One of our favorite purveyors of comedy to power here in the annals of Paste, stand-up comedian, podcaster, and current dues-paying, FTC-testifying board member of the Writers Guild of America West Adam Conover made the junket rounds earlier this month as part of the promotional push for The G Word with Adam Conover, his first major project since Adam Ruins Everything. A comedic docu-series based on Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy and produced in partnership with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions operation, The G Word merges the best parts of the Adam Conover of Adam Ruins Everything and the Adam Conover of Factually! and gives us something equal parts complicated and inspiring.
It is unlikely to surprise long-time ARE fans to learn that, even in the middle of a packed press tour, which was itself stuffed into the middle of his own packed stand-up tour, Conover is the type of thinker who responds in full, deeply considered paragraphs, and who is generous with his time even after the scheduled, say, twenty minutes have passed. As a result, the Q+A that follows here is both longer and denser than one might expect to see in a comedy vertical. But if you are a fan of Conover, we can only imagine that will be all to the good.
To that end, enjoy!
Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. (Really—it started out MUCH longer.)
Paste: How have you been? I saw that you had a very busy weekend!
AdamConover: Yeah, yeah. Netflix sent me to the Correspondents’ Dinner. Which was pretty, pretty intense, a lot of fun, a very wild place to visit. Everything everyone says about that event is true; it was pretty nuts. I can answer any questions you have [laughs], but I’m still processing it!
I mean, I did want to talk about it, because it’s obviously relevant [to The G Word with Adam Conover]—
—and then also, I live in the DC area. And every time I’ve visited LA, I’ve always had the feeling of it being just so interesting to compare two different “company” towns. Like you walk around in LA and it feels like all the conversations you overhear are about Hollywood, and it’s like, Oh, okay, I get what this place’s whole deal is. And then when you’re in DC, you get that same feeling, just with the government. Even when most of the people who live here aren’t in government, it’s still the water we’re swimming in. So I’m always fascinated to hear about how people coming in from the outside experience it. Then to have you, specifically, experiencing it, in this context—it seems like a lot!
Conover: Yeah, it really highlighted for me how not different LA and DC are in many ways. I mean, they have stylistic differences, of course, and the industries are different, but the reason an event like that exists is because they are, in many ways, the same business, you know? The reason an entertainer like I am [sic] is there is the same reason that a journalist might want to be there, in order to, you know, rub shoulders with power. And then the reason the powerful want to be there is because they get to rub shoulders with the powerful in media! And it really made me think about how we have this illusion that’s given to us by the media that decisions are made by, you know, gigantic, larger-than-life people who are sitting up on pedestals and are very removed from our daily lives. But going [to the Correspondents’ Dinner] made me realize, like—Oh, it’s just a bunch of people in a room! Politics and media and everything else is just, you know, people getting drunk and hanging out!
Yeah. So, the actual question I wrote about this—okay, I had two “obligatory” opening questions I wanted to start with, with the first one being, what was it like working both with and opposite FPOTUS? And then, going to back to the Correspondents’ Dinner, there have been all these conversations in the past five years or so about the harm that event has the potential to cause—like, in terms of poisoning media objectivity with the lure of access. So, I don’t know if you want to tackle those together, or… [laughs]
Conover: I love that! I love that you’re starting with the meatiest stuff, and that you’re starting with the exact questions I was grappling with as I was there. I actually started to take notes on my thoughts, because I was like, Do I want to write something about this, you know, once I’ve had a chance to process it?
Okay, first of all—how was it working with (and across from) the President? I mean, first of all, he, as someone to work with, is incredibly gracious. And, you know, an excellent performer!
So the show came about because [after] Higher Ground optioned Michael Lewis’s book, they had the idea of using comedy to tell the story of what the federal government does, but that was as far as they’d thought it through. They wanted a comedian to help them tell the story, so I showed up and I pitched on it and said, This would be my angle, this would be my approach, here are the types of questions I would seek to investigate. I don’t want to do anything that’s just about how great the government is—I want to take a critical look at the failures the government makes. And they said, That sounds terrific, go off and do that! Answer the questions you want to answer, and answer them as you see fit. We’re [just] here to help.
And so over the course of the next three years or so, as we were working on the show, I spoke with the President [maybe] twice on the phone. He would take a look at some scripts and say, Hey, here’s some thoughts that I have, but he’s incredibly gracious in terms of saying, hey, here are my thoughts—take them or leave them. And we took some and we left some! And there are points in the show that we disagree on—for instance, our coverage of military drone strikes in Episode 4. That’s not the story that he would choose to tell, certainly, about that. But that was a story that our writers room felt was important to tell about the government.
And then likewise, working on set with him—you know, literally the show opens with me and him doing a comedy scene together, and I found myself in the position where I wanted to give him a note on his performance! I was like, Can we get that one a little bit faster? It was a bit of an out-of-body experience, where it’s like, that’s how I work on a set, right? I work with the actors that way. So I said that to him, I just… gave the former President a note. And he was like, Yeah, no, that sounds great, no problem! and did another version, which was terrific.
So, you know, the thing is that he’s a pleasure to work with, and I felt that I was able to do what I do without undue interference. The show is the story that I wanted to tell, and, you know, the investigation I wanted to do.
Conover: Now, that’s the positive version! The flip side is that the show would not exist if it were not for President Obama optioning that book and having a deal with Netflix under. That’s the only reason this show exists in the first place. And so my proximity to that power, right, is helping me achieve my career goals of making more television. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that that was a complicated relationship! Now, I did a lot of work to make sure that relationship didn’t get in the way of the content, and that we still did [our work] with integrity, and I hope that when people watch it, they see that. But at the same time, like… that’s the only reason the show exists.
And so [of course] Netflix sent me to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to promote the show, because it’s a show about the government, a show that the Obamas are involved in. And when I [was there], I saw all of these journalists who are literally up there on stage saying, We need to cover politicians with neither fear nor favor, and ask them the tough questions and be critical, and that’s our role in our democracy! …and then everyone stands at attention when the President walks in, and everyone laughs at his jokes, and everyone is shaking hands, like, Hello, Senator, good to see you, and Hey, are you going to the after party tonight? and Yeah, can’t wait to see you, let’s go get drunk! There’s something complicated about that relationship! But at the same time, maybe that’s the relationship that they need in order to have the work they do exist at all, right? Because someone gets drunk with a senator, then they can call that senator the next week and say, Hey, remember that party? That was crazy, right? Anyway, I have a couple questions for you…
So I was grappling with all those questions. I was there saying, Well, yeah, maybe this is a little bit unseemly. Everything that people say about this event is true. But at the same time, I’m here doing the same thing, right? I’m here to promote my Netflix show—my Netflix show that I made with the former President. And I think all I can do in that situation is try to continue to comport myself with integrity and hope that that is apparent in the work.
So here’s how I’d summarize it—and I’m sure you have plenty of other questions!—but, you know, the reason the White House Correspondents’ Dinner exists is because of power. It’s a power-brokering event. It’s an event where people go so that they can rub shoulders with the powerful. And power is something that you cannot deny; you can’t avoid it or wish it away.
Conover: And so I was faced with the choice of, do I want to take advantage of that power in order to do a show while knowing that that’s what I’m doing? Or do I want to not do it at all? And that’s a really difficult question to answer. And I have a feeling that a lot of the reporters at that dinner are grappling with that exact same question! And I just hope that they put as much thought as I do into how to grapple with those questions with integrity.
Is that a good answer? [laughs]
Yeah! I mean, I realize that you’re still processing, and so I have the benefit of getting to, like, grab your thoughts as they’re still in that percolating stage. So I appreciate all of it.
So, to finally get to the show: You mentioned that opening skit with the former President a bit earlier, which is basically you, as the audience avatar, playing the ultimate skeptic. Was there any discussion in the writers room about that being a risky move—like, The lady doth protest too much? I mean, we’re in a moment right now where it’s so hard to get people to believe even the most basic of facts, nevermind anything someone goes out of their way to stress is safe to trust.
Conover: You mean in terms of people watching and saying, Oh, this is just a show that he’s putting on in order to make himself look critical, but he’s not really?
Yeah, like that.
Conover: We didn’t have a specific conversation about it, but that question is one that’s always in the back of my mind. So to me, that scene is me trying to let the audience know what the honest relationship is between me and the former President. So I’m [in that scene] like, This is what you’re asking me to do? I’m not so sure; seems like a little bit of a conflict. And he says, No, no—I’m not involved in the show. You just go make whatever show you want. And that was actually our relationship!
Now, there may be people who are cynical enough to say, Oh, [he]’s just doing that for show, and actually Obama is writing all the scripts and putting words in his mouth. And what I have to hope is that it’s apparent from the content of the show itself that that’s not what is happening. We do plenty of segments on the show that are critical of Obama-era policies. We talk about, like I said, the drone strikes and other material like that. I’ve also been very critical of the Obama administration in my past work. So, hopefully the proof is in the pudding, as far as that goes.
And then there’s people who [might] really want to take a super Noam Chomsky approach to looking at the media who will look at it and say, Well, all corporate media—even when it’s including criticisms of capitalism, or criticisms of the ruling regime—it’s just doing that in order to create the appearance of debate when, in reality, it’ll never say anything truly critical of the ruling regime. And I push as hard as I can on that! But I work in television. I make television shows. That’s what I do for a living. I also, you know, happen to think that our entire system of government and our economy needs to change. And I advocate for that as hard as I can on television. And that, to me, seems more effective than not saying these things to a broad audience.
Yeah, I mean, I suppose at a certain point it’s unproductive to even give these arguments the hypothetical time of day, if only not to risk just going around and around in a circle.
Conover: Yeah—just watch the show and draw your own conclusions from it. That’s the best I can offer.
Overall, I found the vibe of The G Word really similar to Adam Ruins Everything—like, the way you have actors playing cartoon-y characters to bring to life the stories that you’re telling about the history of the U.S. government, and the style of the citations popping up on the screen when you’re quoting hard data. Were you able to bring much of your ARE team with you?
Conover: It was actually an almost entirely new team! And that was really just because people were working on other projects, and because, for a short series like this, it’s hard to lure people away when we’re only doing six episodes [that might interfere] with them getting another gig. So the writing team was, apart from myself, all new. But actually the research staff was heavily folks who had worked on Adam Ruins Everything, which was a real blessing because the type of research we do on the show is very specific and requires a specific skill set that is quite hard to find.
Were there any learning curves from the Adam Ruins Everything era that you were able to iterate on? Like, Oh, I wish we had been able to do [xyz] on ARE, so I’m glad to have this opportunity to do it here?
Conover: I mean, the big difference is, this is a more focused version of the Adam Ruins Everything format, where we set aside the fictional reality of the Adam Ruins Everything world. So, in ARE, I’m a man hosting a television show [who’s] constantly breaking the fourth wall to do things with my magic TV powers, etc, etc., with the frame of me talking to another person in the “real world” who has a problem that I’m trying to help them solve by teaching them all these things. And that was like a wonderfully effective format! But, you know, we did 65 episodes of it. And it was [honestly] one of the hardest to write shows on television, because not only were we trying to make our arguments, we were also trying to, like, do a character story like a sitcom would.
So the main thing I wanted to do stylistically [with The G Word] was to move away from that device. I mean, it was a wonderful device! And I would even love to go back to it sometime. But what I love about The G Word is that in this project, it’s just me—Adam Conover, the actual person—sharing these things with you, the audience, directly. So when there’s moments on the show where I say, I’m wrestling with this problem or I’m worried about this; I have a concern about this; I’m not sure what the answer to this question is… On Adam Ruins Everything, that would have been Adam Conover *the character* wrestling with that. But on The G Word, it’s literally me *the person*. So when I say I’m struggling with a contradiction, it’s because I personally am feeling that way.
And that was a real joy for me to be able to expose my own processing and my own thinking more directly! Still, we really wanted to retain the comedic storytelling piece [of ARE], where we get to use comedy to share these incredible facts and perspectives, because it helps them go down so much easier. It helps people retain them for so much longer. So that’s the main thing that we brought over: doing jokes that make the Big Idea stick in your head.
So I know that The G Word is adapted from a book, and it’s presented as a limited series, but there’s clearly so much more that you could have covered than you were able to hit in these six episodes. What was the prioritization process like, in terms of picking what topics you were going to cover?
Conover: In terms of prioritization, it was a question of which stories we felt were the most impactful, and which were the ones that related [most] to people’s lives—which ones would really hook people and make them consider the role of the government in their own lives?
So we actually did [end up with] one entire episode on the cutting room floor. It was called “Power” and it was about the power grid, and specifically nuclear power. People don’t realize that the US government is the only body that’s in charge of managing all of our nuclear waste, [including] these gigantic mine shafts that are filled with, like, countless tons of nuclear waste. And it needs to monitor those sites for basically the next couple of millennia—which, there’s no power company that you could trust to do that. You need the government to do that. But [still] there are all these problems with how they’re storing it, including the fact that they don’t currently have enough capacity to store it. And then we were also going to talk about how the Marshall Islands—which is another nation, but has a very close relationship with the United States—there’s a huge amount of American nuclear waste stored in this gigantic leaking dome on the Marshall Islands that’s sickening the people there. And the only reason it’s there is because the United States has enough literal power—like, geopolitical power—to force that arrangement.
And so we were really interested in exploring all of those stories around the concept of “power.” But ultimately we ended up replacing that episode in favor of our season finale, “Change,” because as we were working on the show, we were like, Hold on a second. We talked about all these good and bad things the government does, but we haven’t talked about the critical question of, how do we change the government? That’s the next question that you have to ask, right? I’ve spent my whole career working on raising people’s awareness about these problems, so I was like, hold on a second—I want to talk about how we actually solve them. That’s critically important to the people who are going to be frustrated if we don’t ever tackle them. So we ended up putting the “Power” episode on the back burner in favor of an episode directly about change.
So, yeah, I mean, look—we could easily do another 10 episodes of this show, or another few seasons of this show, because there are so many amazing stories in the government, so many more people we could go interview. And it’s a shame that the whole content industry is moving towards really short orders, because it gives you less room to explore in that way. And, you know, personally I’m rooting for that trend to move in the other direction, so that we do have more space to tell bigger stories.
That being said, six episodes is a great length for a series about the government. And it’s not like my only interest is in telling stories about the government! I would love to go do another limited documentary series about a new subject; that might be my next move.
Was there any topic or, like, part of how the U.S. government works, where, going in, you were absolutely sure about how you felt about it, but then over the course of filming The G Word, you came to a new understanding?
Conover: One of the most interesting remote segments that we did was actually the one in the very first episode where I go to a Cargill meat processing plant to see how the USDA inspects our meats. This was one of the very first pitches we had in our room, in terms of, what does the United States government do that affects our lives in massive ways, but that most people don’t appreciate? Well, as one of our researchers pitched, they literally inspect every single piece of meat that you eat.
And that’s an enormous operation, because we eat so much meat, right? So we were like, alright, great, let’s go visit those workers and see how that work is done. And the intent of that segment was always, hey, these are these are workers who are protecting us. We want to know why they’re never celebrated. We want to go see the important work that they’re doing and find out why they do it.
However, it was impossible to go to that place and not have, like, an intense emotional reaction to it. And you see me have that reaction!
It’s a big reaction!
Conover: I’m in awe of what I’m seeing in that segment. And, you know, somewhat troubled by it, because the scale of American factory meat production is vast, and the amount of suffering it produces is enormous. The amount of climate change impact it has is enormous. And so I left feeling conflicted about what I was seeing. Like, it’s really great that these workers are here doing this work. It’s better that they’re here than they’re not here, because it’s a fact that they’ve reduced the amount of foodborne illness massively since Upton Sinclair’s time.
But on the other hand, there’s a huge contradiction in terms here, because I’m talking to a veterinarian and I say, Well, my gosh, you’re in a business that’s about saving the lives of animals, and here you are supervising the killing of animals! And the cool thing about that segment was I got to ask those veterinarians, How do you feel about that? And they gave me an honest answer, and then I had an honest reaction to it. And I ended up rewriting my outro of the segment on the fly. The last scene of that segment is me talking in front of a factory, just sort of processing everything. That was the last thing we recorded that day, and I just sort of revised it on the fly to match my true emotional reaction, which was, it was hard to see all that, but it’s also so important to understand where this meat comes from. To see it warts and all. And you still have to be happy that those people are there, even if you object to the overall industry, which I do.
So, that was one where it was a complicated picture. And I’m really happy that it ended up being the first episode, because I think it really demonstrates the complex approach we’re taking. This is not a show that’s simply like, Wow, the government is so great! This is a show that is really looking at all angles of it, both positive and negative.
And then of course there were segments where there were folks who I met where I was just incredibly blown away by their conscientiousness and diligence and professionalism and the fact that they really are doing it with everyone’s best interests at heart. You know, when I went up with the Air Force hurricane hunters who, every single time you see a hurricane on The Weather Channel, barreling down, the only reason that graphic is even there is because there is a hurricane hunter at that moment, flying a plane back and forth through the hurricane over and over again. And they do that all day long, all hurricane season long. They could make more money doing something else, but they choose to do that sometimes dangerous work.
Same thing with the FDIC, like, the people at the FDIC are so professional, and so ultra-competent, and love doing what they do so much, and are really doing it because they have people’s best interests at heart. There is something profoundly anti-cynical about them. And again, these are folks who could make a lot more money in the banking system, right? And I’m sure a lot of people do leave the FDIC and go work for the bank. But the people who were there who we talked to are working a government job to protect the American people’s economy and finances. And it gave me an appreciation that, for our society to work, you need those people who are there doing the work just because they give a shit! Who, like, really geek out over public service, where that’s what motivates them. There are a lot of things that get done in America because people have self interest and just want to make a bunch of money, and maybe they’re happy if it helps other people too, right? That’s why you can get food at the grocery store. But the only reason the food at the grocery store is *safe* is because there’s somebody on the line, who is doing that work to protect us. Which is very cool, I think.
So I really just have one other question, which I feel like you already touched on, but what’s the overall feeling you want viewers to have both as and after they watch? Because like you said, your message isn’t government good or government bad, it’s just… government.
Conover: Yeah! I’m happy to answer that question. Because it would have been easier to make a show that was just, Wow, look at the amazing people who make our government work, aren’t they inspiring? Like, “CNN’s salute to heroes!” There’s a version of the show that’s just “CNN’s salute to heroes,” that would have been much easier to make. But that’s not a show I’d be interested in making.
And then there could also be a version that’s just like Hey, it’s all it’s all crooks and robbers and criminals, where we’re only going to cover the negative pieces of [government]. That would have made it even closer to what Adam Ruins Everything was, where it’s just, okay, we’re going to tell you about all the awful bullshit lurking underneath the surface. And it would have been very emotionally satisfying to do that! But it wouldn’t have done justice to the situation [either]. Because the truth is, our government is both things, because our government is incredibly massive. It’s the largest employer of any kind on the globe. So it’s pretty fucking huge! But at the end of the day, it’s also purely made up of people, right? It’s, it’s people all the way down.
And that is the message that I, that I share in the finale—that it’s not some gigantic, you know, malign force that’s coming from on high. It’s literally just people doing their job. These aren’t robots in suits and glasses. No, these are people who go to happy hour at the end of the day, who go, God, this week at work was really fucked up, or God, I wish we could change how the department works just a little bit, so I could do the part of the job I really care about, or God, I feel really satisfied today because I got to DO the part that I really care about. Like, they just want the job to work, the same way that you do! Even the people at the top right, even the secretaries of the different departments—or even fucking Joe Biden—they’re just literally working an office job. And the fact that the lives of people even at the top level of government are not that different from mine was an incredible revelation for me, and one that I hope we’re able to give to the audience.
And I mean, the thesis that I give at the beginning of the show is also really important: The list of things [government] does is enormous, and it affects our lives every single day. Spreading that awareness to people is critical, and I’ll be very happy if we’re able to do that in any small measure. And maybe inspire a couple of folks to, you know, get into public service! Because that’s something you really can do. You really can get those jobs and make that difference.
All six episodes of The G Word with Adam Conover drop Thursday, May 19 on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found on Twitter @AlexisKG.