The Gravity and Levity of How To with John Wilson

At least once a day, I stare at two of my most cherished possessions—a half-used can of Barbasol and a bottle of Aqua Velva—and I feel gratitude.

Unassuming on their open shelf in my bathroom, the toiletries don’t stand out as remarkable, let alone important, objects. It’s a deeply ordinary spot to store things like shaving cream and aftershave. It is, admittedly, a strange place to store things of value. Humidity and LA smog-dust are, I’m sure you know, not friends of the preservationist.

In case you’re worried that I’ve been living in LA too long (and I have), I should clarify that I value these objects because they serve as a daily, incidental way for me to remember my dad, who passed away several years ago, at the start of the pandemic.

My dad first left the items behind after making the cross-country trip to visit me nearly a decade ago. What I once kept in a box in the back of a cabinet to help my parents avoid a checked bag fee has now transformed into a makeshift memorial. These humble, unobtrusive objects are very much in keeping with my dad’s temperament, which balanced an incredibly sharp, dry wit with a fierce sentimental streak. When I was a kid, and my sisters and I would demand that he kill an errant moth that had come into our house on a summer night, he would refuse, asking us simply, “how do you think its family would feel?” (Just over a decade later, I would read Uncle Toby’s famous encounter with the fly in Tristram Shandy and think fondly of these moments. I remain grateful that this is where the comparison between my dad and Toby ends). My dad’s often silly sentimentality was only equaled by his fierce aversion to attention or dwelling on things like death and grief: I’m certain that my dad would love the idea of being memorialized in the bathroom.

These aren’t the only possessions I have to remember my dad or other loved ones who have passed: a more traditional selection of random handwritten cards, gifts, photos, videos, and even voicemail files help me to connect with those I have lost. But whereas I have special, safe, out-of-everyday-sight places to store these items, the shaving cream and aftershave are objects of remembrance that I can engage with daily precisely because they aren’t precious in themselves—they take on that quality each time I look at them and think of my dad’s visits here: when he spent hours reading every exhibit in Griffith Observatory or when he first held his newborn grandchild. Or I think about when I was a child, and he let me splash some aftershave on my face after I pretended to shave along with him.

My everyday acts of remembrance are individually specific, but processing loss through the preservation of everyday objects is part of a much broader cultural practice of mourning. Such acts have been documented in long-term, archives-based projects of grief and loss, like Kija Lucas’s “The Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy” and Elisabeth Smolarz’s “The Encyclopedia of Things.” More recently, and inspired by projects like these, “What Loss Looks Like,” a New York Times virtual memorial, has documented the staggering losses of COVID-19 through photos of objects left behind by those who have passed and saved by family and friends in mourning. As Jaspal Riyait puts it, such items serve as “tangible daily reminders of those who have departed. These possessions hold a space and tell a story.”

It’s probably no wonder, then, that several months into my daily dad-shaving affirmations, I was drawn to one of the most arrestingly innovative, hilarious, and beautiful shows on TV, HBO’s How To with John Wilson, a show that is preoccupied with how seemingly inconsequential objects and conversations connect us, and how preserving the most ephemeral incidents and behaviors help us to contend with what we are losing while we are in the process of losing it. Wilson manages to be lol funny and surprising while also offering a deeply elegiac message: his show is a manifesto against an increasingly corporatized and gentrifying New York, a metacommentary about contemporary media as a form, and a memoir about the ways that a docu-reality-comedy show can find humanity in its subjects, rather than making them objects of spectacle or derision.

If you’ve seen the show, then you probably know that I’m stalling a bit because trying to summarize any individual episode of the show loses some of its richness and depth. Each episode begins with a general “how-to” topic that Wilson as documentarian-narrator-protagonist offers to help you, the audience member, do better. The show received accolades especially for its season one finale, “How to Make Risotto,” which begins ostensibly as an account of how Wilson is unsuccessfully attempting to make his beloved elderly landlady, Mama, her favorite meal, complete with footage of Wilson accidentally setting fire to a pan he’s just bought on Craigslist and many failed meal attempts being flushed down the toilet. But through its quotidian depictions of these failed attempts and his multiple runs to grocery stores and restaurants, the show documents the beforeand-after of the explosion of COVID in the spring of 2020. The episode ends with Wilson negotiating the isolation and the uncertainly of the early pandemic—would food transmit the virus?—by leaving an imperfect but lovingly prepared meal for Mama in the hallway that connects their apartments.

The more typical episode begins with one ostensible subject and then follows multiple loosely related threads, connecting a series of dizzying and always surprising topics that seem to mirror the meandering ways that Wilson-the-documentarian rambles around New York. Wilson has alternately described the show as preservation-oriented “memoir films,” “a collage of weird footage,” and “Planet Earth but for New York City,” and has said that he wanted “everything to feel stream of consciousness.” In a show fascinated with how we remember, it’s no surprise that one of the episodes of season one is “How to Have a Better Memory,” which begins with Wilson attempting to improve his memory through an associative grocery store run and culminates with him attending a conference in Idaho on the Mandela Effect, which explains false memories shared by strangers through an exploration of alternate timelines. And it’s perhaps no coincidence that one of Wilson’s episodes depicts a brief screenshot of a blog his dad created to capture all of the places he attempted to go but couldn’t—because the destination was unexpectedly closed—which includes a hashtag referencing James Joyce.

Wilson has noted in interviews and in several episodes of his show that his youthful distrust of fiction led him to a fascination with nonfiction media, from Court TV (on which he has also been a plaintiff several times, and about which he has made an underground and heavily litigated film that is legendary in comedy circles) to documentaries by Louis Theroux and Errol Morris. But the show is also, if accidentally, a twenty-first century riff on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, from its obsession with the Lockean train of ideas to its negotiation of how experimental narratives of the everyday can capture and remember who and what we love in the face of loss. Its writing room, which includes avant-garde anti-capitalist comedian Conner O’Malley and Susan Orlean (whose immersive style of travel writing and caring attention to the importance of objects and non-human animals is its own literary-journalistic sub-genre), only doubles down on this dazzling vortex of narrative performance.

In the first episode of Season 1, “How to Make Small Talk,” part of Wilson’s discussion of how to interact with strangers involves taking a trip to Mexico, where he ends up staying at a hotel hosting MTV Spring Break. Wilson’s narration, inflected by otherwise rare shots of a pale, bespectacled, khaki-clad Wilson looking befuddled and anxious as throngs of tanned college students surround him and dance to the techno of Jersey Shore’s DJ Pauly D, seems like it’s about to slip into Nathan Fielder territory, where both the protagonist and his surroundings receive epically satirical, often brutal treatment for the sake of pushing the boundaries of comedy and commenting on the absurdity of reality TV formatting at the same time. Instead, Wilson interacts with one attendee, Chris, and their small talk leads to a disarming conversation about loss: first, they both share that they’ve lost beloved childhood pets, a confession that leads them to reveal that they’ve recently lost loved ones. As in Sterne’s novels, Wilson’s work finds energy and compassion in the interplay between gravity and levity.

And, like Sterne’s novel, the associative narrative arc of a How To episode brings us to truly astonishing places. “How to Cover Your Furniture” starts with concerns about how Wilson can protect his furniture his from his upholstery-clawing, spontaneously vomiting, adorable cat, Baby. This task leads him to the Union Square Petco, outside of which Wilson is prompted to consider a very different (and very Sternean) kind of covering, as he meets a one-man protest against circumcision. This encounter in turn brings him to the home of another anti-circumcision activist, an engineer and songwriter who founded a company called TLC Tuggers, which sells devices that seek to restore the foreskin (Wilson also includes the activist’s very catchy, They Might Be Giants-esque songs on the subject). The connections between each episode’s narrative and the intercut shots of Wilson’s camera as it moves around New York are laughable, without laughing at the people or objects he films: Wilson interviews and documents his subjects with a joyful earnestness, care, and genuine curiosity that inspires his audience to do the same.

The show’s impulse to imbue the subjects and objects of his video memoirs with reverence extends to other forms of preservation as well. Wilson’s chapbook, free stuff, is a compilation of screenshots he took of especially silly or sentimental listings in the “Free Stuff” section of Craiglist, listings that themselves would have evaporated into the internet ether if not for his records. In one screenshotted listing, for a “Ricky Martin CD booklet,” the description reads, “my son and I read this every night before bed. taught him how to read. hes into aerosmith now.” The listing is both hilariously random and has an intimate story attached to it, so much so that the poster can’t bear to discard the most ephemeral of ephemeral media objects—not just a CD, but a CD booklet—because they associate it with an intimate act of care and love.

It’s not individual people, but rather abusive institutions and systemic injustices, that are the targets of Wilson’s satirical ire. In his arresting early video memoirs (available on Vimeo), with titles like “The Road to Magnasanti” (a reference to a gargantuan dystopia in SimCity) and “How to Live with Regret,” and throughout his show, Wilson actively resists the gentrification of New York, a homogenization that threatens to erase its esoteric communities of old school residents. The show’s depiction of Mama, a caring, elderly, hardworking immigrant who managed to own an entire building in one of the most expensive cities in the world, is another way that Wilson captures a disappearing New York while he also documents an unexpectedly heartwarming relationship between landlord and tenant.

Wilson also draws parallels between gentrification and the homogenization of media culture when, for instance, he compares how his Queens neighborhood was once chosen to stand in as a filming location for a war-torn country—and how it now serves as a location for the Sex and the City reboot, a flagship of HBO’s lineup that dominated media culture as it documented-slash-co-produced the Giuliani era’s long wave of gentrification and displacement that continues today. Against the designer-clad SATC trio and their luxury apartments and Michelin-star restaurants, Wilson brings us to off-brand Dollar Stores, hole-in-the-wall diners, the Staten Island ferry, and recycling centers. And increasingly throughout Season 2, the show offers glimpses of the painstaking ways that Wilson processes and preserves his own memories and experiences. We see Wilson’s college-era screenshots and videos document his run-in with sex-cult criminal (and subject of another sensational HBO documentary) Keith Raniere at an a capella competition; he shows how he can’t help cataloging even the things he tries to forget, like the tantalizingly titled Jingle Berry, a high school film that he tells us his father described as the worst film he’d ever seen. If you’re feeling like I’m just using text prediction or Mad Libs to describe the show, you’re likely not alone—but this deliberate randomness is a large part of what makes this show virtuostic in style and scope.

How To with John Wilson creates its own alternative timeline for reality-based TV, one that preserves a less-well-documented past while it presents an alternate vision for how we might interact with the things and people around us. The show encourages us to find meaning and care for ourselves and others through renewed attention to things that seem (and often are) easily discardable. As Wilson shows us, attending to and valuing the quotidian can forge both joyful and palliative connections between our past, present, and future, and can help us negotiate the difficult terrain between gravity and levity in our memory and our everyday lives. While my dad never had the chance to read Tristram Shandy or watch Wilson’s show, I know he’d find kindred spirits in their shared commitment to the power of this particular practice of satire and sentiment.

Danielle Spratt is a professor of eighteenth-century literature and culture at California State University, Northridge. Her areas of interest include the history of science and medicine, satire, Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, and digital and public humanities. With Bridget Draxler, she is the author of Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Public Humanities in Practice (2018). She lives in Los Angeles but, as this essay shows, her heart is always in New York.

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