If How To With John Wilson can teach us anything, it’s that there is immense comedic power — and poignancy — in a one-track mind.
Across its excellent first season of six half-hour episodes, the HBO series has a simple goal: to go deep on an extremely specific topic that its first-person narrator, John Wilson, is fixating on, following his obsession as far as it can. The result is a docu-comedy in the vein of Comedy Central’s excellent Nathan For You (whose star, Nathan Fielder, is an executive producer on John Wilson), meaning that Wilson’s efforts to answer the burning questions he poses to himself — Why is there scaffolding all over New York City? Why do some people cover their furniture in plastic? — are often dictated by the people around him.
The people in question are his friends and neighbors, but they’re also random store owners and vacation-goers and socially awkward entrepreneurs. Maybe Wilson’s friends take him out to dinner for his birthday, and that gets him thinking about how complex it can be to split the check; from there, he might seek out members of an association for professional referees, who end up teaching him about the fallacy of a fair and even split.
How To With John Wilson often twists into awkward shapes to get from its basic points A to its more peculiar points B, and the journey is always funny in its strangeness. The show’s greatest asset is its style: Wilson himself almost always remains exclusively behind the camera, narrating everything we see or interviewing the people onscreen, his speech filled with long pauses and stumbles that betray his own social awkwardness. Sometimes we see Wilson’s feet or his shadow on the ground or his reflection in a mirror. Mostly, though, we see the world through his discerning eyes, glimpsing the pissing dogs and human interactions and weirdly named New York City storefronts that most people look past (Wilson lives in Queens, so this is a very New York City-centric show). It’s not just fascinating to see what Wilson’s camera captures; it’s also a crucial part of the show's humor, as Wilson edits together the footage with a script that lets specific images punctuate each joke.
(My favorite example: When Wilson muses that New York City, despite its increasing physical barriers, “still lets the pigs go wherever they want,” and the camera cuts to a man walking his leashed pet pig ... with a pair of cops standing right in front of them. If you know, you know.)
Almost all of this documentary-like footage exists outside of the specifics of time — a rare and welcome trait in 2020, when many of us can recall the awfulness of each month in unfortunate detail. We see the seasons change throughout How To With John Wilson, but it’s usually not clear what month or even what year any of this is taking place. The focus is instead on the timeless mundanities of Wilson’s life and his persistence in poking at them until they burst open.
And his efforts provide for a hilarious escape from what most news or documentary footage is showing us right now: Yes, I really would much rather watch Wilson interview a man who owns a business meant to help restore men’s foreskins (!!!!!) than watch a somber story of how Covid-19 is ravaging America. Because as gross as the guy’s proprietary “TLC Tugger” apparatus is, it is much funnier than an unstoppable disease, and just as real.
With all that said, we are nine months into a pandemic, and How To With John Wilson is airing during one. And because the show does look at real life as Wilson sees it, it eventually ends up confronting the pandemic. What is surprising is how beautifully the show gets to that point, almost completely by accident, toward the end of an utterly unrelated journey.
Production on the season finale just so happened to continue into March 2020. I won’t give too much away, but suffice to say that halfway through the episode, Wilson finds himself shooting in an abruptly transforming New York. The images onscreen may feel painfully familiar to many of us who were in New York at the time, experiencing long and surreal supermarket lines or walking emptying streets. There’s a long winding shot of people waiting to buy groceries, as Wilson attempts to pick up one item to cook with. It’s almost a re-traumatizing scene, watching anxious mad dashes to stock up on food, and to see Wilson give up and go elsewhere — only to find the next shop he stops by to be pilfered through — is haunting.
The sudden arrival of the pandemic on an otherwise detached-from-time show conjures some difficult memories. But Covid-19 and its aftershocks are not the focus of the episode. Wilson is not dwelling on death tolls or the politics of mask-wearing; he’s not waxing prematurely nostalgic about the good ol’ days of going places and doing whatever you want. He’s anxious and lonely indoors, and he’s still dedicated to solving his latest self-imposed conundrum (of “how to make the perfect risotto”).
In this moment, just as it was when Covid-19 first struck, Wilson’s cooking quest is top of mind. It’s such a minor concern in the face of grave danger, but aren’t most of our personal issues minor when compared to major calamities? As we yearn for certainty and control in the face of the unpredictable, we tend to blow up our own problems to seem much, much bigger. That’s why John Wilson’s specificity is so hilarious and provocative, regardless of its time period (or lack thereof).
In the end, 2020 and the show’s season one finale puncture John Wilson’s smallness just enough without ripping it apart. Because in the world of this very funny show, our quaintest thoughts are often our most valuable ones. We don’t have to forget that, or forget to laugh out loud about it.
All six episodes of How To With John Wilson season one are available to stream on HBO and HBO Max. A second season is in development. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.