How to Make a Ruin: An Oral History of How Adam Ruins Everything Actually Ruins Everything

TV Features Adam Ruins Everything
How to Make a Ruin: An Oral History of How Adam Ruins Everything Actually Ruins Everything

It all starts with a Truly Remarkable Fact.

Every ruin on truTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, from Mount Rushmore to IQ tests, conspiracy theories to solitary confinement—they all get their start in the ARE writers’ room as Truly Remarkable Facts.

“We’ve got five writers, five researchers, a head writer, a head researcher, a couple executive producers and me,” series creator and star Adam Conover tells Paste, describing what the writers room looks like when it’s time to pitch stories for a new season. “These are very smart people who are reading, learning things, watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, reading the newspaper. They’re ingesting information all day long, and I want them to think back—what is something you learned recently that blew your fucking mind, something that you thought was a truly remarkable fact. Anything that will make the whole room go ‘Holy shit! Really!?’ That right there is the bar for a Truly Remarkable Fact.”

The Truly Remarkable Fact that teenagers aren’t lazy, but chronically sleep-deprived—the fact that anchors Act II in “Adam Ruins Sleep,” from the comedy series’ third season, which premieres tonight—is a perfect example of the form.

“It was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re having so much fun talking about this,’” Conover says, describing how excited everyone in the room got after putting that TRF up on the board, and how they all saw their perspective on the world shift. “If the fact is making us change the way we see the world, in our writers’ room? Then that’s something that we want to bring to the people, that energy. [We want to] take these incredible things that we’ve learned and share them in such a way that the audience comes away with that same sense of wonder and curiosity and mind expansion as we did when in the room when we talked about it.”

With two strong seasons already under its belt, it’s clear that this approach resonates. When fans come up to Conover on the street, or after his own live shows, it is Adam Ruins Everything’s many remarkable facts that they gush about—not the jokes. “The truth is, people love to learn,” Conover says. “We don’t have to ‘make learning fun.’ “LEARNING IS FUCKING FUN. People love it. We’re not hiding the medicine in the dog treats—we’re giving people exactly what they want. The information is the hero of the show. I was so happy when I discovered that. It made me so optimistic about the world, that learning is a fundamental thing that humans just like to do. What a wonderful thing.”

In the fucking fun spirit of learning, Paste spoke with Adam Ruins Everything’s head writer, head researcher, and executive producer—and, of course, Adam himself—to follow the trail of that “Adam Ruins Sleep” TRF and put together a brief oral history on just how an ARE ruin is made, and why it makes so much sense to schedule “Adam Ruins Guns” and “Adam Ruins Sleep” back to back.

Warning for all you bookworms with jokes out there: Severe job envy to follow.

Jon Wolf, executive producer: The conversation we always have with the network is, what is going to grab the most attention? What is going to announce, “Hey, Adam Ruins Everything is back and it’s better than ever?” Both for new people who hopefully come to the show… for the first time, and for returning fans, what is going to make them tune in? And Adam finally felt confident this year that we could do as big of a topic as guns, and we wrote a really great episode. Coincidentally, we framed the episode around conversations happening at a Thanksgiving dinner table, and when the network told us we would be premiering around Thanksgiving, we were like, well, let’s make “Guns” the first one. It will be super strong. It’s a very emotional episode. And what I really like about having “Guns” in the first week and “Sleep” in the second week is we’re really setting the flags of what Adam Ruins Everything territory can be—it can be this very of-the-moment topic like guns, but then the show can also talk about a more ethereal substance in people’s lives, like, “Why do humans sleep?” And that can all be the same show.

Adam Conover, series creator and star: I want the episodes to work in different ways. I don’t want them all to work in the same way. I’ve started to think about it a little bit more, and we think about it this way in the room: [T]here are certain episodes we do that are really important—and I know that sounds a little bit self-important, like all comedy has to be important now. And that’s a really great tool to use sometimes! But we can’t have every episode be that way, or it would be exhausting.

So “Adam Ruins Guns” was one of the first episodes we put on the board, and in the past, that’s an episode I never thought we would have done, because that’s a topic that’s so divisive, and everyone thinks they know the answer already. In our first couple years, I wanted to hit ‘em where they weren’t looking, to open people’s minds about issues that they didn’t have such strong armor up about. But this year we said, “We’ve been writing this show for four years, we really have the ability to make an argument that everybody in America can watch, but that still dispels common misconceptions and still does some good in the discussion.” And so we knew we wanted to do that, and so that was an important topic for us.

But then “Sleep” was actually on the back burner from the prior year, it was sort of one that we really loved the idea of but it never came together. We just thought it would be really fun to do an episode about dream sequences and Inception parody stuff. If I tell you that, “Hey, there’s so much you don’t know about sleep and I’m going to tell you about it,” it gets your curiosity going! You’re like, “Yeah, what is sleep? I spend a third of my life asleep, and I don’t know much about it.” It’s just a fun kind of playground environment for us to do topics in.

Alison Zeidman, head writer and co-executive producer: Before we even start the room, Adam and I and our executive producers will have a couple conversations about whether there are there any topics generally that we would love to cover this year, or whether is there anything that would be a really fun episode to do. With the “Sleep” episode, we’d had a few different pitches for sleep in the past and [thought] it would just really awesome to do. There’s a lot to play with there, obviously.

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Conover: I believe one of our writers, Brian Frange, shared an article with me about mattress scams, about the weird underbelly of online mattress marketing, and how when you Google Casper vs. Purple mattress, you don’t realize that so many of the top Google hits are either being paid by the mattress companies or literally owned by the mattress companies, and for me, that was the moment of “Aha, now we have an episode.” Because when we had talked about “Adam Ruins Sleep,” it was like, well, are we talking about the literal properties of sleep for three acts? That’s seems a bit boring. But oh, hold on a sec, now we’ve got a consumer scam to open with? Now that’s really solid. Consumer scams are one of the bread-and-butter things on our show. One of the things that really get people in the door of our show is this or that business is ripping you off or is making its money under false pretenses or has shady practices that are taking advantage of you, so to be able to open an episode about such an abstract topic—sleep—with such a concrete, fun story, that really helped sell me on the episode.

Natalie Shure, head researcher: As the head of research, I lead those meetings where we’re all in the room and everyone comes up with different pitches that are sleep or sleep-adjacent, and then our researchers vet some of those to make sure that they don’t collapse entirely. And then when the actual research starts, after the network has approved our general shape and the three acts we’re going to hit, I’ll have a kickoff meeting with the researcher and the writer for the episode and we’ll talk about different things to keep in mind—what’s the most crucial bit of information to hit? What are we setting out to prove? How are we going to support it? What are the counterarguments? How do we respond to counter-criticisms in a robust way?

Conover: The issue was, we had that title, but we didn’t know what all the different stories were in prior years, and this year they really came together. We finally felt that we had three different stories that each felt really different—you’re getting a different gear with each of what the show does in a way that made it a really fun, varied and exciting episode. I want it to feel like a whole meal, all put together, that there’s enough different flavors in there that you’re not getting too much of one thing.

What this episode ended up doing is having three acts that each fall into the bucket of different strengths of our show. People describe our show as a debunking show, but we actually have a broader range of topics that we’re good at telling, patterns that we know really well. With the first act of “Sleep,” it’s the consumer scam. With the second act, the teenagers being sleep-deprived, it’s the story of, “What we do today is counterproductive; the way we organize our society is irrational and is harmful to people and there’s no reason to do it this way.” And then the third act is about our sleep patterns, and that’s another type of story we do, a sort of broad cultural history: “Here’s how things used to be, and here’s how things are now, and here’s how the meaning of ‘natural’ changed.”

Zeidman: With “Sleep,” there’s so much creative potential there in terms of what we can do with the story of the episode. We talked about a few different things, but ultimately we settled on this almost Inception-y type of format where the mark in the episode keeps waking up from a dream within a dream. There’s just all sorts of cool, fun things we can do within that dream world, and play with all the different crazy dream and nightmare tropes… One of our goals this season was to push what we do with format and with story, and this was an opportunity to go really big and weird.

Shure: We were really hoping to have an act about dreams, because—well, from a creative standpoint, having Adam in a dream world of some kind would be really rich for us, but we struggled to find a dream topic that had the elements of an ARE story to it. There wasn’t much that we could find about dreams that was super robust in terms of research, that subverted your expectations in a startling way, and had some consensus behind it. So we decided to put Adam and the characters [these include Arden Myrin as an exhausted single mom of a teen son, and also Lance Bass] in a dream world without actually centering the episode on research and information about dreams.

Zeidman: “Sleep” was—well, I won’t say it was easy to write, because nothing on this show is easy to write, but when we were talking about writing the argument of an episode, sometimes that has to be something that’s really crafted because it’s like, we’re taking all this research, and then what are we trying to say? With “Sleep,” it was pretty straightforward. But that’s great, because that allowed our writers to put a lot of their energy into developing the character and focusing [on] the jokes and the gags.

Wolf: After they figure out the argument structure of the episode, then they will work to build out the narrative structure, and that’s usually when I’m asked to come into the room and listen to a pitch like, “Hey, what if Adam dresses up like a mattress?” And I am like… “I guess that sounds like something we can do?”

Conover: One of the things I’m proud of in this episode is that it’s a really good example of what our show does, in terms of keeping it really visual, keeping it really moving. One of the moments that sticks out for me, that I think is a kind of a classic Adam Ruins Everything gag, is our mark orders an online mattress and it shows up in one of those boxes and then I pop out and sort of inflate like a mattress, which is just such a silly little gag.

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Wolf: In the room, the writers had pitched this idea [that] in the first act, when we talk about brick-and-mortar mattress stores and then we go on to talk about online mattress stores, “Oh, Adam should be a mattress coming out of a box!” That was the extent of the pitch in the room, so the challenge was explaining that, multiple times, to various members of production. And along the way, Adam and I and Alison were like—well, everybody would do this sort of thing where we would crouch on the floor and kind of expand up, and it was like, “That’s how we see it, that Adam is wearing a mattress, doesn’t have to be a real mattress, but he’s wearing some sort of cloth that looks like one of these mattresses and he’s crouching on the floor and then he expands up.”

Conover: Our wonderful costume designer, Alisha Silverstein, made a very, very funny mattress costume for me to wear, where my hands are poking out of either side, and then I did another page of dialogue while dressed as a mattress. It was very, very silly and very entertaining.

Shure: Our show has this narrative element, where it’s a scripted comedy in a non-fictional world, which means that a lot of the time, the fact-checking or the research process, they’ll write a joke to illustrate a certain point, and the researcher’s job is to adjudicate whether or not it’s a fair joke or a representative joke. And of course there’s some wiggle room, because it’s a joke, but [we’re] balancing if it’s a fair representation of the fact, if a sarcastic joke is a valid one: “Is this a fair way to illustrate x concept?” That’s more of an art than a science, and making those calls can be tough.

Conover: The interesting thing about our props and visuals is they are often trying to get across a particular idea or a particular fact. For instance—and here is a good demonstration of how fact-checking interfaces with comedy writing on our show—there’s a scene in the first act where there’s someone reviewing a Casper mattress, and then the Casper guy shows up, and we wanted to demonstrate how Casper took over this review site, and how that could be a conflict of interest. So in the original version of the visual, the mattress reviewer was typing up his glowing review, and then the guy who’s playing the Casper company rushes in and grabs the laptop and starts writing the review himself. And when we were going through the fact check, our wonderful researchers said, “Well, it turns out that Casper claims that they don’t operate any editorial oversight, they don’t tell anybody what to write on the site, so we can’t really portray it as Casper is literally writing the reviews.” But there’s still clearly a conflict of interest here, so how do we represent that, that you shouldn’t trust things from this particular website? So instead what we do is the Casper executive pops up, he slaps a Casper sticker on the back of the computer, and he says, “Don’t mind me, I just love watching you work!” then snuggles up in bed with reviewer. Then we get the idea that there is this unseemly relationship and that’s what it feels like when you work for a company who says they’re not monitoring you, but c’mon, you know who’s paying the bills.

Shure: In the third act, when we were researching some of the dangers of sleeping pills, one of the reasons we learned why sleeping pills are dangerous isn’t a pharmacological reason—it’s that it makes people woozy and they get into car accidents or things like that. And so we were struggling with how to frame this information, like, “How much of this can we put on sleeping pills? What’s fair to say, what’s not fair to say?” And we ended up deciding to say that if you are on sleeping pills and are getting into accidents that you wouldn’t otherwise get into, then [we’re] comfortable ascribing that to sleeping pills. But I think there is a difference between that and implying that it’s the the substance of the sleeping pill itself. It feels like there’s almost a legal element to it sometime, that you’re editing with this idea of, “How can I be precise about this?”

Zeidman: Anytime we’re doing anything about medical side effects, etc., we don’t want to make specific health recommendations—or, if we’re going to, we’re going to do that very carefully. So if there was a challenge on this episode, it was going back and forth with our expert and making sure that we’re presenting the information in the proper way and in the way that’s not going to downplay how awful insomnia is for people who generally have insomnia, and not trying to overstate the risks or the fears that people should have about taking these things, but also getting across the message that is like, “Yeah, you’ve got to be cautious!”

Wolf: One of the things that came up in the room, there’s a part in the third act where we talk about this idea of a “second sleep” that humans used to have before the advent of electrical light. People would wake up in the middle of the night at least once, if not twice, and that was just normal, and that really resonated with me, because I will wake up six nights a week at three o’clock for no particular reason. And once we started talking about it in the room, other people were like “Oh, that happens to me, too,” and the research staff was like, “That’s normal!” And that gave me such peace of mind, when that happens to me. I’m happy, at the very least, if the only takeaway from this episode is that it’s OK to wake up in the middle of the night for just a minute and then you get to go back to sleep and you don’t have to worry. I hope at the very least someone will watch and feel the same way.

Conover: In the end, when I’m making notes on set or in post [-production], I always have a lot of things in mind. I try to put myself in the position of the person watching at home. I try to think, “How is this going to hit the person who is in their living room seeing this?” And I think the extent to which I am good at what I do is in my ability to place myself there, to imagine I’m the audience. So a lot of my notes are about, “How do we throw this idea into sharper relief? How do I say the line that makes the magnitude of the [data] amount impactful?” You don’t want to say, “We raised one billion dollars in a year.” You want to say, “In a year, we raised one billion dollars!” If the art department is showing me a prop, I’m asking if the number on the prop is going to be big enough to pop. When I’m doing edits, I’m asking if we’re hanging on this idea long enough, if we’re giving this fact enough room to breathe. A lot of times, I’ll try to shape a kind of tonal gear shift, from a fact being fun—like in the mattress segment, everything is super fun, in a big, peppy voice—but then in Act II—when I’m talking about drowsy driving and how that can kill kids—I’m more earnest and serious—and then in Act 3—when we’re talking about side effects from sleeping pills—I’m conjuring more of a nightmare scenario. By highlighting those tonal shifts, I’m making sure that the information goes down in the way that we intend, and more importantly, that it stands out to the audience. I’m just always managing the audience’s experience of watching the story.

At the end of the day, the basic thing our show is doing is just taking these incredible things that we’ve learned and sharing them with the audience and trying to make them feel as incredible and important and revelatory as they really are. That’s what we’re always trying to get back to.

Season Three of Adam Ruins Everything premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on truTV.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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