“Fantasy is fine, illusion is fine, as long as you can tell the difference as a viewer—you know when it’s illusion and when it’s reality, and then it makes it more fun.”
“Our goal was simply to make the audience aware on a base level that [reality TV shows] are produced things, and to make them question it. Our hope is that improves the audience’s enjoyment of the show and makes it more fun to watch. That’s the ultimate belief. Not that the shows are lessened because they’re produced, but understanding how they’re produced makes them more fun to watch. That was always the goal.”
Those two quotations could be the thesis for reality blurred, the ongoing quest that has fueled its 16-year existence. Instead, it’s Adam Conover, the comedian who hosts truTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, talking about the inspiration for the reality TV segment of last week’s “Adam Ruins Hollywood” episode, which spent its second half deconstructing the illusion of reality television.
The episode made several strong points about problems with reality television, as an industry and an art form, but also made claims with evidence that did not convince me. But Adam has since easily convinced me that he—and the show—are entirely committed to accuracy and, at the very least, discussion and debate.
That is refreshing, in part because of how rare it is in Hollywood and reality TV.
“If it’s pointed out that something we said was incorrect, that’s the process working. I want that to happen,” Adam told me. “That’s how human knowledge works. People make claims, people do the best work that they can, other people say, Hey, wait, you didn’t get this right, then you say, Okay, you’re right, now that we both know that, let’s make this revision to the sum of human knowledge.”
Adam and I spoke after he read my critique of the episode, to which he’s responded to point by point, which I’ve included below. But our conversation went beyond those points, into the construction of Adam Ruins Everything itself, and also how the reality television industry’s stubbornness presented a problem for his show, too.
“More than other formats and more than other genres, there’s a real reluctance and almost a refusal in the reality industry to open those doors and to let people see how the shows are made,” Adam told me.
While researching the show, they verified the claims they ultimately made with producers and others who work on reality TV, but those people wouldn’t agree to talk on camera.
“People that we talked to had this sense they shouldn’t be talking about it and therefore they didn’t want to be seen talking about it, which is totally rare in the entertainment industry,” he said. “We talked to a lot of people who were like, Oh, I’ll tell you, but I’m not doing it on camera, and I was very struck by that.”
Dismantling preconceived ideas in five or six minutes
Adam was willing to admit some of the show’s faults—regarding a line about Alaskan Bush People, for example, he told me, “I can’t argue with you on that point. Looking at it again after reading your criticism, that is a particularly weak example to use. There are certainly better ones.” He added, “I don’t feel like we did too much of a horrible disservice to the Alaskan Bush People by phrasing it a little bit less well than we could have. I do wish we had taken a second look at it.”
“But that’s the process of the show,” he said.
Adam Ruins Everything has 21-minute episodes, which means there are only five or six minutes per topic, plus a three-minute wrap up at the end, leaving a short amount of time to deconstruct complex ideas.
“We do 14 episodes a year, we have a small writing and research staff, we really bust ass for nine months out of the year to get the show as accurate and fine-tuned as possible. But we don’t claim to be infallible, and the reason we put the sources on-screen and on the bibliography is so that people can check our work and that we can have these conversations,” he said.
An episode begins at a weekly pitch meeting, attended by the show’s “team of writers and researchers that are working closely together in the same room,” Adam told me. Ideas get kicked around, and are “things that we hopefully know there’s some amount of backing for—we’re not just fishing for topics.” For example, someone might bring up an article they just read.
The research staff prepares a brief, making sure that there’s sufficient evidence to back their claims. After that, Adam told me, “we start beating out, breaking the stories. Who is Adam talking to? Where is this happening? What jokes are we seeing?” (The “Adam” he’s referring to is the character he plays on the show, a sort of awkward know-it-all.)
“The research is going into the script before the scripting phase. Then once we have a script, and it’s gone through a few revisions, the researchers then re-fact check the script and go through and compare to the evidence we have,” he said.
‘[Popping] the balloon of critical thinking’
The episodes and segments start with a grand pronunciation, which is something else I took issue with: its assertion that all reality TV is fake. (For the record: Yes, I know that all reality TV is produced, but to varying degrees, and only some shows reach the level of fiction.)
“Our target audience is usually somebody who has a very passing familiarity with a subject and only knows it on a really broad level. And our main goal is to pop the balloon of critical thinking for that person, and to start them engaging in the process of questioning whatever it is,” Adam told me.
That means some people may find the show’s take to be over-simplified, which Adam readily admitted. “I would wager that almost any topic that we do, if you talked to someone who knew the topic intimately, quite a few of them would say, ‘Oh man, that Adam Ruins Everything segment was painted with way too broad of a brush,'” he said.
“We try to get as much nuance as we can in there in a couple minutes, but we start by making a big statement which we then qualify. We’re only on our second year of making the show, and so we’re learning how to do that. I would say that based on the response from you and a few other people who’ve tweeted at me, that we could have qualified that statement a little bit better. I think we do revise it through the rest of the act.”
And ultimately, Adam added, “The goal with the reality show segment wasn’t to provide a holistic accounting of every different type of show that exists. I know as well as you do how many different types there are; it’s almost crazy to lump together The Bachelor along with the celebrity comedy soaps along with Duck Dynasty along with Iron Chef. Those are barely the same genre, right?”
Adam Ruins Everything staff: reality TV fans who watch The Bachelor
The episode was not designed to ruin reality TV for viewers.
“I hope that it didn’t come off too much as a takedown of all of reality television,” Adam told me. “The show is full of reality fans. Literally everyone on our staff was watching The Bachelor while we were writing this episode. It just came from this desire to help the audience think more critically about what they’re watching.”
“Reality TV has this weird presentation that it’s not produced. To me the strangest thing about The Bachelor—they almost never say it’s a show,” he said, and later cited the example of Olivia being left behind on a deserted island. That scene required Ben to break up with Olivia, and then the crew had to pack up and leave, after which the production spent time getting shots of lonely Olivia standing on the shore from a helicopter—before retrieving her off-camera.
I agree with Adam: that’s weirder and more fun to think about how that came together than the amusing (but obviously unrealistic) narrative the show presented, which was that Ben literally abandoned another person in the middle of the ocean.
Reality television shows, Adam said, have a “weird desire to cover all that stuff and sweep it under the rug. Most of the time, when people are watching any other form of media, they’re thinking about, Oh, there’s a script or this scene is poorly written.”
Why not acknowledge that bizarre secrecy?
“There was an earlier draft of the script where we did that,” he said. “We portrayed it more as the reality industry is trying to keep a lid on this stuff, and trying to keep the truth from getting out. That segment ended up getting cut for time as many, many things do. The most painful thing for our show to do is to cut out good, factual information.”
“One thing we talked about in our writers room was we compared reality shows to professional wrestling. Over the last 20 years, professional wrestling stopped claiming that everything was true, and they just opened the doors a little bit to acknowledging that this is a produced entertainment product: We’re creating storylines for you and we’re interacting with you. The result has been really great for wrestling. Fans love that part of it … it’s created this whole new level that people can enjoy it on.”
“To me, that’s ideally what reality shows would do. I watch The Bachelor and I’m like, ‘How did you guys get the shot? Why are you not letting us in on this?’ That general frustration with the genre is what we were trying to poke holes in.”
The writers didn’t want to turn their frustration into a complete takedown and thrashing, though.
“We honestly didn’t want the segment to feel to much like an expose,” Adam told me. “We don’t want to cast aspersions on the industry; at the end of the day, they’re just people making TV shows. We didn’t want our friends in the industry to feel like we were attacking the industry for unethical business practices because we don’t think it rises to that level remotely.”
The more we know, the better the world is
The appeal of reality television, of course, is that we’re watching real people react genuinely to real situations, even if those situations are planned or the contexts are artificial. But the appeal of even the most contrived show depends upon the audience thinking that what some of what they’re seeing is true.
Adam said that invites extra scrutiny. All the shows in the genre, however big a tent it is, are “self-labeled as reality shows. They all have a high amount of being presented to the audience as having a lot of verisimilitude, and our goal was to puncture that balloon for the audience and get them to start questioning it in a number of different ways. That was our overall rhetorical goal,” he said.
But it isn’t possible to deconstruct everything. “If we were to actually give a full accounting of how these things are produced, you can fill hours upon hours,” he said. “Obviously, UnReal’s made a whole series out of it, but you could make a whole documentary series of how different reality shows are made, and I’m fascinated by that topic. We were specifically focusing on the ones that are a little bit more outlandish, like the celebrity shows.”
“The thesis of the show is that it’s always better to know more, that you’re better off for knowing more,” Adam said. “The world is better because you know this now.”
On that, we absolutely agree.
Adam Conover’s response
Before we talked, Adam sent this written response, addressing each point of my criticism. It’s reproduced in its entirety.
First of all, I’d like to thank Andy and Reality Blurred for covering this episode of the show, and keeping us honest. I’m looking forward to chatting with Andy about the topic in person, but here are some written responses to specific points:
- Regarding Mike Kopplin’s credits: There are certainly people in the industry with more production experience than Mike! Unfortunately, we were unable to find any who were willing to talk to us on camera about their experience. Many reality producers are under non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from speaking about their work, and many were reticent to speak because they feared losing work as a result. The reality industry is very tight-lipped about its methods, while we conducted many off-the-record interviews with reality producers who confirmed our claims, it was very difficult to find someone to speak on camera. Speaking to a journalist is a fine idea, but we had already featured one journalist in the episode (Pete Hammond, who writes about awards for Deadline), and we wanted to give the viewer an “on the ground”, in the trenches view of how reality shows are made. Mike was able to provide that, and gave what I consider to be an accurate and honest account.
- Regarding scripting: We know that different reality shows are scripted and pre-planned to different degrees; some only have rough outlines; some are fully scripted; many lie somewhere in between. Mike says as much on the show, so I feel we did justice to this point. The reason we had a fictional story producer say “Let’s hand out scripts!” is that we had decided to make our fictional show “Real Ruiners of LA” one of those fully-scripted shows; but the show never claims that all reality shows are scripted to this degree.
- Regarding the claim that “Alaskan Bush People actually live in Seattle.”: When fact-checking this line, we made the determination that since ABP’s premise rests on its subjects’ “Alaskan-ness”, the fact that they illegally lived in Seattle for many years while collecting Alaskan oil revenue seriously undermined the veracity of the show’s presentation. That said, upon further consideration I agree that this sentence was worded less carefully than I would like, and I appreciate you pointing it out. A more accurate phrasing would have been “The Alaskan Bush People used to live in Seattle.”
- Regarding the claim about the Bachelor: I believe the Bachelorette’s quotation supports our point. To me, her use of quotations marks read as her rather winkingly saying that their ‘help’ amounted to instructions, and ‘interesting’ meant ‘works well on camera.’ You are entitled to come to your own conclusions, of course! We also had an off-the-record interview with a producer who has worked on the Bachelor and confirmed our claims (and who also provided us with scripts from assorted reality shows.) Unfortunately, our show currently lacks a way to directly cite these sorts of interviews. Something we need to work on!
- Regarding the fact that we should have said “Iron Chef” or “House Hunters” rather than “cooking shows” and “house hunting shows”: Perhaps, but both of these are franchises with multiple shows under their name, and we have no reason to think that copycat shows do not use similar production methods.
- Regarding what I believe is the largest sticking point: My use of the phrase “Everything in reality shows is hella fake!” I certainly do not believe that literally every element of reality shows is faked, and I do not think that the show, as a whole, claims this. In addition to our breakdown of the varying degrees to which shows are preplanned and scripted, at the end of the show, Ariana Madix and I make the point that reality shows, like all entertainment, are real and produced, and contain both illusion and reality within them. (The only difference with reality shows is that they try more than others to hide how the magic happens.) So, why was my claim at the top of the act stronger? Well, at that point, I’m “in character” as my “Real Ruiners of LA” persona, and as comedy writers, we wanted that version of Adam to say something super snarky to upset Mark, make the audience laugh, and set up the rest of our act in a punchy way. We trusted that the audience would come along for the ride as we folded the nuance in throughout the act, and by the end would have a more balanced perception of how reality shows fudge the line between fantasy and reality in such fascinating ways. Unfortunately, you never know exactly how the audience will experience your work until it finally hits the air, and in this case, it seems like quite a few people came away thinking “Adam Conover believes that literally everything in reality shows is fake!” This wasn’t my intention, and I regret that it gave some that mistaken impression; if I could do it again, I would consider softening that line. That’s why I very much appreciate that Reality Blurred is giving me the opportunity to set the record straight on the matter.