At the start of the second season of the HBO series “How To With John Wilson,” the titular star, a stammering innocent, visits a mortgage broker to get a loan. When asked about his profession, he sounds stunned. “I’m a, er, documentary filmmaker,” he says, struggling to categorize his work. “Like, uh, it’s kind of a memoir, essay, uh.”
Pity him. It is not easy to define this unique show. But a tip comes when Wilson offers as collateral a collection of printed responses (including a Mindy Kaling tweet) in a folder labeled “good reviews.” The annoyed look on the lender’s face works like a punch.
Wilson, who writes, stars and narrates this kind of self-portrait, is the quietly radical author of a rapidly emerging branch of comedy that uses the raw materials of unscripted parts of the real world to make jokes. The latest Dave Chappelle controversy or current “Saturday Night Live” sketch is getting more headlines, but a quiet revolution is taking place in a less heralded corner of the comedy.
The best comedy of the year was Eric André’s “Bad Trip,” a film that mixed public interactions between actors and real people into fiction. The most caustic 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 conceived by Martin Scorsese. It was the HBO series ‘How To With John Wilson’. I’m not sure if this group of documentary comedy performers, who have built a legacy still tied to lowbrow jokes, 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 contain planned stories and weave ridiculous interactions between his bizarre characters and unsuspecting, real people. His heirs include Jena Friedman, one of the writers of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” who, in her “Soft Focus” Adult Swim specials, added clever feminist punch to daring documentary comedy, integrating scenes featuring real college boys and online gamers. a comical account of our sexist culture. Her recent sequel is the great parody of murder documentaries, “Indefensible” on Sundance TV. “Bad Trip” (2021) belongs to a broader species, connected to the raucous youth 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 kind in “Nathan for You” (which ended in 2017) as a gentle consultant helping small business owners achieve their dreams. His cringe-inducing comedy often began as a parody of the bustle of American entrepreneurs, but invariably turned into melancholic, oddly poetic moments. This set the stage for the genre’s most ambitious and cerebral example, “How To With John Wilson,” whose executive producers include Fielder.
Wilson builds each episode around learning a new skill before being interrupted by a distraction that seems to stumble into a philosophical meditation on a broader theme. An episode about appreciating wine asks how to interact with society without becoming a conformist; one about finding a parking space is a short for the virtue of boredom. (“Maybe life just turns, waiting for a spot.”) It’s a show that collects individual parts (e.g. a montage of shots of personalized license plates) and somehow turns them into a wildly eccentric, strangely poignant comedy.
Wilson, our intrepid guide, is incredibly clever at playing dumb, alert to moments of minor revelations, disturbing quirks and layered meanings. But unlike most big, 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 from 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 different eyes. But the new season of “How To,” written by a staff that includes author Susan Orlean and the comic book Conner O’Malley, is much more autobiographical. New York is not the main character, as the cliché goes, but shots of it are the language used to describe Wilson.
Detours take us back to his eventful early film career, including a disastrous early film, “Jingle Berry,” which he’s tucked away but can’t quite destroy, and a short video of old roommates and a girlfriend. The most surreal (and chilling) personal revelation is a story of staging a failed college uprising when his a cappella group attended a conference hosted by Keith Raniere, the convicted sex trafficker who founded the Nxivm cult.
All the great comedy reveals the artist, but these intimate new episodes dig deeper and leave Wilson more vulnerable than you might expect. Wilson comes across as a haunted subject, anxious and afraid of confrontation, but struggles to connect. This tension is reflected in the form: we really only 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 an open-mouthed face.
The roots of this kind of comedy date back to the “Candid Camera” jokes. Another touchstone is the late night talk show tradition of turning interactions with strangers into comedy, from Steve Allen in the 1950s to Merrill Markoe’s literate out-of-the-way segments on “Late Night With David Letterman” in the 1980s. It’s a kind of comedy that inspired artists like Billy Eichner. The recent examples of comedic documentaries stretch across the canvas created by their forerunners, offering a broader emotional landscape and more complicated ideas.
But a dark undercurrent remains, one that exploits the humiliation of unsuspecting foils for cheap laughers. Wilson is clearly aware of this and even the police are working on it. The first episode of this season starts with buying a building from his landlord. He says about his online real estate hunt: “You feel like the invisible man. Becoming a voyeur without consequences.” His self-awareness doesn’t diminish his show’s grinning delights, which come through when interacting with characters like the person who claims to be the reincarnation of President John Adams or the businessman who makes car-shaped chests. But Wilson rarely mocks. And he’s aiming not so much for quick laughs as for compassionate attention. His camera treats the characters he encounters with loving attention and usually a lack of judgment.
His shows are a reminder of how rarely you see banal details of city dwellers doing their jobs on prestigious television: the unglamorous everyday life of real estate agents, construction workers, commuters. Wilson balances the mundane with the extraordinary (each episode has a few moments that you can’t believe actually happened), heavy subjects with light jokes. He introduces us to people who look like targets (a fan group of “Avatar” obsessives) and shows us the beauty in their community. This is not a show of heroes and villains, but quick portraits of real, complicated people, and the fundamental belief is that they are funnier than anything performed by actors. There is enough evidence.
Consider a recent viral video of Fox host Laura Ingraham having a frustrated conversation with a guy talking about the Netflix show “You.” Every time he mentioned the show, she thought he was talking about her, and the dialogue resembled a cable news update of an Abbott and Costello routine. Almost immediately, this minute-long misunderstanding went viral with people of all political affiliations retweeting and praising it. One of the few dissenting opinions came from Andy Richter, who tweeted“The fact that people are actually laughing at that Laura Ingraham thing makes me feel like I wasted the last 35 years of my life.”
Why did people like this? It came with a perfect comedic rhythm, and of course people love to laugh at cable hosts embarrassing themselves. But part of the reason it worked is because it seemed like a real moment, a real burst of spontaneity in a media climate full of predictable narratives. Once the participants admitted that it was fake, online interest disappeared.
To take another example, Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedies that omit unwritten encounters with real people, “The Dictator” and “The Brothers Grimsby,” lacked the urgency and verve of his documentary comedies.
Authenticity has rightly been taken apart by critics, who claim it is easy to manufacture and so vaguely defined as to be meaningless. And yet its power and influence on the public remains undeniable. Authenticity is part of the popularity of stand-up, where comics feature characters who bear their names and likenesses. And when a stand-up does something that seems contrary to their persona, the audience is fascinated. See John Mulaney, a spotless comic that recently became a tabloid staple after rehab, a divorce and news of a new girlfriend and a baby on the way. “You know your life has gone a little downhill when you announce you’re having a baby and you get mixed reviews,” he joked on a recent show.
Wilson gains the staying power of the real in a sort of origin story where he describes being denied entry into a Dungeons and Dragons group as a child and rebelling against fantasy. “When I looked at fiction, I could never suspend my disbelief and immerse myself completely in the world.” I suspect he is not alone.
And yet, in the same episode, he tries to change, looking for the value in fantasy (“If you only think about things that already exist, the world will never change”) and even capture his dreams. One belongs to a laundromat where the washing machines and dryers are replaced by stoves. In a strangely magical coup de théâtre, he actually builds this business and then points his camera at New Yorkers who are bursting at the seams and marveling at this bizarre new addition to the neighborhood.
It’s a bizarre stunt, proudly random, but also, what a perfect joke for this groundbreaking genre: actually making your dream come true.