Brandeis celebrated family weekend with student and professional performances alike, but possibly the one with most buzz was comedian Adam Conover. Known for work at popular group CollegeHumor (whose fans never actually seem to be in college) and self-titled show “Adam Ruins Everything,” Conover has created a brand with a smarmy know-it-all character who dispels myths with punchlines but also sometimes a genuinely galling cockiness. This was not, however, the Conover on show at family weekend.
Before Conover came out, the crowd was warmed up by opener Moses Storm. Known for appearances on “Arrested Development,” “Conan” and “Unfriended,” Storm brought an oddly familiar pessimistic demeanor to the stage. He started with loosely organized one-off jokes, riffing about the awkwardness of parents and children watching comedy together, both scared of being judged for what they laugh at, and parents’ presumed annoyance with paying thousands of dollars to invite him to perform.
Not stopping with the audience, he then riffed on the welcome card left for him which specified the pronunciation of Brandeis and Waltham twice (and judging from how he read it, incorrectly). But this led into a piece about the challenges of being dyslexic and the main segment of his act: detailing the tragedy of his childhood. Because, as Twitter has shown, even great suffering can be hilarious when it’s absurd enough. And absurd it was, with examples ranging from being bought ice cream so awful it was cheaper than an empty bucket to being forced into cheer camp and then to cheer for the basketball team while they bullied him. Along with interspersed references to Adderall and party culture, Storm was impressively college literate and played to the crowd excellently.
But surprisingly quickly, he abruptly ended his story and introduced the headliner who came out to cheers with an enthusiastic smile. Starting with what is apparently a college comedian stock joke, about parents being upset to pay for this, he quickly launched into his prepared show: a roving exploration of the world’s parasites. Complete with visual aids.
Evidently building on the “Adam Ruins Everything” style, the show felt somewhat like a lecture delivered by a deeply enthusiastic and surprisingly witty professor. Conover started with a just-detailed-enough description of the cordyceps fungi which infects insects and takes control of their minds, convincing them to climb trees and sit on the end of a branch until the fungus bursts forth from within, killing the host. Which, as Conover aptly pointed out, is horrifying. Something which could only be the result of a sadist god or evolution, which the “ruins everything” side of Conover somewhat condescendingly pointed out is merely a dumb algorithm. And if the dumb algorithm of evolution can create something as horrifying as a real-life chestburster, he asked, how should we feel about the dumb algorithm which rules our lives: the social media content feed? Through a series of skits such as the pantomime of going to the bathroom without ever looking up from his phone, one-liners and a lot of rattled off statistics, he made the point clear; the algorithm which keeps us on these sites is not good for us. After all, would Facebook’s algorithm keep pissing you off with the posts of that one aunt with awful politics if it cared more about your health as well as engagement numbers? Would YouTube show children hours of videos of parodies of beloved characters such as Spiderman and Elsa if it cared about anything but views?
The rest of the show followed a similar routine. The green-banded broodsac, which infects snails and gives them a caterpillar shaped growth so they will be eaten by birds, was compared to advertising which has an undeniable effect on our minds. He proved the effectiveness of advertising by asking the audience to identify jingles, logos and even colors associated with the biggest brands of the world. Singing the end of the Nationwide jingle only to be immediately congratulated with a comedian’s triumphant “they’ve got you!” was an entertaining experience.
The last comparison was with the lancet liver fluke which is eaten by snails which excrete it to be eaten by ants, who the parasite mind-controls into climbing a stalk of grass every night to increase the odds of being eaten by sheep (or as Conover put it, an extremely twisted version of “there was an old lady who swallowed a fly”). Pointing out the ant likely rationalizes this evening walk unable to understand it is being mind controlled; Conover compared the fluke to alcoholism. This was perhaps the most chilling example, where the edges of the routine began to fray as Adam described our society’s normalization of alcohol juxtaposed with his realization that he had been an alcoholic; the Adam character gave way just a little to the person underneath.
The show ended with words of caution (be conscious of your drinking and avoid ads) but mostly the mild satisfaction of a decent comedy performance. While the subject was odd, Conover largely did a good job undercutting most of his seriousness with a cheery attitude and well-placed punchlines. It was a great show to see for free, but perhaps both performers were right when they questioned whether or not it was worth thousands in tuition.