Adam Ruins Everything is a half-hour comedy designed for segmented viewing, the televisual equivalent of a Lunchables box. Every episode of the truTV series comes apportioned into discrete lines of assault on the thing being ruined: “Adam Ruins Hollywood” takes on awards shows, then movie ratings, then reality TV; “Adam Ruins Sex” includes equal helpings of circumcision, herpes, and the hymen; “Adam Ruins Immigration,” a recent standout, deconstructs border security, then immigration courts, then mass deportation. The structure hails to the show’s roots—it originated as a web series on CollegeHumor, and is produced by that website’s production studio, Big Breakfast—and speaks to the changing shape of TV comedy in a world where fewer and fewer people watch comedy on TV. Like late night talk shows and pretty much every memorable Last Week Tonight segment, Adam Ruins Everything comes prepackaged for the internet. This isn’t just a play for virality, though virality is certainly important to comedy creators; it’s about making television accessible to people watching on their phones, on their tablets, during a coffee break, scrolling through Twitter in the coatroom at a friend of a friend’s housewarming party (I’m just, you know, speculating here). It also allows a show to market itself: if you’re hesitant to dive into a new series, you can watch that 5-minute clip on your timeline and get a pretty good sense of what you’re in for. Many conventional sitcoms, not designed for social media afterlives, present higher barriers to entry—call it the “I know I should watch Catastrophe and I will eventually, okay???” effect. With an expansive slate of segment-based, personality-driven shows like Adam Ruins Everything, Billy On the Street, Impractical Jokers, and Jon Glaser Loves Gear, truTV seems determined to dismantle these barriers—to make content that bounces around our feeds until the cows come home, or at least until a new episode replaces it next week.
So while “The Adam Ruins Everything Election Special,” airing tonight on truTV, may not be particularly out of character for Adam Conover, an accomplished standup comedian and public speaker, it does offer a special treat for viewers unaccustomed to watching him ruin so much in one sitting. Taped before a live audience, the special clocks in a little under an hour. Like the series in general, it’s divided into thematically unified segments, a few of which are especially snackable: why this presidential election isn’t really so unprecedented, why America lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to women and politics, why it might not be so bad to elect a career politician into a job that requires a good deal of politicking. And whereas the series usually presents Adam (the character; “Conover” will denote the man) with diegetic interlocutors—characters for whom he is ruining this or that, with occasional asides to the camera—the special is basically standup, or whatever’s the standup equivalent of a TED talk. Certain juicy historical nuggets are given life onstage by Adam Lustick and Eliza Skinner, but the hour mostly belongs to Conover, who carries us on a whirlwind historical tour with an academic’s analytic precision and a satirist’s exasperated skepticism. There are some genuinely surprising revelations here, including the fact that a woman has likely already wielded presidential powers, albeit covertly: when Woodrow Wilson was left incapacitated by a stroke, his wife Edith fulfilled many of his duties, supposedly consulting him on certain issues while delegating others. Conover also makes the rather disheartening clarification that “money in politics,” when framed as a pox on presidential elections, is a red herring. Were money truly capable of deciding a presidential contest, he argues, Jeb Bush would be the GOP nominee; the real danger is in dark money influencing local elections, where coverage of down-ballot candidates is scant and a single misleading commercial can decide the race. As in many other episodes, he doesn’t ruin the subject at hand so much as he reframes our perception of it with added, necessary context. This is election is crazy, but it probably isn’t apocalyptic. People can be hateful, but they can also change.
Conover and his co-writer for the episode, the standup comic Gonzalo Cordova, rehearsed and honed the special in a fifteen-city tour across the country. I attended their performance in Philadelphia, where it was a strange pleasure to see several hundred Pennsylvanians—young and old, kids and parents—pack into the Trocadero Theater for the live version of an off-kilter cable show adapted from a CollegeHumor web series by a guy who got started in comedy with videos like “The Machine That Turns Food Into Poop;.”Few TV writers have the privilege of workshopping their scripts with one live audience, let alone fifteen; for Conover and his team, the opportunity did not go unappreciated. “Part of our message is that we’re not all that different. We’re not on Team Red or Team Blue,” he said in an interview. “And we had a very similar reaction to the show everywhere. It helped my confidence that we’re right about that—we’re not as different as we think. We tried to write a show that would appeal not to people’s political opinions, but their human opinions. If you agree with one candidate or the other, everyone has similar bad feelings about the election.”
He learned quickly that some jokes were not up to par, and certain topics simply weren’t suitable for the special. “Early on we had this whole section about how money in politics doesn’t really work in large elections,” he said, referring to what in its ultimate form is still one of the special’s strongest segments. “It’s sort of a classic, This is a scam! But it ended up not being that resonant with audiences, ‘cause who really cares that millionaires and billionaires are getting scammed? It’s not that relatable. So we folded it into the section about local elections.” Then there was the problem of equal opportunity skewering: “In the first act of the show we have a lot of Trump jokes, and in earlier drafts it took us a while to get to our first Hillary joke, so we moved a couple up,” he said. “We wanted to give everyone something to laugh at. Some people like making fun of Trump more; some people like making fun of Hillary more. We wanted to give them both a chance to laugh before we try to open their minds.”
Warning: spoilers ahead. Okay? Okay. I will admit that when I left the Trocadero last month, I was skeptical of the show’s eventual conclusion that our nation’s immense partisanship—one of the few things truly unprecedented about our current political climate—can be solved if we simply start a dialogue with those whose beliefs we think irreconcilable with ours. “Start a conversation,” Adam says late in the special, “but this time do it with a starting point of empathy, compassion and respect, and see if you can’t find just one thing that you agree you want to change America for the better. And when you do that, you may find that this person you’ve been so mad at—they’re not a monster. They’re not trying to destroy America. They’re a person, just like you, who wants to make this country a better place.”
Well, sure, sounds good. But wait—isn’t the whole problem that some people, practically half an electorate’s worth of people, want to make the country a better place by building a wall, deporting illegal immigrants and banning Muslims? It seemed an easy conclusion that doesn’t really reckon with the immutability of intolerance, racial and otherwise. I’ve come around on this since reading the Washington Post’s fascinating profile of Derek Black, a presumptive white nationalist leader who, tl;dr, left the movement after talking with people he disagreed with. But I thought it less than revelatory that a close-minded individual opened his mind after leaving his parents’ house and enrolling in an institute of higher learning; no, what’s truly moving about that story is the willingness of Black’s peers’ engage with him thoughtfully and respectfully. And it worked. Obviously it wouldn’t and won’t with much of Trump’s base, and obviously there are few succinct morals to be distilled from this Kafkaesque hellscape of an election. But as succinct morals to Kafkaesque hellscapes go, Conover’s is probably one of the most productive we can hope for.
One of the more tired lines of the season is that it’s near-impossible to write jokes about Donald Trump because he is, in being and in action, already a joke himself. (Please: George W. Bush was in office for eight of The Daily Show’s best years.) “The Adam Ruins Everything Election Special” concedes that Trump is a worrisome extreme, but reminds us also that elections cultivate the language of extremes, both in the people seeking office and the commentators presenting them for public consumption. This is one of our oldest electoral traditions, Adam notes early on, dating back to the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson paid a newspaper editor to disparage John Adams. That editor, James Callender, described Adams as having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Jefferson, by the by, was at the time serving as Adams’ vice president. Conover lamented that history is so full of such ripe-for-comedy stories that they couldn’t all fit in one hourlong special, though he hinted that they may appear in future episodes. “American history is this incredible fertile plain,” he said. “There’s so many stories like that. Rutherford B. Hayes was put into office, but he lost both the popular and electoral vote because there was intense voter suppression in certain areas. So they basically cut a backroom deal to make him president, to avoid violence. It was a totally undemocratic election. When people are like, ‘It’s corrupt now,’ we don’t even have an awareness—this guy was placed into the presidency.”
A few of the special’s arguments ring false, or at least incomplete. One segment attempting to show precedent for Trump’s crudeness points out that Lyndon B. Johnson had a peculiar tendency to show off his genitalia, and impelled his staffers to stand beside him while he was on the toilet. We are ostensibly to believe that this is comparable to Trump making fun of Chris Christie’s weight, during a rally where Christie was present. But these aren’t really equivalent. Johnson’s behavior was crude and abusive, yes, but it hardly constituted a cruel, public humiliation of a political rival-turned-ally. The special’s arguments are often built on equivalencies like these, and some, like Jefferson’s manipulations, are stronger than others. Similarly, anecdotes conclude with mini-equivalencies that serve to clarify their often already-obvious absurdity. In that same story, Conover declares “That’s like if we found out that Biden was the guy photoshopping the Hitler mustaches onto the Obama poster.” Such lines are quippy and evocative, but stacked so closely together—as they often are in standup and late night monologues—the formula becomes tiring and apparent: “[Thing we don’t already consider absurd] is like if [thing that is obviously absurd.]” It’s just a longer way of saying “That’s crazy!”, which is the bare minimum responsibility of satire. More effective, I think, is the “if this, then what?” joke: if Hillary Clinton were as conniving a dealmaker as LBJ, Adam says, “she’d have to shred her whole damn computer”; the only way John Kasich could be more of a Beltway insider would be “if he lived inside Paul Ryan.” Yes, decontextualizing punchlines is the surest way to render them humorless, but I hope the structural difference is evident. One joke rephrases an idea in absurder terms; the other carries it to a heightened conclusion. (One, perhaps, signifies observational standup; the other is more denotative of sketch.) Both tactics can be very funny when deployed strategically, but I think there is more possibility in the second, which asks us to consider not just an idea but its potential consequences, whimsical as they may be.
I’m overthinking minutia only because “The Adam Ruins Everything Election Special” offers much to overthink. It’s a strong, varied hour, a welcome divergence from the take-oriented comedy of pretty much every other political satire. The show stands out because it turns an eye away from the hyper-topical to the historical: “I used to worry John Oliver would scoop us,” Conover said of the weeks separating the tour’s conclusion and the special’s premiere. “What everyone else is doing, it’s very topical. It’s daily or it’s weekly. I don’t want to compete in that market… That’s why our approach was to take a historical approach. That’s what I enjoy; that’s the way I think. And the nice thing is that nobody else is doing that. Nobody else is looking at history and saying, instead of talking about Donald Trump, let’s talk about Thomas Jefferson.” This approach pays off in one of the special’s most salient points: LBJ was a dealmaking, sweet-talking, backstabbing politicker who said whatever he needed to say to get elected. This strategy got the Voting Rights Act passed. It also got America more deeply entrenched in the Vietnam War. As fashionable as it is to hate politicians for practicing politics, Conover says, it’s still politics that gets the hard work done. The unfortunate flip side is that no matter if you’re an Adams or a Jefferson or a Johnson or a Clinton, the hard work is never really done.
Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher, and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him @sasimons.