedophiles are very rarely treated. They talked about this one guy who realized he was a pedophile and wanted to not hurt any children and tried to start a support group but had to do it secretly online because it was so taboo. They don’t have any support system at all. I know that topic was really, really fascinating. That always stuck with me as an example of, “Wow, that’s exactly the kind of topic we would do on the show except that we’re not going to do on our show.” I’m not saying we never could, but we’re only in our second season. This American Life has been on the air for almost 20 years now, maybe longer. So I was really impressed. Like, wow, they were really able to do that topic in a careful, empathetic, unsparing, honest way that was really impactful. I would say it’s our goal to be able to do that kind of work the longer we do our show.
The A.V. Club: That’s the thing. There’s leeway you get, once you’re This American Life or 60 Minutes, that is not afforded to those who have not been around quite as long.
AC: Yeah, exactly. Once you’ve built up the credibility. And we slowly build ours up as we go. We do a few topics now where we don’t do a joke for a few minutes because we’re going through a very serious topic, and the audience stays with us more because we’re now in our second season.
AC: That’s a very good question. I’m very happy to be asked that. First of all, I have an amazing wardrobe stylist, Alisha Silverstein, who does all the incredible costumes on our show. She’s part of the incredible team that creates those characters, but we also design all of my wardrobe together. At this point, we’re totally in sync. She puts the stuff together, and she knows exactly what I like. As you can see, if you watch this show on a time lapse, you can see, we slowly got better at finding suit jackets that fit because I have a problem where I have a big ol’ belly, and stuff that fits me in the shoulders is generally too tight in the tummy. So I have a lot of exposed bottom of my tie when I button up my jacket buttons and stuff like that. So we’re slowly getting better at that. I also think as an inspiration, I’ve been reading Jesse Thorn’s blog, Put This On, for years. Sort of a traditional menswear blog, and I really love that blog and it taught me a lot about how to dress and is definitely one of my inspirations.
3. I enjoyed how the “Adam Ruins Christmas” special looked at our weird traditions, but I secretly hoped you’d really ruin Christmas by questioning the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth. Had you considered taking on that aspect of it?
AC: No, we didn’t. A lot of people ask me, “Hey, when are you going to take on religion?” and they want me to tell them that religion isn’t true. They want me to bust all the myths. People want me to say that God isn’t real and stuff like that on the show. It’s not something I think we’re ever going to do because it’s my belief that—I’m not trying to spin out a brand-new philosophy here, but on the one hand, I am a nonbeliever myself. But I think there’s so much about religion that is not factual in nature as to why people engage with it and what it means to them. You can debunk why you think there’s no physical evidence for God and why the story of Jesus didn’t really happen that way and stuff like that all the live-long day, and it’s not going to make a difference to what role religion has in people’s lives and how they feel about it and how it makes their lives better or worse. So as a result, I’ve never felt like it was a particularly fruitful topic for our show.
I also believe that the version of, “Here, let me prove to you why God isn’t real and why religion is a lie,” that’s how I used to feel about religion 10 years ago, 15 years ago when I was in high school, college. That would have been an interesting idea to me. Now, the topic of religion seems much more complex, and I have a more complex relationship with it myself because I love religious music. I often find myself wanting to be in a religious state of mind even though I don’t intellectually believe it. I want to go to that place emotionally. So it doesn’t feel like something that I really want to debunk in that way. It’s just not where my interests lie at the moment.
Plus, I think if we were to do that topic about Christmas, so many more people celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday for the most part than a Christian holiday. Obviously, many, many people celebrate it as a Christian holiday. But then there’s even more people or there’s additional people who celebrate it as a secular holiday as well. So we wanted to talk about the biggest tent version of Christmas, which is why we focused on the Santa and those other stories. But we did talk about the history of Christmas, the celebration and how it wasn’t always fully Christian in nature and how it’s a mix of different traditions.
4. Would you consider an episode ruining the concept of ruining things? I love the show, but I wonder if it ever changes people’s minds in that way.
AC: You are going to love an episode we have coming up later this year. I believe it’s the eighth episode of the season, and it’s called “Emily Ruins Adam Ruins Everything,” and it’s about exactly that topic. It’s the show looking back on itself and tackling exactly the question that you ask. So I won’t spoil too much by answering that question here, but tune in to that episode. You’ll be very satisfied.
AC: This really makes me laugh because people seem to think—because I do this show where I tell people facts—that I know every fact off the top of my head, that I’m a fountain of information and can answer every question. I don’t know. I don’t know the history of hating communism in America. I’ve always been interested in it, and I’ve thought about studying it in the past, but I’ve just looked into other topics first. That certainly sounds like a good topic that we could do on the show. I think it would be really interesting. We would just need to spend a lot of time researching it, getting into it, running down that topic. So I’ll take that as a really good pitch for a future episode.
6. Hey Adam, I like watching you ruin stuff. This would be a weird challenge, and I would almost feel honored if you pulled it off: Do you think you could ruin the My Little Pony community fan base the Bronies?
AC: I don’t think I could. I think I like Bronies too much. I think Bronies are great. Nothing makes me happier than when Fluttershy or someone with a magical pony avatar shows up in my Twitter feed and asks a question about the show. It always brings a smile to my face. I think that friendship is magic, and I think it’s wonderful that we have a community of adults who want to spread that message around the world. Even I could not ruin something so lovely as the Bronies.
7. So we know you’re a lover of knowledge and conspiracy theories, and from a family of Ph.D. wonks. How did you translate that into comedy and in an environment like CollegeHumor in the first place?
AC: That’s a very good question. Speaking of conspiracy theories, we have an episode coming up about conspiracy theories that I think you will really dig. But I wanted to continue in my folks’ footsteps and go to grad school. I wanted to go to grad school in philosophy, but I just couldn’t really hack the reading. My teachers gently steered me away from that because they knew I wasn’t quite the academic temperament, as much as I loved learning and the life of the mind and the academic pursuit. So instead, I went into comedy, but I just always kept reading. I kept reading and listening to podcasts and audiobooks and documentaries and stuff like that. And I just kept sponging up information, and after doing comedy for close to 10 years, I started putting that in my stand-up act. Telling those stories. And people reacted to them well. The first one was the engagement-ring story. People really stood up and listened to that. And after that happened, I had to write two sketches a week at CollegeHumor. That was my job, and I wrote that up as a sketch, and it did really well and that sort of led off to the races. So it was very organic.
AC: Again, this is something I don’t know for sure off the top of my head. So don’t take this answer as perfect Adam Ruins Everything research lore, but we’ve done a lot of material on the show about how powerfully car interests pushed for the car, and here’s the thing: We had an extremely extensive rail system throughout the country up until the era of, they call it “mass automotivity.” That’s the era of everyone owning their own car. We had a rail that was the dominant mode of travel. People would travel across the whole country on the rail. And it was this incredible system. And what we see now is Amtrak is the desiccated remains of that system.
If you go read the history of the passenger rail in America [Wikipedia] page, it’s the greatest tragedy, this 100-year decline of this once-massive system that was all of these incredible trains, these big companies that were transporting people. Luxurious accommodations. There’s civil rights history mixed up in there with the Brotherhood Of Sleeping Car Porters. This huge part of American history, and then with the rise of the car, it just started to shrink and shrivel, and the companies started combining and trying to salvage what they had left. Amtrak was eventually partially taken over by the government because it was the only way it could survive. And now they don’t even own most of their own track. If you ride in Amtrak, often they have to stop for a freight train because they don’t own the right of way. So it’s really this very sad, depleted thing.
I think every force of the 20th century conspired in the United States around the car instead. We had AAA and the car manufacturers themselves and these groups. And then certainly city planners thought that was the best way to get around, and sort of drank the Kool-Aid. The short answer is, we don’t have high-speed rail because of this century-long American fixation on cars, which I think is one of the greatest mistakes the country ever made, or at least one of the greatest unacknowledged mistakes. We all know that we shouldn’t have gone into Vietnam, but we don’t often talk about the error of building our entire society around the car. There’s certainly a place for them in our lives, but having that be the one accepted mode of transportation—and again this is just me—but I think it really decreases our quality of life.
AC: That’s an interesting question. First of all—again, not an Adam Ruins Everything research answer, this is just my own personal opinion—I don’t believe that it is. I think that veganism is a totally great choice with incredible benefits, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect other people to be vegan or to expect everybody to be vegan. You can proselytize all you want, but being vegan is a pretty intense choice for a lot of people. You can encourage people to eat vegan more, certainly, and I personally eat vegan quite often. I eat about two meals a day vegan, is my rule of thumb. When I’m traveling, all bets are off, but I don’t cook meat in the house. I rarely cook eggs. I never use milk. But when I go out to eat for a special treat, I’ll have some meat. But I know, personally, that’s the best I’m ever going to do in my life. I’m never going to be a monk about it and say, “Never again shall meat or dairy pass through my lips.” And you can’t expect other people to do that.
So the question is, how do you improve animal welfare and affect climate change and all these other issues? Well, you have to find systemic solutions. You have to find a way of conducting farming that is more humane and still allows all of the different lifestyles that Americans have to exist. Our show often talks about how individual action is a poor way to solve societal problems. You can’t solve climate change by everybody individually buying a more efficient car and throwing out less stuff. You have to make national changes through national policy. That’s what our “Adam Ruins Going Green” episode attempts to prove. And I hope we do a pretty good job of it. But as a general rule of thumb, if your solution to a societal problem is, “Everyone should act exactly like me, and then the problem will be solved,” that’s probably not a very workable solution. You have to accept that other people are not going to live their lives like you, and you have to find a way to achieve your goals while they are still existing and living their lives according to their choices.
AC: I can’t think of anything that I ruined just for myself. I’m certainly surprised by the information that we do on the show as much as anyone, and those surprises are what guide me toward what we do on the show. The reason we did the segment about the hymen in our “Adam Ruins Sex” episode was because when that came up in our room, I genuinely didn’t know that. I was surprised by the information. I was like, ‘How did I live my entire life being incorrect about this fundamental idea of human biology?’ I was shocked that that was the case. And so that’s why we did that segment. I seek out having things ruined. And like anyone, there are things we’ve done on the show that have ruined my own habits as well, like for instance, I’m the type of person, I shower every day and I use soap. We did an episode about how that idea was created by the soap industry. And it’s true. It was. But hey, I just can’t get past it. I don’t feel clean unless I do it, and so it worked on me. The cultural idea was embedded in my consciousness, and now I can’t get away from it. I’m in the same boat as everyone else.