The most adventurous comedy of the moment is also the most real
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. Asked about his profession, he seems puzzled. “I’m a, uh, documentary maker,” he says, struggling to categorize his work. “Like, uh, it’s kind of like a brief, an essay, uh.”
Poor of him. It is not easy to define this singular spectacle. But a clue comes when Wilson pledges a collection of printed reactions (including a tweet from Mindy Kaling) as collateral in a folder titled “Good Reviews.” The exasperated look on the face of the lender works like a punchline.
Wilson, who writes, stars, and narrates this sort of self-portrait, is the quietly radical author of a rapidly ascending branch of comedy that uses raw materials from real-world unscripted slices to make jokes. Dave Chappelle’s latest controversy or the “Saturday Night Live” topical sketch is gaining more headlines, but in a less publicized corner of comedy, a quiet revolution is brewing.
The best disgusting comedy of the year was Eric André’s “Bad Trip”, a film that mixed public interactions between actors and real people in its fiction. The most biting political film in recent memory hasn’t been directed by Oliver Stone or Adam McKay. It was the 2020 sequel to “Borat”. And the most innovative portrait of New York was not concocted by Martin Scorsese. It was the HBO “How To Do With John Wilson” series. I don’t know if this group of documentary comedy artists, who have raised a legacy always linked to prankster humor, can be considered a stage, but they pollinate and grow in ambition.
At the top of that family tree is Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”), whose hit comedies take planned narratives and weave ludicrous interactions between his weird characters and real, unsuspecting people. Her heirs include Jena Friedman, one of the screenwriters of “Borat After Moviefilm”, who in her specials “Soft Focus” Adult Swim added a shrewd feminist punch to a daring documentary comedy, incorporating scenes with de real fellowship boys and online gamers in a comedic exposition of our sexist culture. Its recent follow-up is the stunning parody of the murder documentaries, “Indefendable” on Sundance TV. “Bad Trip” (2021) belongs to a larger strain, linked to the raucous juvenile stunts of “Jackass,” which co-creator Jeff Tremaine produced the feature film.
Nathan Fielder, who also worked with Baron Cohen, pioneered a more personal and emotionally loving strain in “Nathan for You” (which ended in 2017) playing a gentle-mannered consultant who helps small business owners make their dreams come true. His cranky comedy often started out as a parody of the hustle and bustle of American entrepreneurs, but invariably turned into melancholy and strangely 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 teaching new skills before being interrupted by a diversion that seems to culminate in a philosophical meditation on a larger theme. An episode on the appreciation of wine asks how to engage in society without becoming conformist; the one on finding a parking space is a writ for the virtue of boredom. (“Maybe life is going in circles, just waiting for a seat.”) It’s a show that pulls together loose parts (a montage of blueprints of personalized license plates, say) and sort of turns them into a wildly eccentric and strangely poignant comedy.
Wilson, our intrepid guide, is incredibly smart at playing the silly, alert to moments of minor reveal, eerie weirdness, and layered meanings. But unlike most big, deadpan comics, it stays off-camera, telling its stories through storytelling, interviews with strangers, and carefully curated scenes of New York City. The show shares elements with critical video essays by Matt Zoller Seitz and with Thom Andersen’s compelling 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 team that includes writer Susan Orlean and comedian Conner O’Malley, is much more autobiographical. New York isn’t the main character, as the snapshot says, as plans are the language used to describe Wilson.
Detours take us through his hectic directorial debut, including a disastrous debut film, “Jingle Berry,” which he hid but can’t quite destroy, and a brief video of former roommates and a girlfriend. The most surreal (and frightening) personal revelation is the story of organizing a failed rebellion in college when his a cappella group attended a lecture hosted by Keith Raniere, the convicted sex trafficker who founded the sect Nxivm.
All great comedies reveal the artist, but these new intimate episodes dig deeper, making Wilson more vulnerable than expected. Wilson presents himself as an anguished subject, anxious and afraid of confrontation but struggling to connect. This tension is reflected in the form: in fact, we only see him through brief glances in mirrors or old clips, but the stories are told entirely from his camera’s perspective. Most of his emotional reactions are illuminated by street scenes. When speaking of feeling shocked, he shows an image of a Gothic building whose windows look like a face with a gaping mouth.
The roots of this brand of comedy go back 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 Merrill Markoe’s remote literate segments on “Late Night With David Letterman.” in the 1980s. It’s a kind of comedy that inspired artists like Billy Eichner. Recent examples of documentary comedy stretch the canvas created by their predecessors, offering a larger emotional landscape and more complicated ideas.
But there remains a dark undercurrent, which exploits the humiliation of unsuspecting foils for cheap laughs. Wilson is clearly aware of this and even the cops. The first episode of this season begins with the purchase of a building from its owner. Describing his online real estate hunt, he says, “You feel like the invisible man. Become a voyeur without any consequences. His self-awareness doesn’t erase the sly pleasures of his show, which emerge in the manipulation of characters like the person claiming to be the reincarnation of President John Adams or the businessman who makes car-shaped coffins. But Wilson rarely laughs. And he doesn’t aim for quick laughs as much as he does for compassionate consideration. His camera treats the characters he meets with loving attention and generally a lack of judgment.
Its shows are a reminder of how rarely you see mundane details about city dwellers doing their jobs on high-profile television: the inglorious daily life of estate agents, construction workers, commuters. Wilson balances the mundane with the extraordinary (every episode has a moment or two you can’t believe really happened), heavy topics with light jokes. It introduces us to people who look like targets (a group of obsessive “Avatar” fans) and lets us see the beauty of their community. It’s not a show of heroes and villains, but quick portraits of real, complicated people, and its core faith is that they’re funnier than anything played by actors. There is plenty of evidence.
Consider a recent viral video of Fox host Laura Ingraham having a frustrated conversation with a guest talking about the Netflix show “You.” Whenever he mentioned the show, she thought he was referring to her, and the dialogue came to feel like a cable update of an Abbott and Costello routine. Almost immediately, this minute-long misunderstanding went viral, with people of all political stripes retweeting and praising it. One of the only dissent came from Andy Richter, who tweeted: “The fact that people laugh at this Laura Ingraham story makes me feel like I’ve wasted the last 35 years of my life.”
Why did people like it? It came with a precise comedic rhythm, and of course people love to laugh at the cable hosts who embarrass themselves. But part of it worked because it felt like an authentic moment, a veritable explosion of spontaneity in a media climate filled with predictable narratives. As soon as attendees admitted it was wrong, online interest waned.
Five films to watch this winter
To take another example, Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedies that forgo unscripted encounters with real people, “The Dictator” and “The Grimsby Brothers”, lacked the urgency and verve of his documentary comedies.
Authenticity has been rightly singled out by critics, who argue that it is easily fabricated and so loosely defined that it makes no sense. And yet his power and influence over the public remains undeniable. Authenticity is part of the popularity of the stand-up, with the comics playing as characters with their names and likenesses. And when a stand-up does something that seems at odds with its character, the audience’s fascination is intense. See John Mulaney, a crisp comic that 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 taken a bit of a toll when you announce that you’re having a baby and you get mixed reviews,” he joked on a recent show.
Wilson captures the enduring power of the real in a sort of origin story in which he describes being denied entry into a Dungeons and Dragons group as a child and rebelling against fantasy. “When I watched fiction, I could never suspend my disbelief and completely immerse myself in the world. I suspect he’s not the only one.
And yet, in the same episode, he tries to change, looking for value in fantasy (“If you only think about things that already exist, the world will never change”) and even recording his dreams. One is that of a laundromat where washers and dryers are replaced by stoves. In a weirdly magical twist, he actually builds this business, then points his camera at New Yorkers cracking up and marveling at this odd new addition to the neighborhood.
It’s a bizarre stunt, proudly random, but also, what a perfect joke for this line-blurring genre: in fact, making your dream come true.