John Wilson makes the least predictable show on TV

The impulse to hoard funny bits of reality is reflected in Wilson’s apartment, the same rooms where he films his cat vomiting or his ruin...


The impulse to hoard funny bits of reality is reflected in Wilson’s apartment, the same rooms where he films his cat vomiting or his ruined risotto flushed down the toilet. (The toilet, he says, is a “very under-represented image” on TV; he didn’t think it was weird to throw food in one until his show aired and people commented. .) As he showed me series title cards, which he painted on scraps of newspaper, I realized he was surrounded by stuff from the series: a painting of the “Mandela Effect” Explored in the first season; a painting of an amputee from the new “How to throw away your batteries”; some vintage Ray-O-Vacs from the same episode; he even wore a t-shirt from the parking convention in “How to Find a Space”. A nearby shelf was filled with those “books on real things,” including Studs Terkel with his interviews of ordinary Americans. Another of Wilson’s favorites is “Saturday Night” by Susan Orlean, portraits of how various Americans spend the evening, from 1990. When hiring for its second season, Wilson kept mentioning that he wanted someone As Susan Orlean, until an HBO executive pointed out that they could probably just ask Susan Orlean, who came on board as a writer.

Wilson’s Show: Filled with things too mundane, too accidentally weird, too sticky or sad or flawed, or lacking in panache, to actively play someone else’s part on the world.

Wilson told me about his love for the Austrian filmmaker “In the basement” by Ulrich Seidl – “just a bunch of very slow portraits of people in their basements”, each space devoted to a single lens. He showed me a clip of one of his favorite artists, George Kuchar: “He did this series called ‘The Weather Diaries’ where he would go to this motel in the Midwest every year and try to document the weather conditions. extremes, but then he would get really distracted. ” He is an admirer of BBC documentaries by Louis Theroux, “Heavy metal parking lot” of the many successes of a close documentary attention to how bizarre ordinary life can be.

“Everything is such a performance these days,” he said. It’s not like Wilson doesn’t use the shtick to shape his show – his voiceover is gorgeous, deploying uncomfortable sinus noises and trails for a lively effect. But he seems to be afraid that his reality will be distorted. While building the show’s first season, he said, “I was falling apart and crying in the cut, just because I felt all these hands trying to shape this thing that was so intensely personal to me.” Working in advertising, he saw how you could degrade and market someone’s work. His show’s format, he hoped, was a safeguard against that – at the very least, he joked, he wasn’t about to be recast with Ryan Seacrest.

If you want To see an Edenic depiction of American adults before fall, search for clips from Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life” TV shows. They started in 1950, when you could find guests who had yet to assimilate the standards of television behavior, and would introduce themselves in the same way they might have addressed a new neighbor or an Elks Lodge. They seem touchingly pure, while Marx, wiggling his eyebrows in the mid-century equivalent of “that’s what she said jokes, might as well be from the 90s.

The people Wilson features on her show sometimes remind me of those guests. It’s not that they don’t understand good behavior on TV; these days we learn this before addition and subtraction. But even successful efforts to reproduce it tend to be aided by editing; Wilson likes to say that on reality TV, if you kept spinning a shot for a few more seconds, the illusion would be shattered. “How To” is constantly finding people who come to life in those extra seconds. It is important, says Wilson, to see these raw portraits, “because a lot of the things that we consume sometimes make us feel like they are not enough. Because we are not happy enough or lively enough. He uses the word “representation” here – the representation of ordinary American awkwardness.

The people it focuses on tend to be those who are generally overlooked by television. They are middle aged with abrupt local accents or rich but not in a mundane manner; they have some kind of crazy sales model or theory that you wouldn’t normally; they are cheesy or goony or oversharers. Sometimes they don’t try to meet the expectations of the television; sometimes they try too hard, and the effort is out of balance. Sometimes they’re absurdly televisual, like with Vivian Koenig, a no-frills older woman seen giving her husband a theatrical “can’t you see I’m busy” gesture that puts the best American comics to shame. If television works like pop music, seeing these humans on it is as exciting as seeing Harry Styles snatch a random dad from a crowd of arenas and hand him a microphone.

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