The Beauty and Simplicity of “How To with John Wilson”
In 1993, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay about the rise of irony, self-awareness, and detachment in art, particularly television. He says that recently, it is more common to watch with the intention of laughing not at the shows themselves, but instead the kind of people who would make a show like this, or the kind of people who would watch it. Wallace says that executives and creatives have responded in kind, and now make shows specifically to laugh at other shows or even at the audience itself, rather than just laughing.
Wallace also said this:
“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”
This passage has become indicative of the post-post-modernist movement. This is also known as New Sincerity, which is a real literary movement that is exactly what it sounds like — artists just being sincere and genuine with their emotions and artistic works.
I would like to inaugurate John Wilson into the New Sincerity canon.
In the broadest possible terms, “How To with John Wilson” is a HBO human interest documentary series. In reality, it falls more in line with programs like Nathan For You or All Gas No Brakes. The show follows John Wilson around New York City, as he vaguely tries to explore a topic each week, getting sidetracked along the way. (For example, an episode about figuring out the right way to split a check ends up with Wilson in Long Island at a conference of soccer referees.)
It’s very difficult to explain in a way that makes any sense, so here’s the trailer, which really serves as a great microcosm of an episode.
The most interesting part of the show is not really what’s being filmed, but John Wilson himself*. On paper, he is not unique, or particularly interesting as a protagonist. He’s one of eight million people in New York City. He’s not charismatic or clever. He’s not an expert on any of the subjects he talks about — in fact, he doesn’t seem to be much of an expert on anything.
*John Wilson as represented in the show, that is. Like Nathan Fielder, Eric Andre, Brian David Gilbert, and countless others, it’s difficult to determine where the screen personality stops and where the actual person begins. As such, I’m just going to be treating John Wilson as a fictional character, since that’s the most helpful lens right now.
I’ve passed the Union Square Foreskin Truck probably over a hundred times, and every time I laugh about how dumb and insane these people are.
John Wilson, however, does not think these people are dumb and insane.
John Wilson thinks that this is an interesting perspective that might help him shed some light on his current project, which is how to protect his furniture so his cat doesn’t scratch at the couch.
Sorry for saying the words “Union Square Foreskin Truck” and just assuming everyone would know what I’m talking about, by the way. I’m sure those who haven’t watched the show or seen it in real life can figure it out from context.
Anyway, there’s a great quote in the first episode, How To Make Small Talk:
“The more you talk to people, the harder it is to hide who you are.”
Wilson says this as a word of warning to the audience. He’s trying to teach us how to make small talk, and he considers the most important aspect to be that you should not get personal.
However, it feels like something more to me — almost like a mission statement for the show. Wilson is a terrible interviewer, but almost everyone he interviews at length begins to pour out their past, their secrets, their desires. The more they talk, the harder it is to hide who they are.
And the same goes for Wilson. The more he talks to the audience, narrating over countless videos of a dog shitting on a street corner, the harder it is to hide who he is. And by the end of the show, it doesn’t seem like he wants to. What starts out with at least some attempt at an informative, objective documentary, turns much more personal. When Wilson teaches the audience how to make risotto, he spends a comparatively much smaller time on his actual “quest,” and more on the real reason he’s learning how to make risotto: as a gesture for his elderly landlady, who does his laundry and makes dinner for the two of them once a week.
In the same essay, David Foster Wallace proposed a new set of rebellious outcasts, in our world plagued by the ironic and counter-cultural-turned-mainstream.
“The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.”
These documentaries don’t serve some grand purpose, and you probably won’t glean anything significant from them (although I did learn a surprising amount about NYC construction law). There’s no unexplored civilizations to be found, no mysteries to unravel, no crimes to solve. It’s just a really nice guy, showing you a bunch of stuff he thinks is cool. And can’t that be enough?
“How To with John Wilson” is available to stream on HBO MAX. If you don’t have access, you can watch some of his older videos that inspired the series here on Vimeo.
Read David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, here.