Against his better judgment, comedian Adam Conover takes a shower every morning. As part of his lifelong quest to uncover the truth behind everyday assumptions, Conover learned something surprising about his daily habit. "The idea that you must bathe every day," he told host Ophira Eisenberg, "is, to a certain extent, a manufacture on the part of the soap industry." Eager to sell more products, companies promote the notion that showering less than once a day makes people unclean and unhealthy—despite evidence to the contrary. Still, knowing his habits are the product of corporate advertising hasn't motivated Conover to change his behavior. "Despite knowing this truth," he said, "I still am stuck in this cycle."
As the host of the truTV series Adam Ruins Everything and the podcast of the same name, Conover's motto is that it's always better to know. "It gives you more control over the world around you if you can understand it as it truly is," he said. "It is also more fun to know." So far he's debunked diamond engagement rings, IQ tests, and funerary traditions, among dozens of other cultural norms and popular assumptions. What people do—or don't do—with that newfound information is less straight-forward. "Putting knowledge into practice," Conover said, "that's a whole other ball of wax."
Conover grew up in a family of nerds—his father is a marine biologist, his mother is a botanist, and his sister has a PhD in physics. He realized that, as a comedian, "I could talk about ideas in the same way that I wanted to in the academic world." After years of open mics, he landed a job writing sketches for CollegeHumor. While working there, Conover created Adam Ruins Everything as a web series; it was picked up by truTV and is currently in its second season.
We challenged the ultimate know-it-all to a game called "Adam Fixes Everything," testing his knowledge of art and architecture that is famously broken or damaged.
What people say about millennials is the same thing they've said about every generation: Younger people are obsessed with technology, and selfish, and they're lazy, and they live with their parents...Guess what? That's 'cause they're young people!
On not going to grad school
I wanted to go to grad school in philosophy...Nobody was like, 'You should!' You know, they were all like, '...you could?'
On Adam Ruins Everything
Our main goal is, we feel that if you're educated on the issue, if you know more about it, you are de facto empowered. Knowledge is only the first step.
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's the creator and host of truTV's "Adam Ruins Everything" and a podcast also called "Adam Ruins Everything." Please welcome Adam Conover.
ADAM CONOVER: Hello. It's wonderful to be here.
CONOVER: This is cool.
EISENBERG: It's nice, right? Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
CONOVER: Thank you.
EISENBERG: I got to say, you seem like a happy-go-lucky guy for a guy that...
CONOVER: For the most part.
EISENBERG: ...Goes around ruining all the wonderful things in life, exposing the dark secrets behind wine, art, vacations, diamonds, wellness. So why is ignorance not bliss?
CONOVER: Oh, that's a really - that's a wonderful question to start with. I mean, it's one of our mottos on the show is it's always better to know. That's something that I say on the show all the time and something that I truly believe, you know. Because even if it's momentarily uncomfortable to learn something new something, something bad about the thing that you like, it gives you more power and agency in the world when you know the thing. You know, it gives you more control over the world around you if you can understand it as it truly is. And I think that it is also more fun to know, I fundamentally believe. You know, like the show brings the viewer - I'm almost talking to a character on the show that I'm sort of enlightening about whatever the thing is.
CONOVER: And then we want the same process to happen to the audience watching at home, where at first it's like uncomfortable. Your gears grind a little bit to learn like, oh, no, oh, my fish is a lie, you know, or whatever it is. Because if you go eat, you know, like, for instance, tuna at a sushi restaurant, the vast majority of it is actually a different type of fish. That's for instance. I know. Someone just yelled ahh in the crowd.
EISENBERG: Right. It's like tilapia or high-grade cod or something like...
CONOVER: Yeah, like lots of different - especially white tuna is a real culprit, you know. And it's a bummer to find that out. But it's also, A, funny once you think about it that that they're lying about all these 'cause, I mean, what a small-time crime to be lying about what kinds of fish they are - you're eating. And then also it's better to know. You know, like now you know, OK, maybe I'll avoid that or maybe - or I don't know. I order tuna anyway at a sushi restaurant, just now I know what I'm getting, you know.
EISENBERG: Right. Well, you know, you guys do a lot of fact-checking. And, of course, you have interviews with scientists and sociologists. And you do extended interviews on your podcast with those people. And then people probably get quite angry that they deal with these facts. What is the angriest email that you have received?
CONOVER: Oh, God. Unfortunately, all the ones that flashed through my mind are - I don't think I can say on the radio.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK. Fair enough.
CONOVER: I do like to engage with people because I think that very often there's like a misunderstanding at play, you know. We made a passing reference to the existence of the wage gap, of the, you know, male-female wage gap. And we were talking about how if - the fact that in America, our culture is that we're secretive about our salaries is - can help perpetuate the wage gap, you know. Because if people aren't comparing how much money they make, then it's easier for that disparity to exist. Whereas if everyone just walked around going, oh, I make 50k. I make 45. Hold on a second.
CONOVER: You know, then we'd be able to solve that gap easier. This guy tweeted at me and he said, how dare you perpetuate the myth of the wage gap. And I said, well, what do you think we got wrong about this? And he said, well, the figures that you cited compared male and female salaries across all occupations. If you compare it within occupations, the gap is much smaller. It's more like 3 percent, but it does still exist.
CONOVER: And I was like, so we just disagree about the size of the wage gap? And he was like, yes. And also, I think you're probably right about salary transparency being a way to fix this.
CONOVER: And I was like, OK, so I think we're - and he was like, yes, thank you for the talk.
CONOVER: It often helps to go to people and be like, I'm a person. You're a person. How - what - let's talk about it a little bit. I try to do that as much as I can.
EISENBERG: Yeah. And how has debunking some of these commonly held conceptions changed your life? Have you altered your own actions or?
CONOVER: I try to. It's hard, you know.
CONOVER: It's - putting knowledge into practice is, you know, that's a whole other ball of wax. And so it's not always obvious how to do it. We talk about on the show about how the idea that you must bathe every day is, to a certain extent, manufactured on the part of the soap industry, which sounds very silly but it's true. They sort of promoted this idea that you are unclean unless, you know, and you can feel the dirt on you, can't you? And it's unhealthy not to go use our product every day, once a day, right?
If you talked to a dermatologist, which we do on the show, she says, well, look, it's not that bad for you, but you don't need to do it. A couple of times a week is fine, you know. So it turns out my roommate in college was right and he didn't need to shower. I'm a once a day, every morning. Despite knowing this truth, I still am stuck in this, you know, in this cycle.
EISENBERG: So let me ask you this. What do you hope that your viewers do? Like, I feel like the viewers are left in this thing where you want to be empowered with this knowledge to do something.
CONOVER: Right. Our main goal is, you know, we feel that if you're educated on the issue, if you know more about it, you are de facto empowered. You know, knowledge is only the first step, you know?
EISENBERG: Sure. And the show is funny. You have a great approach to this material. You grew up in a family with some serious academics, right? Your father's a marine biologist.
CONOVER: Very good, yes.
EISENBERG: Your mother is a botanist.
EISENBERG: Your younger sister has a Ph.D. And I'm going to get this wrong. It's, like, physics.
CONOVER: Yes. Yes. And she is currently a science journalist at the magazine Science News.
EISENBERG: OK. So with all of this, you know, thoughtful, scientific academia around you, what made you go, comedian?
CONOVER: I grew up, you know, really loving learning. And, you know - but I just - I couldn't quite hack the reading. You know what I mean? I kind of go insane reading a book. I wanted - you know, I wanted to go to grad school in philosophy. And just nobody was like, you should.
CONOVER: You know, they were all like, you could.
CONOVER: But you know, I love the - you know, I love collecting information and learning new things. I just - it just turned out to sort of not be my path. But I carried that with me. And I sort of had a sense when I went at a comedy that I could talk about ideas in the same way that I wanted to, you know, in that sort of academic world. Took about 10 years of just doing comedy, you know, before I figured out how to do it. And that's pretty much what this show is, though.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Well, and you did a presentation that got a lot of press talking about how there is no such thing as a millennial generation.
CONOVER: (Laughter) Yeah.
EISENBERG: So I ask you - who are these people walking around Brooklyn, drinking rose and eating avocado toast? Who are they?
CONOVER: I mean, it sounds like you described, like, my mom, first of all.
CONOVER: Rose and avocado toast? That's a great afternoon for Margaret Conover.
CONOVER: Anybody loves rose and avocado toast. That's my point. Obviously, you know, 18 to 30-year-olds exist. You know, but the question is...
CONOVER: What? We've all seen them. We've all seen them. You know, they're impossible to ignore. They're so loud.
CONOVER: The idea of generations - people talk about it as though it's, again, some kind of division that exists in nature - you know, that every Greatest Generation gave birth to a Baby Boomer. And every Baby Boomer gave birth to a Gen Xer. And every Gen Xer gave birth to a millennial. That's not at all true. These are totally arbitrary distinctions. And the question is, are the things that we say about those generations useful to us? You know, are - is that lens that we're applying useful? And is it, like, at all interesting or original of a thing to say? (Laughter) And so what we found about - you know, looking into it - what people say about millennials is the same thing they've said about every generation.
CONOVER: Younger people are obsessed with technology and selfish. And they're lazy. And they live with their parents.
CONOVER: They've said that about - guess what? That's 'cause they're young people.
EISENBERG: Yeah, right.
CONOVER: Come on.
CONOVER: This is so obvious to everyone, you know? That was the lightest piece I've ever done because it was - I honestly did it for a marketing conference. I had no idea it would be taped. They gave me a tape. And I was like, let me throw it on YouTube. It went genuinely viral because millennials are so sick and tired of being - of this reductive nonsense that they shared it like crazy because they were like, enough of this. You know, they were so...
EISENBERG: That is so millennial for them to share it.
EISENBERG: Adam, are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
CONOVER: Look, whether or not I'm ready, it's going to happen. So let's do it.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK. All right. Adam Conover, everybody.
CONOVER: Thank you. Thank you.
EISENBERG: So, Adam, because your show is called "Adam Ruins Everything," we wrote a trivia game for you called Adam Fixes Everything.
CONOVER: Oh, OK.
EISENBERG: OK. So these are questions about things that are famously broken or messed up in some way. And if you do well enough, Christina Rodgers (ph) from Mars, Pa., is going to win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
CONOVER: Oh, wow.
CONOVER: That's really nice.
EISENBERG: OK. Here's your first question. No one knows exactly how this object was first cracked. Official reports say it was last heard in Philadelphia in 1846 during a celebration of George Washington's birthday. What is it?
CONOVER: The Liberty Bell.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.
EISENBERG: OK. What Greek statue on display at the Louvre depicts a woman who may have been holding an apple or a shield or maybe an iPad? But we don't know for sure because her arms are missing.
CONOVER: This would be the Venus de Milo.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right. Yeah.
CONOVER: Is this is a trick question? It's too easy.
EISENBERG: I know. Two decades ago, engineers removed more than 70 tons of earth under the foundation of this Italian structure to keep it from tilting any further. And they say it should be OK for another few hundred years.
EISENBERG: What is it?
CONOVER: It would be the Leaning Tower of Pizza. Just kidding.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.
CONOVER: I know that it is Pisa.
EISENBERG: Pisa. Yes, that is correct.
EISENBERG: Well done.
EISENBERG: This is your last clue.
EISENBERG: Rumor had it that Napoleon fired a cannon at this statue's schnoz. However, drawings of this noseless Egyptian statue predate him. So what's the statue?
CONOVER: This is the mysterious Sphinx.
CONOVER: Why, thank you. I alone among you have heard of the Sphinx.
EISENBERG: Have you heard any competing rumors?
CONOVER: About where the nose went.
EISENBERG: Who did it?
CONOVER: I'm going to hazard a guess.
CONOVER: Normally, when there's an explanation for something like this - it is - when there's a really interesting story for why something is, and the story is not true, normally, the actual reason is the most boring reason imaginable.
CONOVER: So I think in this case it's just that, like, the nose was kind of like a sticky-out-y part of the sculpture.
CONOVER: And the structural integrity of the stone was not enough to withstand, like, a couple thousand years of sitting around outside. So of course, it fell off.
EISENBERG: It's possible. Yeah, it's possible.
CONOVER: (Laughter) You don't know?
EISENBERG: That's possible. You know, well, there's no - there's nothing confirmed. There's nothing confirmed.
CONOVER: I thought you got that on your paper.
EISENBERG: No, no. I know that it may have been religiously motivated the 14th century...
EISENBERG: ...Like vandalism.
CONOVER: ...That it would tick the news off?
CONOVER: Yeah. A bunch of millennials were the ones.
EISENBERG: That's right.
CONOVER: They did it.
EISENBERG: That's - they got a bad rap.
Adam, you did amazing. Congratulations.
CONOVER: Thank you.
EISENBERG: You and Christina Rodgers (ph) both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: "Adam Ruins Everything" is on truTV. Give it up for Adam Conover.
CONOVER: Yay. Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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