A bag of bread sways in a subway car where it is tied to an overhead pole. A woman in Times Square casually leans down and puts a pigeon into a shopping bag. An anti-circumcision activist performs a hard rock anthem about foreskin restoration. As these bizarre moments pile up in HBO’s acclaimed series How To with John Wilson, a question may occur to the viewer: how exactly did we get here?
The series’ premise seems simple enough. In every episode, New York-based documentarian John Wilson explores how to perform a specific task, as expressed in the episode’s title: “How To Make Risotto,” or “How To Improve Your Memory.” Simple, right? So how, exactly, did we get from “How To Cover Furniture” to a middle-aged man earnestly playing a protest song called “Grow It Back Again” in his basement? And why is it so captivating?
This sort of humor is in line with what’s known as the incongruity theory of comedy. The idea, expressed by writers including Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, is that we find comedy in the tension between what we believe to be true and what is actually revealed to be true. We feel a sense of strain when expectation and reality diverge—as when Groucho Marx and his reflection somehow, improbably, exchange places in Duck Soup’s iconic mirror routine— and we laugh to relieve the tension. If laughter is the physical response that allows us to experience relief, there’s another response when we experience this incongruity in a social context: We cringe.
Life can be like that. We have endless expectations that our experience will go a certain way, and these expectations are almost inevitably foiled. We get thirsty and think drinking a glass of water will satisfy us, only to find that dissatisfaction persists. We have an a deep sense that our youth should last forever, only to see our looks fade. Zen Buddhist practice asks us to sit with and try to accept that incongruity, rather than strain against it. Its paradoxical literature filled with stories of bizarre masters urges us to live in a state of flow, instead of frustration, with our experience.
To watch How To is to see both sides of this coin of incongruity, both flowing with and straining against its tension. Using his B-roll footage of New York City, Wilson shows us countless people who have become fixated on preserving some particular aspect of their world. Maybe they react to their nagging sense of incongruity by upholstering their couch in gawdy plastic to keep it from fading. Or they hold conventions to discuss theories about how the Berenstain Bears children’s books have actually always been spelled with s-t-e-i-n and how this disparity is proof of a multiverse-level conspiracy. As viewers, we react, too: We cringe at the inherent oddness of these moments, and then we laugh to relieve that tension.
What sets How To apart from other series in the cringe comedy genre like The Office or Borat is that Wilson keeps his camera focused on his subjects long after the initial laughs fade, and we are left to marinate in the strangeness of these situations. Laughter will not save us here. So we find ourselves asking: What if we simply engaged with the cringeworthiness of life, rather than laughing it off? What if we embraced Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s adage that the world is “not always so” and dropped our assumptions about what the next moment should bring?
As it turns out, there’s a treasure of warmth and subtle beauty in a cringe-inducing moment, if we’re willing to embrace it. And it’s this kind of warm delight that we see in Wilson’s choice to push beyond those everyday divisions between what is strange and what is comfortable, or what is positive and what is negative, and instead flow with the possibilities beyond these distinctions. The pleasure of the show lies in this Zen-like willingness to simply witness these moments of alienation and see what comes afterward.
Much like how meditating on a seemingly banal aspect of our life—the in and out of breathing, the stabbing sensation of anger, the wind through tree branches—can reveal the uniqueness of each passing moment, Wilson’s particular way of looking opens up aspects of our world that originally felt humiliating. Because we do not get to simply laugh at the eccentricities of his subjects before he cuts away to some new object of derision, we are forced to confront our discomfort, and eventually we discover a remarkable depth to the situation that was hiding in plain sight.
What if we simply engaged with the cringeworthiness of life, rather than laughing it off?
This is starting to evoke E. B. White’s line about how explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog, so it’s worthwhile to stress that watching Wilson bumble through these situations is actually very funny. But watching the series also comes with the opportunity for a wonderful insight.
The secret lies in Wilson’s kind of storytelling, something best seen in the pilot episode, “How To Make Small Talk,” in which Wilson goes on a vacation to Cancun, only to see his hotel overrun with partiers from MTV Spring Break. At first, we laugh at the moment. We smirk at Wilson, the extreme introvert, struggling through supremely awkward small talk with a pot-smoking spring breaker named Chris. We assume we’ll get to gawk at the glazed-over amateur rapper and then move on.
But that isn’t what happens. Instead, Wilson keeps running into Chris, and slowly the cringe dissolves into something much more surprising: Wilson reveals that one of his loved ones recently died in a car crash. In response, Chris admits that he came to Cancun to escape from the mental toll of a friend’s suicide. Given every opportunity to turn away from this sort of conversation and simply give us the release we want, Wilson instead chooses to burrow deeper into the moment, and we end up watching a real human connection. We feel the alienation of modern life briefly melt away into something warmer, kinder, and, frankly, more sustaining.
Indeed, after Wilson’s gaze forces us to spend minute after agonizing minute in the discomfort of these situations, the joke eventually fades away. We may not even be able to identify what the joke was in the first place besides being something that made us feel uncomfortable with some small corner of the world. But once we spend enough time in the company of the cringeworthy, we may realize that there is a beauty to simply accepting every ounce of strangeness that crosses our path—that there’s beauty in the unexpected itself, and that none of us knows what will happen in the next moment. That’s the trick the show plays, again and again. Even as viewers, we think we know where Wilson is going and we never do.
And so we laugh.
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