A Hilarious Whirlwind: Watching ‘How To with John Wilson’

HBO’s “How To with John Wilson” has quickly become one of my favorite comedy series. Premiering in 2020, the series follows filmmaker John Wilson in his attempts to walk the viewer through various “How To” tutorials. These guides veer into unexpected territory while maintaining tangential relation between scenes. The episodes cover topics of both practical and emotional intrigue, ranging from “How To Cook The Perfect Risotto” to “How To Be Spontaneous.” This blend of humor and advice leads to fascinatingly funny explorations of any and all topics, combining Wilson’s personal interpretations with various interviews along the way.

Largely shot in New York City, the distinct documentary style of Wilson’s filmmaking is the most unique aspect of the show. Although the editing and episodic narrative within each installment are deliberate, the camerawork relies upon an unvarnished, authentic style of capturing footage. The camera is often shaky and avoids intentional or pristine framing. Informal interviews grow awkward yet humorous as Wilson’s nervous personality becomes prominent, challenging the “professional” nature of standard documentary filmmaking with narration for comedic intent. This combination of factors gives rise to hilarious yet insightful scenes combined with a degree of informational guidance that unfolds throughout Wilson’s antics. To explore the series’s structure and humor, I want to highlight my favorite episode of the show in detail.

“How To Appreciate Wine” follows Wilson’s attempts to understand and become familiar with wine culture.  “How To Appreciate Wine” begins, however, with Wilson’s struggle in finding the right bottle of wine and the stress involved in its selection, noticing his bottles always go unopened at parties. This introduction is backed with clips of New Yorkers carrying around various items (a dead pig, a giant model plane, a plastic giraffe, etc.), noting how bringing the wrong item makes one feel out of place. This is a common technique of Wilson’s style, in which he matches the episode’s narrative script with half-related footage of New Yorkers engaged in odd public behavior. Although the episode begins by examining wine culture from an outsider perspective, the story traverses variously related environments before concluding its exploration in the home of an energy drink CEO. Wilson’s explorations and interviews expose the viewer to various aspects of topics often overlooked by outsiders to these subjects, venturing into unforeseen topics such as collegiate a cappella scandals and scented bowling ball manufacturers—both of which are explored in this episode. Wilson then goes into the intricacies of wine appreciation, discussing terms like “dry whites” and naturally harvested wine, with respective background video of a plainly dressed white man and someone collecting dog feces. The documentation of real-world subjects and their curious actions serves as both comic relief and evidence to the narrative idea Wilson is discussing.

The topic of tasting old wines leads him to interview a man who eats old war rations for fun, describing their musty, rancid taste. Wilson’s informal style is captured in this segment, featuring himself gagging at the food’s taste and extending a nervous greeting to the man’s parents. These narrative transitions function smoothly despite their thematic incongruity, a feature of his writing which lends itself to a humorous fluidity rather than the rigid, formalized structure of most documentaries. After practicing scent identification with a wine taster, Wilson again shifts his focus, this time to the sensation of scent as a whole. He describes how “Thankfully, New York is a carnival of aromas” through the filmed examples of cigarette butts on a plant, food spilled in the subway and the wood of a bowling alley. The man interviewed inside the bowling alley discusses scented bowling balls, a concept which would have never crossed my mind prior to the episode. 

Wilson decides to travel to the bowling ball factory that creates these scented products, interviewing a colorfully dressed employee who’s holding a bagful of energy drinks. This encounter prompts Wilson to recall how much he used to enjoy energy drinks, the selection of which felt much simpler than wine’s. He realizes on a wine tasting boat that he does not fit in, awkwardly failing to repeat a wine joke he heard earlier. Wilson relates this experience back to his time in a college a cappella group, which he had joined in an attempt to make friends. This is another instance of Wilson’s use of sudden transitions, connecting diverse subject matter while broadening the topic he examines. At this point in the episode, he begins to focus more on the subject of finding group belonging rather than simply appreciating wine. Although Wilson begins this segment by poking fun at a cappella, it ends with a story of how his a cappella group attended a summit hosted by the cult leader of NXIVM,  Keith Raniere, who is now serving over 100 years in prison for crimes such as sex trafficking. Wilson wonders if he was prequalified to join a cult because of his participation in the singing art form, an outlandish yet frightening reality to consider in our attempts to find belonging. 

Wandering the beach after a wine tasting, Wilson remarks that he was never a natural part of enlightened wine society, yet he feels immediately accepted by a group of outgoing Bang employees handing out free energy drinks. He notes a shift in conversation, now free of superiority or in-group knowledge. The employees mention their visits to the home of their employer, Bang CEO Jack Owoc. Although Owoc lives in a gated community, the security allows Wilson to enter without much protocol; he eventually is able to walk directly into the home, later telling Owoc he is filming an HBO documentary. Despite Owoc’s flamboyant and eccentric personality, Wilson notes feeling more welcomed here than anywhere in the wine community, an unexpected outcome from his “How To” tutorial’s original subject matter.

The episode ends with Wilson discussing the extremes we go to in order to belong, a result of our intense fear of being outsiders. He insists that if we remain honest to ourselves (as he did with energy drinks), we may be able to get the best of both worlds, broadening the episode’s tutorial from the original scope of content into personal advice. “Don’t worry about what people think when you bring stuff to their party,” insists Wilson, “because if they’re your real friends, they’ll probably just say they like it anyway.” What was originally a lesson in wine appreciation transformed into a broader message for the audience regarding our desires to find acceptance. This change in topic feels surprising in retrospect, yet it is one that unfurled naturally throughout the entire episode; to me, this is the central appeal of Wilson’s style. If you’re looking for humorously presented insight and information on random, real-world topics, give the series a shot.

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