LOS ANGELES -- Adam Conover is certain that laughing and thinking at the same time is both possible and downright synergistic.
He tested the approach in “Adam Ruins Everything,” in which he punctured conventional wisdom on matters ranging from charity to jaywalking. He's back with “The G Word" — that's “G” for government — a six-episode Netflix series now streaming that's aptly described as a comedy-documentary hybrid.
A comic and writer from a family of scientists, Conover digs into how the U.S. government affects our daily life in surprising, reassuring or dismaying ways. Pop quiz: Who gave us the beloved Global Positioning System that renders a sense of direction obsolete? The owner-operator feds!
Other topics include the federal government's role in food safety and weather and disease control, and local government's potential.
“I believe deeply that comedy is a way to communicate real ideas, not just snark, not just writing funny situations, but communicate ideas way down inside people,” Conover said, citing George Carlin as inspiration.
“When someone is laughing, that’s when their defenses go down. And that’s when you can plant the seed of a new idea and let it grow,” Conover said, paraphrasing the late comedian. “That's what I try to do with my work.”
He strived to avoid using “The G Word” as a political bullhorn, although Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground Productions is among its makers. The former president trades punchlines with Conover in an opening skit that addresses the connection head-on.
“I felt it was an essential part of the show,” Conover said, and reflects the independence he sought before signing on as the series' co-creator, writer and its host.
Penn Jillette and Oscar Nuñez ("The Office") are among other familiar faces on hand for explanatory and, natch, humorous segments. Conover discussed the project's roots and his approach in an interview with The Associated Press, edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: “The G Word” is based on “The Fifth Risk” by “Moneyball” and “The Big Short” author Michael Lewis. How similar is the series to Lewis' 2018 nonfiction book?
CONOVER: Michael Lewis goes where the story takes him, and he ends up amazing himself at the incredible power and responsibilities of the U.S. government. It employs one out of every 16 Americans and very few have any concept of what it does. I'd read the book and loved it. But there's actually only one story that we used directly from it, and that's the story of the National Weather Service and weather companies' attempt to undermine it. The rest of it (the series) came from our own elaboration on the perspective and subject matter from the book.
AP: There are diehard skeptics when it comes to the government and other institutions. How do you try to reach those people beyond being funny?
CONOVER: I watch TV along with everybody else, and so I put myself in the position of, “What if I was watching, what would I think?” I mean, an entire show about the government, is this going to be some piece of propaganda that says the government is great? No, it's not. But we're going to take a clear-eyed look at all the good and bad ways the government affects our lives, and then I challenge the audience. I say, “Isn’t it weird that we have this national screaming match every single election season, yet most of us don’t know what the government actually does? Don’t you want to know?” Most people will go, “Yeah, I do.” Then they'll come into the tent, and then I have a chance.
AP: What inspired you to blend humor and the documentary format?
CONOVER: Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” was the guy I watched every single night. A part of it was because he pioneered a new way of doing comedy, that comedy could be about real things in the real world and could actually move the cultural needle on those issues, could make people think differently. His world was politics and what was going on in American news. I'm interested in those things, but I'm also interested in everything else. A big part of my approach has been what can I take from that reality-based comedy and open it up about the rest of human knowledge. Why don't we do it about history? Why don't we do it about government? The original piece, that I feel I invented myself, is the idea of doing it in a documentary format where we use all the tools of visual storytelling. I grew up watching shows like “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and Carl Sagan's “Cosmos.” Where did all those shows go?