Sketch Anatomy: Adam Conover on “Why Engagement Rings Are a Scam”

conover_engagementringsWelcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite comedy writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.

For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy, we spoke with CollegeHumor writer/performer Adam Conover about his video “Why Engagement Rings Are a Scam.” CollegeHumor released “Engagement Rings” at the perfect time on Valentine’s Day earlier this year, and its instant and overwhelming success (the video is currently creeping toward five million views on YouTube) led to Conover’s occasional recurring series Adam Ruins Everything, which has also taken a hard look at the truths behind circumcision and purebred dogs, with more episodes in the works for the near future. To get a look at what goes into a hit CollegeHumor video, I recently talked with Conover about the origins of “Why Engagement Rings Are a Scam,” how he transformed a standup bit into a fully realized sketch video, and why learning even the most depressing facts is still a positive experience.

How long have you been working at CollegeHumor? How did you originally get the job?

I wrote for this sketch group called Olde English for about six years and we made a movie together, but we sort of stopped making sketches. I wanted to keep doing sketch comedy, and I actually got a gig for a couple months writing for a sketch show for TV, but ultimately I decided I didn’t want to be in LA at the time — I wanted to spend more time in New York. For a couple years, Olde English made sketches for a website called Super Deluxe — which was part of this big web video boom in 2007 — and I worked with a guy named Ben Joseph there who was later working at CollegeHumor. So I just sort of emailed him at the right time and was like “Hey, do you need more writers? Here’s a packet” and he was like “Oh yeah sure, I’ll forward it along,” and they liked my stuff and they hired me. So it was really a matter of just asking at the right moment, and asking the right person who liked my stuff and was willing to hook me up. That was about two and a half years ago, which is great because it was genuinely like getting a dream job. It was a place I had admired for years, and you say stuff like “That’s the job I want!” and then I was like “Oh, God — now I have that job.”

Let’s talk about your CollegeHumor video “Why Engagement Rings Are a Scam.” What’s the origin story behind it?

I’ve always been kind of an information sponge. I come from an academic family — I have a joke I do onstage about how I’m the only member of my family who doesn’t have a Ph.D. My dad’s a marine biologist, my mom’s a botanist, and my sister’s a nuclear physicist…and I’m doing this. [laughs] I was always a super ADD kid so I was never really able to focus long enough, but I’ve always had those academic values and I’ve always sought out information and facts and stuff like that — not like trivia, but just interesting stories about how the world actually works. I’ve read every issue of The New Yorker for the last ten years, so my joke is I have a half-assed opinion on every topic because I read some article five years ago. So anyway, I’d read some article in The Atlantic about how engagement rings are a scam and that they were a marketing creation by the De Beers Corporation. And that just sort of stunned me and went in my head as something I thought about every now and then, and eventually I was trying to write some standup material on marriage and I remembered that story and I started doing it onstage. My initial comedic angle was just like “That’s crazy, right?! This is a thing we’ve all fallen for!” Audiences really responded to that bit — that was a bit where people would come up to me the next time they saw me at a show and say “Oh my God, that’s true? That’s unbelievable…I told my brother about that, and now he’s not buying his girlfriend an engagement ring” or whatever. It seemed to have some kind of stickiness.

So I was doing that for about a year then I pitched it at CollegeHumor as a sketch. That’s the first sketch I did where it’s me talking directly to the camera in a CollegeHumor video — that’s not a very common format we do there, it was very much just me trying to adapt standup into a sketch format. What’s funny is that the reason I wrote in Emily and Murph into the sketch as the annoyed couple is because I was self-conscious that the sketch would be annoying to read in the writers’ room, you know? [laughs] Like when we read it at our read-through the other guys would be like “Oh God, why doesn’t Adam shut up about this? Nobody cares, and he keeps going on and on…” Because that’s a thing that I do in the office anyway — I’m honestly always telling people shit that they don’t want to know that I read in some article a couple years ago, like “What you’re eating — do you know what’s really in that?” That kind of thing. So I was self-conscious that that would be the reaction that Emily and Murph would have when the script was read in the room, so I wrote them into the script being annoyed and bothered as a self-defense mechanism so that I could write in that reaction before they could have it. [laughs] I hoped it would be funny, but it was more like me just acknowledging that yeah, I know I’m a pain in the ass about this stuff. So that was kind of an accident, but it ended up being the missing piece that people really responded to — the idea of “ruining” or the idea that it’s annoying to learn this information.

How did you decide on the best way to translate the standup into a sketch, with you walking through the different historical reenactments?

Well the joke that I do in standup goes quite a long time without a punchline. People laugh a little bit when I go “That’s not a rule — that’s just an ad campaign the De Beers Corporation ran in the ’30s!” People start to chuckle, but it’s not until I get to “That’s like in 50 years if we’re going ‘Pizza in the morning, pizza in the evening, pizza at supper time!'” — that’s the first big punchline when I do it as standup, which is fine because I do it later in my act when I think the audience can listen up for a minute without a laugh. But I knew that wouldn’t vie for a web video. And another thing is when I made the decision at the time to write it in this way, it came from a place not of me going “Oh this will be funny” but me sort of protecting myself, by which I mean…

Let me put it this way: I’m a big Jon Stewart fan, I love late night comedy, I love standup comedy, but I didn’t feel that I could write really great verbal jokes that would carry that on itself, so the idea of writing visual gags with old-timey people going like “I’ve got a shiny red apple!” to me felt like a cop-out. I was like “Well, I can’t really write a great verbal joke, so I’ll just be lazy and have some old-timey people say some goofy stuff.” The idea was that every time I say something boring, then I come up with a funny visual in the background that illustrates it, and that’s where the laugh comes from. But I thought it was like a cheat, I thought everyone was going to see through it, I thought people were gonna be like “What a lazy comedy writer!” And then lo and behold a year later that’s John Oliver’s entire format, so I wasn’t that lazy to begin with. It ended up working really well, but initially it came from a place of laziness. [laughs]

It’s funny you mention your self-consciousness about being the only person in the video, considering that’s the setup of “I Dare You To Watch This Entire Video.” And that video has six million views and counting on YouTube.

[laughs] Yeah.

Was that video before or after the engagement ring video?

That was after.

So maybe the engagement ring video gave you a little confidence to go ahead with that one?

Uh yeah, I think it did. I mean honestly, I really like doing comedy as myself, and me telling jokes on camera. Some people are writers and don’t ever want to be on camera, some people act and not write — I like writing words for myself to say. But there’s a part of that that feels a little embarrassing in a way where it feels like arrogance almost, especially in a writers’ room where most people are writing sketches, and coming in with sketches that are like “I talk to the camera” [laughs] …you know, feels a little bit like All right, who do you think you are? you know? So the success of the first one definitely helped, and the fact that people responded to it so immediately made me feel a little more enabled to bring those other ones in. Although I still feel a little bit self-conscious whenever I bring another one into the writers’ room. I’m always worried everyone’s going to be like “Oh my God, another Adam Ruins Everything?? Enough with this!” Although I will say that “I Dare You To Watch This Video” is barely comedy. [laughs]

What’s interesting is with the videos we’re doing at CollegeHumor, we’re starting to call them “video essays,” and the nice thing about that is that they can be funny or not funny to a various degree. “I Dare You To Watch This Video” mostly works because it’s engaging and it’s got a hook at the beginning — I’m daring you to do something — and then it goes to a deeper place than you expect, and there’s literally one joke in the whole thing which is when I say “Maybe Shaq died.” That’s the only funny moment in the whole video, but it works for other reasons, which is cool because as a comedy writer I’ve written tons of funny videos where the main thing they are is capital-F “Funny” — and that’s all well and good and a lot of comedians and writers focus on just making things funny — but the thing is, when something is what we’ve started to call in the office “merely funny,” often it doesn’t give people a lot to hold onto: They laugh and then they leave, or they click away and they’re like “Okay, I’m done.” What was there for them to remember, you know? What was there that they’ll come back to or share with their friends? So the thing about those videos that I think has helped me grow as a writer and I really enjoy is that they give me a chance to focus on what else the video is; it’s not just funny, it’s also something else. So in Adam Ruins Everything it’s informative, you’re being told a fact that’s genuinely changing your understanding of the world and you want to go share that with someone else, and it feels like a good deed to share it to some extent. “I Dare You To Watch This Video” was fun for me to write precisely because it wasn’t comedy — it was being able to play with a different emotion, and when you combine that emotion with something that’s funny then you can get something that sticks with people a little bit more.

I think that’s a huge part of the success of the videos, because they all serve as both a funny video and a sort of PSA.

And the reason that the engagement rings video did so well was because of the informative content, and there’s a real appetite for that on the internet and in overall life. I think this is a big moment for informative content in general — Neil deGrasse Tyson is like a folk hero, Drunk History is a huge hit, John Oliver is the most inspiring comedy I’ve seen in years, science videos are huge on YouTube — so for a lot of outlets that shared the video, the funny aspect to it really came second. It got shared across blogs that we don’t even consider part of our audience; it was shared across every possible demographic. It was viewed like a million times on WorldStarHipHop, and it was on HuffPost’s Wedding vertical. [laughs] So that’s a big range, and those are all people who enjoy our work but not places that usually share our videos.

Have you thought much about how many people shared the engagement rings video because they thought it was funny versus how many were, say, sharing it with their significant other as an argument against buying them a ring? I’m curious if you’ve gotten any complaints from engagement ring fans.

[laughs] No, nothing like that. I mean, people were happy to know, you know? There was literally one person — a friend of a friend — who is French, and she was angry because she had just gotten an engagement ring and she was very proud of it and she was like “This is unfair! Who cares if I want to have an engagement ring?” She took it as a personal attack, which is funny because it’s not. I don’t criticize people for having or wanting them — in fact I explain the desire to have an engagement ring at the end. So no, no one really got mad at it. People generally like to know the truth, but I had had many people say to me “Hey, I sent this to my cousin and now they’re not getting an engagement ring” or “Hey, me and my girlfriend are thinking twice about it” or I’ve had guys say like “You know, I think I’m going to propose to my girlfriend, but I don’t know if I want to send this to her first.” [laughs] It’s a little weird to send to someone like a girlfriend, like “Hey check this out — don’t think I’m gonna get you a ring!” For me it’s not about whether or not individual people get engagement rings. I really get something out of looking at that video and seeing that six million people watched it and six million people know that now who didn’t know it before. It’s deeply satisfying to me to know that on this one issue that people have had the wool pulled over their eyes for so long — our culture is so deeply manipulated — to know that a good one-hundredth of people in the country know about it now.

Let’s just say it — you’re changing the world.

[laughs] I mean, that’s sort of what I’d like to be doing a little bit. In my moments of greatest hubris, I say to myself, “Yes, you should be trying to change the world.” You can evaluate comedy on how funny it is, but I’ve been writing and performing comedy for about a decade now at various levels, and at first I just wanted to be funny. But now that I think I can be funny with some regularity, I think about like Why am I being funny? What is this comedy doing? What effect is it having on people? What is the result of it? I want it to be funny, but I want it to sincerely reflect my values and do what I think is important in the world — at its best moments, not every time.

What have you learned from these videos in terms of making Debbie Downer-style information more entertaining than depressing?

I don’t know…to me it wasn’t that hard to make it light. I think it’s really fun to learn that information. The conclusion of that video is like “We’re all fucked, right? We’ll never get out of this.” Part of it is just that I’m doing it in a very light, fast way where I’m upbeat the whole time, but also for me it comes from the fact that I think learning something is positive; even if you learn an uncomfortable fact, it’s a positive thing to do and it can always be fun and entertaining. I mean hell, “I Dare You To Watch This Video” is very serious, but I think I was hitting the button of “This is really serious” so hard in that that it ends up feeling a little bit light, you know what I mean? Sort of like a horror movie in that you’re like “Eek!!” but it’s not so intense that you’re actually scared.

But then it’s important at the end of the videos to have a positive message — at the end of “I Dare You To Watch This Video” it’s not like your life is ruined, it’s that you’re in control of your own life. You felt out of control because you’re allowing all of your open tabs and Buzzfeed and everything else to control you, but you actually do have control over your life and all you need to do is exert it, and by watching this video you’ve done that, so good luck. The message at the end of “Purebred Dogs” is — and by the way, that was the one that got the most pushback and got me the most angry letters — people are very invested in the purebred dog world, and there’s a lot of people who say that “Oh no, I breed bulldogs safely” when they ignore the fact that systemically, they’ve created a group of animals that are incredibly susceptible to genetic disease and that should be considered unethical. Most people don’t know that and love these dogs so much, and so that message at the end of the “Purebred Dogs” video is so intense: “Look at this dog — you love this dog so much, but it’s so sick in these five different ways and its average lifespan is six years and our insistence that these dogs look this way is causing them to get sick and die.” That’s very intense and sort of inciting the viewer: “Your love for this dog is killing this dog.” So that’s why I cut it to “But hey! It’s not a big deal. When you want a dog, go get yourself an adorable little puppy mutt” then I lift up a cute little puppy, and it’s so wonderful and everybody loves mutts and it’s like hey, there’s an option here. You can go adopt a dog that needs a home and avoid this whole problem; what an easy solution.

And that’s the case for most of these topics: Now that you know the truth, you can go off and make a better decision as a result of knowing it. It’s like salty and sweet — if you mix the intense devastating information with a big dose of comedy and lightness, you get something that is very delicious to people. The combination works really well. If you are just intense you end up like Al Gore and most people tune you out, and if you’re being totally light you end up like Jerry Lewis and it’s just sugar-coated and forgettable, but if you combine the two of them, you get something that makes people listen then really sends a dagger right to their heart. Maybe that’s a bad metaphor. [laughs] There’s a really great quote from George Carlin’s autobiography, which is amazing, where he says:

“But when you’re in front of an audience and you make them laugh at a new idea, you’re guiding the whole being for the moment. No one is ever more him/herself than when they really laugh. Their defenses are down. It’s very Zen-like, that moment. They are completely open, completely themselves when that message hits the brain and the laugh begins. That’s when new ideas can be implanted. If a new idea slips in at that moment, it has a chance to grow.”

That had a huge impact on me, because that’s what George Carlin did for me the first time I heard him — he was planting seeds, making me think things I had never thought, making me look at the world in a way I had never considered before — and that’s when, in the back of my mind, I started wanting to do that too. And I think it’s very much true: When people are laughing, that’s when you can speak directly to the core of them.

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