How Adam Conover of 'Adam Ruins Everything' Built His Comedy Career
Can comedy change the world by changing minds?
Recently, I had a blast speaking with Adam Conover from the hit television show Adam Ruins Everything. As the show's host and investigative comedian, he's the comically inventive yet unrelentingly serious quest to reveal the hidden truths behind things you know and love. Conover takes on topics ranging from the workplace and voting to forensic science and security. Not only does he provide fun facts to share with your friends, but he also shares information that could make you see the world in a whole new way.
Conover says the show is very much based on a younger version of himself: He knew, quite simply, that he annoyed a lot of people. He was very outgoing, but in ways that would disrupt the flow of a class or people just hanging out, and he often felt unable to interact with people socially. (Think: the guy at a party who spouts off a point of view that might not seem intuitively accurate -- until you find out he's actually right.) When he shares a big idea on his show, it usually sparks an audience reaction that goes something like: “Oh, my God, why did you tell me that?” Conover turns big reveals and disruptive know-how into positive comedy, while also encouraging audiences to check the facts in their everyday lives.
Conover is always curious. His agent, Joel Zadak, tells me: "Adam is a voracious information junkie, always reading, always asking ‘why,’ always growing. That’s why he’s so good at what he does."
Conover developed his creative skills performing comedy in New York for little to no pay. In college, he and some college friends performed in a sketch comedy group during the early days of the internet. (We're talking pre-YouTube!) The team wrote scripts for, acted in, directed and edited comedy videos, then uploaded them on CollegeHumor.com -- and some went viral. Conover even took care of some of the visual effects and video compression.
Later, Conover began performing and teaching stand-up and sketch comedy. He worked with Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), an improvisational theatre and training center in New York, which helped him come into his own as a performer. And once Conover started working on his own brand of informative comedy, he created a lane in live stand-up comedy where few were competing with him.
The next step on Conover’s journey: Create and write Adam Ruins Everything, then pitch it successfully to a television network.
Conover admits he got lucky when pitching to many different networks: Most executives liked his idea, but no one bit until Conover pitched TruTV, which was already seeking out an informational comedy show. Conover had finally found the right audience -- with the right timing.
Conover had pitched exactly what they were looking for, so he took that experience and applied it to his future approach for pitching anything. He aims to put a lot of work into each pitch but also to keep his ego in check by preparing for potential rejection and trying not to take things personally. That strategy can help increase his confidence while pitching: Instead of thinking, I hope they like it -- this could change my life, his attitude is more like, Here's what I'm selling -- would you like to buy it or not?
Now, Adam Ruins Everything is a hit show, and Conover hopes to continue producing it for a long time. But other opportunities for projects pop up frequently for Conover as well. He was recently approached about doing a documentary film and just launched a podcast called Factually.
“I think it's the ultimate irony that more opportunities come your way [as you get] more successful,” says Conover. “I realized it was happening as soon as the show was sold and people started watching it. And I thought, 'What a perverse thing this is' -- because when I was doing open mics, I would have killed to go on podcasts or to get my name out there. It's sort of like when you're at the bottom of the pit, no one's helping you. It's only when you get towards the top that people start throwing you down a rope. It's like a law of nature, and it makes me think a lot about what my responsibility is to folks who are further down the hole where I was -- how I can offer them help and how I can try to help change the structure of American society.”
You can listen to the full interview on my Capability Amplifier Podcast.