Career & Jobs

How Comedian Adam Conover Made A Netflix Show With President Obama

Comedian Adam Conover has always been ahead of his time. At CollegeHumor, he popularized internet comedy videos and turned the channel into one of YouTube’s early success stories. In 2015, Conover created Adam Ruins Everything, which was one of the first shows to blend humor with investigative journalism to debunk misconceptions about topics we routinely take for granted.

So when former President Barack Obama partnered with Netflix to adapt Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk in 2018, they knew they needed a host who could mix education with entertainment — and Conover fit the description perfectly.

I spoke with him about his latest show, The G Word with Adam Conover as well as his creative process and conversations with former President Barack Obama. Conover took me behind-the-scenes and shared three important insights he learned along the way.

Learning to Respectfully Disagree

After three seasons of Adam Ruins Everything, Conover wondered what his next project might be. After a call from his manager, Conover began preparing his pitch for Obama’s Higher Ground Productions on how he’d adapt The Fifth Risk. At the time, Conover told his manager, “I have very clear ideas about what I would do with that material.”

Together with his partners Jon Cohen and Jon Wolf, Conover put together a persuasive presentation that detailed their inspiration from the book, formats they wanted to use, their vision for the first episode, and ideas for subsequent ones. In the end, Conover’s pitch was the one the Obamas green lit.

“There’s a whole art and science that we developed after five or six years of selling TV shows,” Conover told me. In his time as a showrunner, producer, and host of Adam Ruins Everything, he learned the value of staying true to his creative vision.

As he embarked on The G Word, not only would he need to defend his ideas to executive producers, but to the former President of the United States too. When I asked him about Obama’s involvement in the show, he said, “Obama wanted to offer his reactions to a couple of our early scripts. He said, ‘I really like this point that you make. I don’t know if I entirely agree with this, but hey take it or leave it.’ Honestly, we left most of his comments because a lot of them were either not actionable, or we disagreed with them on the merits.”

From the beginning, Conover’s intention was to maintain an independent investigation. In The G Word’s episode about the Future, he explored the topic of military technology and notably, drone strikes.

“I think a lot of people across the political spectrum would say that America’s drone strike program has been disastrous,” Conover said. “We did a very straightforward analysis of that program, a mainstream critique of its problems.”

Still, when he spoke to the former President, Obama defended the program. At the end of their conversation, Conover told him, “Well, respectfully, we disagree with your analysis.”

The drone strike segment remained in the show, and reflected critical analysis of the history, as opposed to a specific narrative. Conover politely navigated through the feedback, while staying true to his initial intentions.

Having The Conviction of a Comedian

From Hardly Working skits at CollegeHumor, episodes about purebred dogs on Adam Ruins Everything, and now, of course, The G Word, Conover has used comedy not only to make audiences laugh, but to make them think. As he puts it, “Comedy’s meant to be subversive and uncompromising. It’s meant to show others how you see the world. That’s what it’s for. It’s not meant to be political or promotional. It has to be honest and come from your heart as a person.”

Conover’s known by his audience for his honesty and integrity. Higher Ground Productions recognized these qualities from his previous work, which is why they invited him to pitch. He told me, “They knew I was a fair dealer when it comes to my ideas and that I don’t mince words. They knew that I have a relationship with my audience.”

Ultimately, Conover’s outlook not only on comedy, but the world as a whole, proved to the Obamas he was the best fit for the show. He said, “They’re hiring me, and that’s what I do. I pick the topic that will make people say, ‘no way Adam could ever do that on this show,’ and then fight as hard as I can for it. That’s how I sleep at night,” he said.

Conover’s advice to aspiring comedians and artists is to “build your own zone of integrity where you say: ‘this is my art. This is my message.”’ By drawing that line and standing up for his art over the years, Conover has clearly been living his mantra and building a unique relationship with his audience.

Combining Education with Entertainment

Studies show that explaining politics through humor can actually increase people’s capacity to remember and share it, which is exactly what Conover did with The G Word. But what’s unique about his approach is that he’s not trying to hide the fact that he’s teaching and educating his audience. He’s owning and addressing it head on.

According to Conover: “I’ve never thought of myself as hiding the medicine in the dog treat. We’re not sneaking in the information, it’s just entertaining to learn.”

While writing for the show, he asked his researchers and writers to search for the most mind-blowing stories and statistics to illustrate their stories. He also encouraged his team to ask: “What’s one thing the government does that we don’t know about?”

In doing so, they found that every device that uses GPS technology can thank the government for the technology advancement. “When I learned that, I was like how didn’t I know that. I had been following the tech industry my entire life, and I didn’t know this,” he told me.

The segment debunking GPS technology is an example of how Conover and his team expanded on Lewis’ book. After discovering the government network of satellites, Conover “was so excited to share this with people and talk about how this happened.”

From there, Conover and his team work to answer the question of “How can I bring that excitement to others?” With The G Word, they did exactly that. They educated and entertained us from the first episode to the finale. I learned so much from the show but it didn’t feel like learning. To use Conover’s metaphor, it didn’t feel like medicine. It felt like the treat itself and I can’t wait to see what Conover does with his career next.

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