HBO’s How To With John Wilson returned for a second season last month, with the same wonderful blend of curiosity and empathy that marked its debut. The season-one finale inadvertently became one of the most affecting accounts of life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was one of the many reasons the show has taken off.
Series creator and director John Wilson is glad that his crash course in risotto making resonated with so many, but he wasn’t about to rest on his laurels for season two. He wanted the second season to be even better; as he tells The A.V. Club, “I want to improve every single time I make anything.” The question, of course, was how to make season two a more expansive outing for the show, while retaining its compassionate ethos. We spoke to Wilson about that, as well as what to do with toxic people, and if he’d ever revisit any of his previous subjects.
The A.V. Club: Here’s something probably a lot of people are wondering after that season-one finale—are you still making risotto? Did it become a pandemic hobby for you?
John Wilson: I haven’t touched Arborio rice since I wrapped that episode. I just realized that I didn’t want to perfect it any more. I had a phase with it, but everyone goes in and out of phases in the same way. I mean, I tried to make bread too, at one point, and I wasn’t very good at that either. So I dropped that. But yeah, I think that the main hobby was always just filming, like just going out on my bike and filming as much as I possibly could, especially during the off-season.
AVC: In the same way that viewers couldn’t have guessed where “How To Cook The Perfect Risotto” would lead, there was no way of knowing that your show would resonate with people the way it has. How have you taken in the response to the first season?
JW: It’s been really overwhelming. I did not think that this weird little story would resonate with so many people. It’s a unique format, and it’s hard to pitch. It was hard for me to pitch to HBO. I didn’t really know how to do it, but they trusted that we could pull something like this off.
It’s cool that people have seen the show. And that even helps with producing it sometimes—like in season one, I would say people didn’t really know what it was, and they would be maybe a little unsure if they wanted to be part of a docu-comedy show, because that kind of has maybe a stigma sometimes. And now that the show is out, there’s almost this proof of concept out there, and people can understand the tone of everything and I think feel comfortable opening up in certain ways.
AVC: In an interview you did with Vanity Fair, you mentioned that you never want the person you’re interviewing to feel like they’re being made fun of. How do you walk that line, or make sure they don’t feel that way?
JW: It’s really not that hard. You just kind of have to meet people on their level. I’m genuinely interested in anyone that’s genuinely interested in anything. And if there’s humor in that, you don’t really need to comment on it, because it’s a personal thing, whether or not you find it funny. Someone was asking me about the Avatar people [who appear in season two] and how some people may see Avatar as a weird movie to be obsessed with, but there’s just something just so wonderful about these people that are obsessed with it. And the community that they built around that is so much richer and so much more interesting than any joke you can make. It’s not worth it to me, to burn bridges with the people that are offering so much to me.
I feel so great that I have good relationships with the people from season one, like the Mandela effect people. The international Mandela effect Twitter, they’re constantly tweeting about their appearance on the show and promoting it, and they’re proud of it.
I like to give people the microphone that don’t usually have it, and I like to keep their messaging intact, so that you could lift each little section out of each episode. And it could just be something that they could use themselves as a real representation of the kind of message they want to put out into the world.
AVC: People have lingering questions about season one, and will probably have them about season two as well. I would like to know what happened to the stove store!
JW: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: You’ve said that you don’t want sort of “George Lucas” your own work and go back and change things or overdo it. But do you ever think, “Hey, we could do a little one-off with some updates”?
JW: You mean like, what do they call them—like a reunion episode? I don’t know. I don’t like to revisit material a lot of the time. It was even a big decision for me [in season two] to include stuff about where I used to live in that warehouse. I used that in an old Vimeo short, like a part of it. And I really didn’t want to use the same material again. But one of my EPs, Michael Koman, was just like, “You’re overthinking it. It’s fine. It’s as if you told the joke at a really small comedy club, and now you’re performing at Madison Square Garden. And so, you can tell the same joke again. It’s fine.”
But I don’t know. Each episode is locked in a very specific time and place. I’m happy to have conversations with people about things that have changed since then. But, a lot of the time, unless it weaves into some other kind of future narrative, I don’t really want to revisit if I don’t have to.
AVC: You’re showing a lot more restraint in a lot of programming executives and stuff who just wants prequels and spin-offs.
JW: [Laughs.] My landlord makes a couple of appearances in this season. And that’s definitely something—that’s like a familiar character, but the story is just evolving. And I’m fine, giving people what they want there, if people want that, just because that’s organic. And I’m not trying to shoehorn it in where it would normally fit.
AVC: How do you break a season for a show like this? Do you work your way down from the larger topic? For example, how you end up going from talking about bringing wine to a house party, to talking about a cappella, to talking about your brush with the NXIVM cult.
JW: Yeah. I mean, it’s a process that I can’t really pin down, or I don’t know if I could teach a class as to how this happens. I mean, like wine. It started with wine. I genuinely had that anxiety that is represented in the intro to the episode. And then within the writers’ room, I would just kind of think about all the different ways that it could be interpreted or misinterpreted and the other anxieties that people have about being taken advantage of, or just kind of following a crowd and the dangers involved with that.
And like when I went on the boat to try wine with all these wine people, in that moment, I film it. And there was this weird thing that started happening, where I just started being agreeable. And then we go back into the script, and it’s like, “Okay, let’s blow this whole thing apart”. And now we’re at this point, where I’m dealing with a new problem and what historically relates with that in my life. And how could we potentially just add depth to this? You know? So the writing process, it never stops.
AVC: Your show is very empathetic; it’s like you’re fostering greater understanding of not just certain skills, but of people. This approach can get thorny in an episode like “How To Throw Out Your Old Batteries,” which raises questions about what do we do with the people that society deems undesirable or unwanted. How did that episode come about?
JW: Yeah. That episode was definitely, just like the one with wine, it started with these batteries. I like subjects that don’t have an immediate easy solution, because there’s a lot of kind of metaphorical potential in there. And so, I try to throw out these batteries, but then it just doesn’t work. And I just begin to think about waste in general, and then also this emotionally radioactive stuff that we have around. And I don’t know why I hold on to certain things. Like, I never want anyone else to find them, and I don’t want to see them either.
With the sex offender stuff, I did not intend for that to be the ending at all. I tried so much stuff with that episode, like with the guy with the leg and the wildlife conservatory thing. And yeah, I like to start with something small and then take it to a cliff, just take it to its logical or maybe even illogical kind of endpoint: Within us, what is the most taboo, hard to acknowledge stuff in society?
I really like to volley back and forth between extremely buoyant and lighthearted subject matter, and really grim, dark subject matter that makes people question their own biases and maybe confront something that they may not want to confront. There really is no easy answer to the sex offender stuff, but it’s like the way that he explained it was just so… It was a perspective. I hadn’t really heard before, or seen it like represented anywhere. And even though it’s not an easy pill to swallow, it is something that we can’t just ignore. You know?
And then, yeah, without spoiling anything, then this fucking insane thing happens right next to us, which became the most potent kind of symbolic thing for the whole episode. And then that becomes the ending—you kind of just build everything towards that in one way or another.
AVC: Like you said, it’s a perspective we don’t hear a lot about, and it’s in part because some people would rather not hear about it. We’re still just getting around to giving a proper platform to the victims and survivors, but it’s also just something we can’t ignore.
JW: Yeah. I mean, it’s like restorative justice is also in the conversation as well. How do we reintroduce extremely toxic individuals back into society in this way? And is the viewer even willing to take that leap? I mean, he said a lot, and he even talked about his crime, but I just didn’t want–that didn’t feel right to put in. I more so wanted to focus on the very real physical locations that these people are housed in, in a way.
AVC: The batteries episode really ends up so far from where it starts; the second season really feels bigger than the first for that reason. Was that your goal for the second season, to make it more expansive than the first one?
JW: I wanted it to be better. I wanted it to be more expansive. I wanted to finally deploy all of these embarrassing little pieces of my personal history that I wasn’t sure people were prepared for in the first season. I did not want it to feel diminished, like a diet version of the first season. I only wanted things to get better, and… I don’t know. I want to improve every single time I make anything.