John Wilson On Getting Personal And Reflecting The World We Live In With ‘How To’

How To With John Wilson hit with a lingering blow when it dropped in October of 2020, right before the winter COVID surge and a time of crushed holiday plans that deepened the despair and disconnection felt by millions who had sheltered in place and socially distanced in the months prior. For me, personally, it was a reminder of the joys of people watching and the charming weirdness so many of us put out into the world in our daily actions. But as season 2 nears its launch, the world is a bit different. How will that impact our collective reaction to the show? That remains to be seen, but there is no shortage of endearing, relatable, fascinating, and odd threads spun into the quilt of this new season.

In the following conversation with Wilson that touches on the vibe and composition of these new six episodes (which launch on Friday at 10PM on HBO), getting more personal about his own life in the show (with a couple of, “wait, what?” moments that we won’t spoil), and the response from some of the first season’s standouts (foreskin guy!), he matter of factly reconfirms the truth about the show: “this is the world we live in.” So true, so simple. What we take from it says a lot about us and where we are, which isn’t something Wilson can control. He’s just out there reminding us of how fascinating people can be when we actually look at them. Especially through his lens.

Last year, I wrote about how the show made me believe in humanity again. Praise like that… I know the show got such a great reception and so much praise. How does that kind of get into the gears of your creative process?

I really try not to let it get to my head and my day-to-day, honestly, hasn’t really changed that much. I am still just in my apartment. Like if I’m filming sausages in a frying pan, that usually doesn’t change. But I don’t know. I mean people that I talk to in season two; some of them have definitely seen season one. And it actually helped a lot of the time, because there’s almost like this proof of concept now and they understand what the tone is in a way that they didn’t in season one. Like in season one, I think some people were kind of suspicious sometimes because they were only familiar with the kind of Sascha Baron Cohen [style], you know? And even though Nathan [Felder, show producer] is a genius and involved, his show is tonally different than mine, so it’s like when they look that up, they just don’t really understand how they’re going to be treated. Yeah, [that familiarity] opened more doors this season than I ever thought it would.

Is there any concern about that ever flipping over the other way, where people start to be a little bit more performative and start trying to lean into the pieces, jeopardizing the authenticity? Like Real World back in the day, where you saw it change eventually to where people realized it was a chance to get famous.

That’s the producer’s fault that they chose people that performed. I’m extremely sensitive to stuff like that and I don’t like to feature people that are at all performing. I know what that looks like and it just takes the life out of it for me. There are way more real people in the world than there are performers and I… so I don’t think there’ll ever be a shortage of that. Is there anyone in season two… stuff you’ve seen from season two, that you feel like would fit that bill?

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the energy drink guy and what that was about.

[Laughs] Well, okay, that’s a good example, right? So it’s like he is just naturally an exhibitionist. I think a lot of people are in the show. Whether it’s the foreskin guy [from last season] or whoever. And that’s like a point of entry for that person and you… like of course he’s trying to sell his energy drink.

Oh yeah, I mean he basically treats the episode like it’s an episode of MTV Cribs.

Yeah. But also at the same time, it is within this larger framework that kind of tells a much larger story, that is not just about his drink. And that’s the kind of performance that I’m okay with. Just because… I understand that he is trying to use this as a commercial, while I’m personally looking for something much deeper there. And the relationship is what’s interesting about a scene like that.

Did you hear from anyone from season one with any negative feelings from their portrayals?

Not really. I was worried about one or two people, but like the circumcision guy loves it. He is promoting the show constantly. The Mandela Effect people love it, like the international Mandela Effect community; they’re constantly tweeting about the show and how to find it. It’s like the circumcision guy; he sends me photos of people watching the show on planes, you know? He’s really proud of it and that’s the thing, it’s like… context aside, everyone that I feature, I like to keep their messaging intact. No pun intended. [Laughs]

So if you wanted to lift a segment out of it, that is like a true platform for whoever is featured.

Going back to what I was saying at the start, with how much the show connected with people at a very specific time, is there pressure on you going into season two, to have that same connection when things are a bit different?

That’s just the default, you know? I really don’t feel as much pressure to have the same kind of imagery, because that’s just all the show is. And here’s more imagery like that, there’s more interesting imagery now than there was when we shot the first season. It made it so much easier. I mean we shot the first season mostly during the winter of 2019. And this season, we shot all during the summer, which was such a dream; everybody’s out, and a lot of it was in that sweet spot. Like when the vaccine was administered and before Delta, it was like when people had this kind of weird confidence to kind of bloom in the streets. I don’t know. I mean there’s always pressure because you’re not sure how much lightning in a bottle you’re really going to be able to capture. But if you just spend enough time and have enough people working, doing the thing that you need to do, it just yields so much amazing stuff. And that’s just like part of the experiment.

That space between winter ’19 when you filmed season one [including the finale, which focused on the early days of the pandemic in 2020] and summer ’21 when you filmed this season… There isn’t a lot of COVID in this season. Was there a choice made to not really show some of the heavier moments? I assume you documented all of that in-between time. Is that going to live someplace?

Yeah, I mean I have like an overwhelming amount of material from the empty streets kind of phase of the pandemic. You may not notice it, but a lot of it is in episodes one through five. But like a lot of times when I’m filming someone on the street, it’s just like an isolated person, so it doesn’t have the kind of panoramic effect that the season one finale did. I wanted to just have this be almost like a relief for the audience to not have to stare directly in the face… You say that it doesn’t have as much of the pandemic in it…
That specific period of the pandemic doesn’t seem like it’s the key focus. Not that season one was dripping with it. It’s not a disappointment. I understand what you’re saying and I honestly feel everyone’s doing this. No one is wanting to go back and focus on stories showing that. I think I had an expectation when I turned it on, based on our conversation last year, because I know you had footage.

Like indirectly, it’s like if the pandemic didn’t happen, I don’t think my landlord would have moved to Las Vegas, you know? I think that was like a direct kind of cause or something that you can definitely point at that happened because of the pandemic, but I just didn’t want to like, acknowledge it in that way, you know?

It would also date it quite a bit, wouldn’t it?

Exactly. Like even when I watch the finale from the first season now; I watched it again recently and I started to cringe at points, being like this almost feels too dated to me, now. Like I almost wish I even talked about what was happening, less. I don’t know. But I never want to George Lucas my shit, you know? [Laughs]

Correct me if I’m wrong on this but is the show a little bit more of a personal story this season?

Yeah, totally. It’s like when you make a new friend. You begin to learn just a little about them at first, and then like after a few months, they might start to tell you all these stories that they wouldn’t tell an acquaintance. I wanted to get people comfortable and familiar with the format and just me as like a narrator who has a personal history that I dip in and out of. And the fact that people responded positively to that, I felt comfortable kind of putting all this other stuff in that I really wanted to put in the first season. So it feels very much like the evolution that I created and I can finally put all of this stuff from my personal history that I think that people would maybe care a bit more about now.

Season 2 of ‘How To With John Wilson’ premieres on Friday November 26 on HBO at 10PM ET