Adam Conover on demystifying government on an Obama-produced show: "It was my primary misgiving"

Netflix's "The G Word" host tells Salon government is "astonishing" when it works and how to stop doomscrolling

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 29, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

"The G Word with Adam Conover"  (Netflix)
"The G Word with Adam Conover" (Netflix)

One thing you should know about this interview with Adam Conover is that it was meant to be 15 minutes long, and we ended up speaking for over an hour. I could have listened to the comedian talk about government for a few more hours. No kidding.

Conover can explain how anything works, and if he doesn't know, he lustily throws himself into finding out. Add in the fact that he's legitimately funny and friendly, and it's easy to see why Barack Obama tapped him to host "The G Word with Adam Conover." 

The six-episode Netflix series from Obama's production company Higher Ground enlists Conover to take the same inquisitive approach that made his TruTV series "Adam Ruins Everything" so engaging. Here, he examines the aspects of government that regulate our food, our health, our environment, our money and technology. If that sounds boring, then you're underestimating how well Conover knows us.

"There is an audience that loves to learn and wants to have this information; they just need it delivered a little bit entertainingly," he told Salon in a recent interview. "If you give them the same information in a digestible way, they will show up for it every time."

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This time he's drawing inspiration from Michael Lewis' "The Fifth Risk," for which Higher Ground obtained the docuseries rights. At its essence, Lewis' book explores the most critical operations the government performs, which is to protect citizens from threats, and assist those in need by extending services and benefits.

Lewis uses the impacts the transition from the Obama administration to Donald Trump's had on the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Agriculture as a way in to explaining what these agencies do for us. Conover goes to work with the people doing related jobs in our communities, shadowing USDA meat inspectors and accompanying pilots who fly into storms to provide data for our severe weather warning systems, among other expeditions. 

At every step of the way he expresses a wonder at what these agencies do for us, matched by his frustration at the mismanagement that occurs when politicians or private corporations muscle their way into the process.

He never forgets that point about digestibility; no episode of "The G Word" is longer than 32 minutes. And that episode needs to be long due to its subject matter: its title is "Change."

The following interview excerpt is much shorter that our full conversation, but none Conover's passion and enthusiasm is lost. Maybe it'll even inspire you to fulfill Conover's ultimate wish for his fellow Americans, which he expresses in his closer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In "The G Word," you express a lot of amazement about how the government should work in an ideal environment, along with the fact that a lot of people believe and observe that government doesn't work. So what amazed you the most when you went into this: how much it actually works or how badly it doesn't work?

What I found most amazing was how often government does work. It works in ways that we don't normally acknowledge that are behind the scenes that are quiet, that just sort of hum along day after day, and that we don't normally take the time to appreciate.

. . . So a good example of this is, one of my researchers brought in the FDIC, which I was aware of. I knew what the FDIC did, that FDIC meant that my money is insured in the bank.

"What I found most amazing was how often government does work."

When the New Deal coalition put the FDIC in place, it was seen as a completely radical steps that the U.S. government would guarantee everyone's savings in the bank. But it completely eradicated the threat of bank failures, and not a single penny has been lost in the entire time. The FDIC does this incredibly dramatic thing where, when a bank fails, they take it over secretly . . . so that nobody who has an account at the bank even notices or has any kind of disruption. And finally,  the cost for that is not even borne by the taxpayers, it's actually paid for by the banks themselves.

So if you look at that together, this is one of the most successful government programs of all time. It completely eradicated this problem that was really harming Americans. It's one of the foundations of our entire economy.

And if this program didn't exist, and you tried to propose it in today's political environment, you'd be laughed out of the room by Republicans and Democrats.

Adam Conover in "The G Word" (Courtesy of Netflix © 2022)If we look at the problems that we face today, we might be in a better place if we were to take the example of not even 100 years ago, of things Americans very recently thought that their government could do and put into place with such great success. That these programs now make sure that our lives are running along smoothly, and we don't even know about them, we didn't even know that they're there, that whole process, to me, was very astonishing.

Of course, we do plenty of stories about things that government does not do well. But those were a little bit less astonishing to me, because I kind of knew what those would be. I am by nature a cynic, so I was little bit more surprised by the positive stories.

There's the very obvious question of Obama's involvement. Higher Ground came to you and obviously, Obama is very much a part of this series. And yet, within the series, you are critical of him. There's a point where there is an actor portraying him gutting Uncle Sam. Was there ever a point at which Higher Ground or even Obama himself came back to you like, "OK, that's kind of going a little hard on us here"?

The fact that there's a conflict in the genesis of this show was extremely obvious to me from the beginning. And it was my primary misgiving about the entire project, right? That this is a show about the United States government ,and I have made my career on being a "fearless comedic truth teller" . . . put that in quotation marks. But you know, that's what people know me for.

I can't allow the impression to exist that I am giving the Obama administration position. So I made that very clear at the beginning, that this has to be my perspective, I need editorial independence on this project. And they understood that and granted it.

It's very similar to when on "Adam Ruins Everything," we talked about the nature of our relationship with advertisers, we did an entire segment about me getting notes from the network related to advertisers and steered into it head-on. We fought for that as hard as we could, we were transparent about how it works. And as a result, we did something that was more interesting than I think is normally able to be done on advertising-supported television.

In this case, the thing that people would not expect me to be able to do would be to criticize the Obama administration . . . We do a segment on drone strikes in this episode in the series, which is obviously one of the things that the Obama administration is most often criticized for.

We didn't set out to do that. But we were doing an episode about the future and about technology and about DARPA, and our research team came and said, "In recent American history, one of the most unsettling technological developments, the United States government has created are drones, and because of the moral hazard they create that causes more strikes, which leads to more civilian deaths." And this, by the way, is a mainstream position … held by basically anyone who studies the issue.

And there were people at Higher Ground who said, "Uh, are you sure you want to do that?" And we said, yes, in fact, we do want to do that. But I think it ultimately ends up being worth it for the for the credibility that it that it adds to the show.

Were you originally going to do something on the CDC [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] in the "Disease" episode before the pandemic happened?

That's a really good question. The answer is, I don't recall if we were going to do something on the CDC specifically. I know that we were going to do something on the NIH [the National Institutes of Health].

Our research room was meeting for about a month before the COVID-19 lockdown. . . . And then we were suddenly writing over Zoom. COVID-19 life became a story while we were working together. And we eventually realized it had to be part of the show.

But prior to that, we had been talking about what are the biggest ways the U.S. government affects our lives, one of those is the NIH. It is the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, and has been for decades upon decades.

A lot of its studies are so foundational that they have increased the American lifespan by decades, literally. I mean, you're talking about the foundational research on cancer and heart disease, that have resulted in us changing our diets for the better, but more importantly, to develop treatments that have made those diseases far more survivable. That's a really incredible story and one that we were going to spend a lot more time on in the "Disease" episode until we realized that COVID was a story we would absolutely have to cover.

Every comedian has their constituency, and you're certainly no different. What you were covering in "Adam Ruins Everything" is viewed as transcending partisanship. The issues in "The G Word" should also transcend partisanship. But I imagine that since you not only have  Higher Ground and Obama as part of it . . . I wonder if there's there was ever a part of you that was thinking once the finished product was out, "I wonder if, say, only half of the electorate is going to be even remotely interested in looking at something like this, simply because of the association with Obama."

Look: Obviously, America is a very partisan, very tribal place right now. One of my deep beliefs is that it's not partisan on every single topic, along every single axis. There are huge swaths of American life that people do not think about, that have not yet been pulled into the culture war. That is not to say it won't be in the future. But in if you engage people on those issues, they will generally be open-minded and interested in what you have to say. So that has always been my approach. I call it avoiding the fault lines of American culture instead of going to the spots where people aren't so dug in.

Now, I haven't always followed that rule. On "Adam Ruins Everything," we eventually did an episode called "Adam Ruins Guns," which was something I said we would never do. And then finally, we said, "You know what? Let's steer right into this battle, and let's try to make an episode that we think is going to entertain and also surprise people who are on both sides of this issue." And I think we did a pretty good job of that.

Barack Obama on "The G Word" (Courtesy of Netflix © 2022)

I tried to do something similar here was we're talking about like, "Hey, where does your f*****g food come from?" That's what the show is. And we're going to tell you, and then you can draw your own conclusion, right? I'm not going to tell you that factory farming is terrible. I'm going to have my own reaction, tell you what my reaction is, you can watch it and have your own reaction as well.

When I do have a position, it's one that I think we can all share, which is: "Why the f**k can't the government bring bottled water to Puerto Rico?" Why not? Don't you want to know the answer to why not? Well, we looked into it and we can tell you. And that's something that almost anybody in the country, was like, "OK, I want to know the answer to that question."

"America is a very partisan, very tribal place right now. One of my deep beliefs is that it's not partisan on every single topic, along every single axis."

In terms of Obama himself being in the show and there being people who say, "I hate Obama, I'm turning the TV off," that's something that we knew going in that there will be people who have that reaction. . . . We just have to expect that there's more people in the world who say, "Oh, there's Barack Obama. Yeah, I like that guy, I'll watch a little bit more," because you know, he does happen to be the most famous man in the world. . . . And I can frame his involvement to people in a way that is honest, and that says, "Hey, these are the conditions under which the show were made." We feel it was done with integrity. Hopefully you do, too.

At the end of the day, after doing this project, how well do you think our government works?

I don't feel great about the state of it right now. Obviously this show is designed to be a scream into the sky about the state that it's in. We focus on all the things that work well first of all, because we know that they're under threat. We introduce you to the meat inspectors, and then we tell you about how a pilot program from the USDA is trying to cut them.

We tell you about the National Weather Service, and then we tell that private weather businesses are trying to cut you off from them. We tell you about how incredible your local public health department is. And then we tell you about how politicians – again, from both sides – have systematically de-funded them over the past 30 years, with the catastrophic results for the pandemic. A big part of the mission of the show is to say, "Shoot, this is important, and we need to stop doing this. We need to start stop eviscerating our own government, and we need to start taking it seriously for the incredible tool that it is, and the fact that it protects all of our lives."

This issue of making change at the local level, to me, is the answer to that question. So while I am not happy about the state that our government is in, and I'm not optimistic about the state of our national politics, I have found that by rooting myself in local government and local activism, getting involved in politics in my city, I can really make a tangible difference.

. . . What I have found is that it's really easy to be pessimistic if you're just sitting there scrolling on Twitter, watching TV, watching cable news, reading the news, feeling bad about it. But if you have a meeting to go to, and then you go to another meeting, and you get to know the other people who are doing the work . . . you're suddenly too busy to be pessimistic because you're thinking about how we create the tangible change for ourselves. And it really works.

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I'm glad that you mentioned Twitter, because one of the things that bothers me the most is when I see people in my feed who, when their campaign promises aren't in a timely fashion or at all, say, "That's why I'm not going to vote in the next election." Then someone else points out that's exactly what politicians are counting on: people not voting. This series is a good answer to that.

I agree with you entirely. However, there is a growing movement that I agree with that is against the "just vote" answer. 

I do call upon everybody in America to step up and do something, but they need to do something more than just voting. What I'd like people to do is go to a goddamn meeting. Join a community organization that's working on an issue that you care about, and you will learn so much about the issue that you had no idea about. You will learn the actual challenges. You will learn why things don't get done.

And that is truly transformative and a big part of what we were trying to showcase. So voting is the first step, but actually going and being a part of something, being a part of a group, part of the community, is incredibly powerful.

"The G Word" is currently streaming on Netflix.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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