Created his own stand-up lane by combining information and comedy.
Photography by Tom Wool
Written by Chris Campanioni
Chris Campanioni: In one of your recent performances (at the 2018 XOXO Festival, in Portland), you describe it as a “compulsion” … do you attribute the compulsion for debunking myths to our current fake news, post-truth, tribalism culture in 2019?
Adam Conover: I don’t attribute it to our culture. I think what we currently see as fake news, tribalism culture is just a modern day version of how the human mind works. We always favor the emotionally redolent story … we are easily swayed by narratives and falsehoods. And we don’t have the time to read everything we say we do. So in that sense, people have been weaponizing false narratives long before 2019 and long before the Internet. In actuality, we are ceasing control to a force that has long existed and has been here for a very long time.
As for my compulsion? I think I’ve always been addicted to finding out when something I thought was true is not. And in that sense, I’ve always been a longform journalism fan … I’d read The New Yorker front to back, ingesting house style, you know, understanding ultimately that one of the big hooks of these journalism pieces is exactly this: the gotcha moment.
CC: Journalism and comedy have always had an important relationship, maybe precisely because hardly anyone thinks about the two in the same conversation. At one point—2014, I think—twelve percent of Americans cited The Daily Show as the place where they got their news.Do you see comedy as providing a fundamental role in shaping potential political engagement or at least literacy?
AC: Yeah I mean, look. Comedy is just a technique, right? I use comedy specifically in an educational way. I think I can call myself an “investigative comedian” but I’m not doing journalism. Although I think it’s very possible to do both; John Oliver is doing it and doing it really, really well.
We use journalism as the fundamental material that we do the work out of. I’m a comedian, what I know is that I know how to make people laugh and I know how to make ideas compelling. I know how to make a shocking truth … I know how to make it as shocking and as funny as possible. And I use that to signal boost other people and other issues.
The truth of it is people don’t have time to read longform journalism today, and so we—as comedians—distill it down to a short-form comedy segment that we can watch and enjoy. As punchy and memorable as possible so it sticks in people’s heads. The effect of longform journalism is that people who doread these stories hold the stories with them forever. So I want to give them that takeaway. That’s my mission. To educate and inform people about these issues using comedy. I think that’s something comedy can do. At the same time, there’s the risk of becoming too mission-based. It’s still something that has to be done well. I think Jon Stewart was the big bang moment for comedians opening up comedy … seeing what comedy can do. To have that effect on culture and be so fucking funny … and at the same time, to open minds and the media … he’s the top of the mountain. Now that is has been proved that you can do that, there’s a risk in focusing just on that and not focusing on what makes it funny, what makes it compelling, even. So there’s a danger to this whole new comedy; I’ve seen other comedians struggle with that. I’ve struggled with it as well.
CC: What would you compare this new style to in regard to other art forms?
AC: Jon Stewart was comedy’s modernism. Now we’re in postmodernism and we’re trying to figure out what’s next.
CC: I want to talk about your intended audience, because in the same clip I mentioned at the very beginning, that show you did at the 2018 XOXO Festival, you ended by talking about the people you do this for, and you said: “People who are open-minded and love to learn, people who prefer hard truths to comforting fictions, people who are empathetic and don’t want to see others suffer.”
Why do you prefer to preach to the choir, when your point seems to be to change people’s minds about things they hold as resolute truths?
AC: Oh I do, I do, that is the purpose of the show. But it begins by redefining what the choir is or was. The sermon is for people who need the lesson. That’s what the lesson is for. The audience is open to having their minds being changed; that’s why they’re sitting there. Now I hope that is everyone, because I believe that is the default way for humans to be: open-minded. And of course, after we do the segments, we always find there a couple of people who are not. I’m not trying to convert the one percent of hard casers out there who are so blinkered and bigoted and closed-minded. I come to people in good faith—if they come back to me in bad faith or misrepresent my argument, I’m not going to worry about reaching those people. So who is my target audience? It’s someone who is open-minded, who wants to learn, and they just don’t know this shit yet.
Whenever we do a topic on race, we get a huge amount of comments from racists. So my audience is not the tiny minority of vocal racists who just want to insult people of color and ignore this issue. My audience is not the small number of people who already know the awful history of racial segregation. My audience is the vast majority of people who dislike racism, who have an invested interest in ending racism in this country, and they just don’t know about the fact of racism in our present and our past … and there’s a lot of room to change minds. There is work to be done with people who share our values.
I mean, I didn’t know I went to a racially segregated school until I was an adult. I didn’t have the language for that; no one ever told me about the fact that having one black kid as a classmate meant it was racially segregated. So there, I’m in the choir.
I’ve always been addicted to finding out when something I thought was true is not.
CC:What’s been the major difference between your experience as a stand-up and your experience going on stage as a sort of comedic revealer?
AC: Well what I do on stage now is a combination of stand-up and what I do on Adam Ruins Everything. That’s a show about revealing incredible information but I’m also doing a lot of stand-up. Biology, sociology, psychology meets jokes. Basically.
We tend to think of stand-up a basic form of comedy, but it’s not, and yet as a result, people’s expectations of it as an art form are very narrow. If there’s not a joke every 15 seconds the audience gets uncomfortable. They expect a certain kind of comedy. Every stand-up comedian is kind of running in the same race … everyone is trying to win the hundred yard dash. I realized at some point … I had my own gotcha moment. By combining information and comedy I could create my own lane, I could create my own race. I can get a little serious and the audience is there for it. It lets me do different things that I couldn’t do when I was just doing my 7 minutes and just trying to kill as hard as I could each time. I still want to kill but I want to inform and educate and I can do all of it at once.
CC: What’s the last book, film, play, song, artwork, or exhibit that changed your life?
AC: Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It’s about the eviction epidemic in America and almost no one knows about it. This book, though, is also incredibly beautifully written. Desmond moved into the insecure buildings that people were living and he got to know them, befriended them; he was with them for years. And so it becomes a story about poverty, about housing instability, and about the author’s own method of investigation itself. It’s brilliant.