Hey, Long Island.
Filmmaker John Wilson is back, to which you might reasonably enough ask, who is John Wilson?
Well, for starters, this Rocky Point native, now living in Queens, begins every episode of his eponymous HBO comedy "How to With John Wilson" — which begins its second season at 10 p.m. Friday — with a decidedly diffident greeting to viewers, to wit: "Hey, New York."
What follows is also something that requires explanation. In the glorious tradition of the TV (now mostly YouTube) tutorial, he explains in each episode how to perform various duties that are more or less essential to the daily life of the average New Yorker.
This season, those are: How to invest in real estate; how to appreciate wine; how to find a parking spot; how to throw out your batteries; how to remember your dreams; and how to be spontaneous.
But, please, don't come looking for precise directions, as Wilson is frequently side-tracked. This season, John's grandmother collects newspaper clips (including from Newsday) about his newfound fame; he buys a Queens walk-up; he learns just how hard it is to get rid of batteries; he expands on the meaning of what it means to dream; and he confides to viewers that before TV fame, he was a frequent guest on TV courtroom shows, and as a member of his college (SUNY/Binghamton] a cappella singing group, he once had a confrontation with the notorious sex trafficking cult NXIVM and its leader, Keith Raniere, who was sentenced to 120 years in prison in October 2020.
It gets weirder — and funnier — from there.
The last time we spoke, you had just started talking with HBO about a second season even though the pandemic was in full swing. Were they worried? Were you?
I was writing episodes in my head as we were making season one — like [the episodes about] wine and batteries — but we did have conversations about, logically, what it would look like. [Nevertheless, production] wasn't hard at all. We could strip down the crew to a single person [and] I can be nimble and do what I need to do while still being safe. And a lot of season 2 was shot in that sweet spot, after the vaccine was released and before Delta had hit. So people were more comfortable.
What's it like filmically making your way through a city that had struggled so much?
I was a little worried but embraced what limitations there were. It was like some of my favorite cinema — Iranian cinema, which is made in a heavily artistically censored society and they make this incredible stuff, and sometimes only because they have these limitations. I didn't want the second season to feel like a victim of the pandmeic, but that it was embracing as much as it possibly could. But once we began [filming in the spring], the city was in full bloom. In winter you have to look for people on the street. Everyone was out this summer.
As I watched, I wondered about the process. Do you collect the video first then create the story? Or the other way around?
[Laughs] I don't know if I can reduce to a chicken-egg thing. There is no simple way to explain but we start with an idea like batteries, because we know how annoying and hard it is to get rid of them, then you can go as far off the deep end as you want there. [We also] try a bunch of stuff out, and the stuff that does work, we commit to, and follow that thread until its logical conclusion.
So many people are filmed. Do you have to get permission from each person?
Yes. The field producer will do his or her own thing [collecting footage] and afterwards, explain the concept. Sometimes they've seen the show and are happy to be a part of it. But we try to keep it pure while it's happening.
You're not in all of these shots?
Anything where I'm interacting with someone, that's me for sure. But if we might need a shot of flat tires or tangled wires, for example, those are scavenger hunt things that the second unit does a lot of the time. They also often see really cool stuff that I might never have seen myself. It's all POV, and seamless.
New York is your palette. Will you get out more in subsequent seasons?
New York is always the home base, but if the story brings me somewhere [it did this season, to Florida], then I'm always happy to go. I don't want to lean on travel too much.
Did you get out to Long Island much this season?
In the first episode, I go to visit my grandmother and there may have been one or two other Long Island scenes. I do love Long Island and I do want it represented on the show whenever I can and wherever the wind takes me.
What does your grandmother think about your remarkable career?
She's really proud of me and excited about it although I'm not sure she still fully knows the scale of it. But she has always supported me and she's glad that I'm happy. She's kind of passing away right now, in Jefferson's Ferry [Life Plan Community], near Smithtown. So the moment in the show was one of the last times she was upright. It became heavy in a way I didn't anticipate.
No spoilers here, but I do have to ask — that run-in you had with the NXIVM boss and your frequent appearances on courtroom shows? Say what?
I like to keep these things in my back pocket until I have the right framework for them. The NXIVM was something I've wanted to tell for a while, but nobody knew who it was [then] as the tabloids picked it up, I got a rush — oh my God, my time might actually come and I wouldn't feel this shame anymore. I had been in this guilt cycle — the a capella group was really upset with me [when Wilson confronted Raniere during an upstate a capella festival] but if we didn't blow up the whole event, who knows what butterfly effect might have happened?
But I do like to dip in and out of these little Forrest Gump moments [on the show] and court TV appearances were just something I've always done for whatever reason. [Laughs.]
Have you saved a lot of other Forrest Gump moments for future seasons?
Oh, yeah. Hopefully I get an opportunity to put them into something.