By Jason Zinoman
At the start of the second season of the HBO series How To With John Wilson (Binge, Foxtel on Demand), the titular star, a stammering innocent, visits a mortgage broker to get a loan. Asked his occupation, he sounds stumped. “I’m an, uh, documentarian,” he says, struggling to categorise his work. “Like, uh, it’s kind of like memoir, essay, um.”
Pity him. It’s not easy to define this singular show. But one tip-off comes when Wilson offers as collateral a collection of printed-out reactions (including a Mindy Kaling tweet) inside a folder labelled “good reviews”. The exasperated look on the face of the lender operates as a punchline.
Wilson, who writes, stars and narrates this self-portrait of sorts, is the quietly radical auteur of a rapidly ascendant branch of comedy that uses the raw materials of unscripted slices of the real world to make jokes. The latest Dave Chappelle controversy or topical Saturday Night Live sketch get more headlines, but in a less heralded corner of comedy, a quiet revolution is taking place.
The best gross-out comedy of 2021 was Eric Andre’s Bad Trip (Netflix), a movie that blended public interactions between actors and real people into its fiction. The most biting political film in recent memory was not made by Oliver Stone or Adam McKay. It was the 2020 sequel to Borat. And the most innovative portrait of New York was not cooked up by Martin Scorsese. It was the HBO series How To With John Wilson. I’m not sure if this group of documentary comedy artists, who have elevated a legacy still connected to lowbrow prank humour, can be considered a scene, but they are cross-pollinating and growing in ambition.
At the top of this family tree is Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), whose blockbuster comedies take planned narratives and weave in ridiculous interactions between his outlandish characters and unsuspecting real people. His heirs include Jena Friedman, one of the writers of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon Prime), who in her Soft Focus Adult Swim specials added savvy feminist punch to daring documentary comedy, integrating scenes with real frat boys and online gamers into a comic expose of our sexist culture. Her recent follow-up is the superb spoof of murder documentaries, Indefensible (Sundance TV). Bad Trip (2021) belongs to a broader strain, tied to the raucous juvenile stunts of Jackass, whose co-creator Jeff Tremaine produced the feature.
Nathan Fielder, who has also worked with Baron Cohen, pioneered a more personal, emotionally tender strain in Nathan for You (which ended in 2017, Paramount+) playing a mild-mannered consultant who helps small-business owners achieve their dreams. His cringe comedy often began as a spoof of the hustle of American entrepreneurs, but invariably spun off into melancholy, oddly poetic moments. This set the stage for the most ambitious and cerebral example of the genre, How To With John Wilson, whose executive producers include Fielder.
Wilson builds every episode around teaching some new skill before getting interrupted by a diversion that seems to stumble into a philosophical meditation on a broader theme. An episode on appreciating wine asks how to engage with society without becoming conformist; one about finding a parking spot is a brief for the virtue of boredom (“Maybe life is just circling, just waiting for a spot”). It’s a show that gathers loose parts (a montage of shots of personalised license plates, say) and somehow turns them into wildly eccentric, oddly poignant comedy.
Wilson, our intrepid guide, is incredibly smart at playing dumb, alert to moments of minor revelation, disturbing oddness and layered meanings. But unlike most of the great deadpan comics, he stays off camera, telling his stories through narration, interviews with strangers and carefully curated scenes of New York. The show shares elements with critical video essays by the likes of Matt Zoller Seitz and with Thom Andersen’s fascinating documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, which also invites you to see a city through new eyes. But the new season of How to, written by a staff that includes author Susan Orlean and comic Conner O’Malley, is much more autobiographical. New York isn’t the main character, as the cliche goes, so much as shots of it are the language used to describe Wilson.
All great comedy reveals the artist, but these intimate new episodes dig deeper, making Wilson more vulnerable than you’d expect. Wilson comes off as an anguished subject, anxious and afraid of confrontation but struggling to connect. This tension is reflected in the form: We only actually see him in quick glances in mirrors or old clips, but the stories are told entirely from the perspective of his camera. Most of his emotional reactions are illuminated by street scenes. When he talks about feeling shock, he shows an image of a Gothic building whose windows resemble a face with a mouth agape.
The roots of this brand of comedy date to the pranks of Candid Camera. Another touchstone is the late-night talk show tradition of turning interactions with strangers into comedy, from Steve Allen in the 1950s to the literate remote segments by Merrill Markoe on Late Night with David Letterman in the 1980s. It’s a strain of comedy that inspired artists like Billy Eichner. The recent documentary comedy examples stretch the canvas created by their forerunners, offering a wider emotional landscape and more complicated ideas.
But a dark undercurrent remains, one that exploits the humiliation of unsuspecting foils for cheap laughs. Wilson is clearly aware of this and even cops to it. The first episode of this season begins with him buying a building from his landlord. Describing his online real-estate hunt, he says: “You feel like the invisible man. Getting to be a voyeur without any consequences.”
His self-awareness doesn’t erase the smirking pleasures of his show, which emerge in the handling of characters like the person who claims to be the reincarnation of President John Adams or the businessman who makes car-shaped caskets. But Wilson rarely mocks. And he isn’t aiming for quick laughs as much as compassionate consideration. His camera treats the figures it encounters with loving attention and usually a lack of judgment.
His shows are a reminder of how rarely you see banal details of city denizens doing their jobs on prestige television: The unglamorous everyday of real estate agents, construction workers, commuters. Wilson balances the mundane with the extraordinary (every episode has a moment or two that you can’t believe really happened), heavy subjects with light jokes. He introduces us to people who look like targets (a fan group of Avatar obsessives) and makes us see the beauty in their community. This isn’t a show of heroes and villains, but quick portraits of real, complicated people, and its foundational faith is that they are funnier than anything performed by actors. There’s plenty of evidence.
Authenticity has been rightly picked apart by critics, who argue that it’s easily manufactured and so vaguely defined as to be meaningless. And yet, its power and influence on audiences remains undeniable. Authenticity is part of the popularity of stand-up, with comics performing in characters bearing their names and likenesses. And when a standup does something that seems at odds with his persona, the public’s fascination is intense. See John Mulaney, a squeaky-clean comic who recently became a staple of tabloid coverage after drug rehab, divorce, and news of a new girlfriend and baby on the way. “You know your life has gone a little downhill when you announce that you’re having a baby and you get mixed reviews,” he joked at a recent show.
Wilson gets at the enduring power of the real in an origin story of sorts in which he describes being denied entry into a Dungeons and Dragons group as a kid and rebelling against fantasy. “When I watched fiction, I could never suspend disbelief and fully immerse myself in the world.” I suspect he’s not the only one.
And yet, in the same episode, he tries to change, searching out the value in fantasy (“If you only think about stuff that already exists, the world will never change”) and even recording his dreams. One is of a laundromat where the washers and dryers are replaced by stoves. In one oddly magical coup de theatre, he actually builds this business, then trains his camera on New Yorkers cracking up and marvelling at this strange new addition to the neighbourhood.
It’s a bizarre stunt, proudly random, but also, what a perfect joke for this boundary-blurring genre: actually making your dream come true.
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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.