John Wilson on how to become a TV sensation

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

▶ Watch Video: How John Wilson makes his acclaimed “How To” videos

Day after day, the host of HBO’s “How To with John Wilson” roams New York City filming thousands of moments to put in his show.  

“Sunday Morning” contributor Kelefa Sanneh accompanied Wilson to a dumpster. Wilson said, “Let’s see what the NYPD throws out.”

“You must have hours and hours of dumpster footage,” said Sanneh.

“Every dumpster tells a story!”

John Wilson aims his camera at the underbelly of the New York City Police Department. 

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Considering the network’s cast of characters – Tony Soprano, Omar Little, Tyrion Lannister, Carrie Bradshaw – John Wilson knows he’s an unlikely star. He said he was as surprised as anyone when his own unassuming persona caught on:

“I was at a restaurant right after the show premiered, and someone asked me if anyone had ever told me that I look like John Wilson, which was really strange to me because they assumed that I knew who that was!”

At first, his idea was a tough sell.  “At one network they were like, ‘I don’t get it. You’re the host, but we don’t see you?'”

“They felt like this was going to waste, is what you’re saying?” asked Sanneh.

“Yeah. But, I always thought that I would be the least interesting part.”

Kelefa Sanneh with John Wilson. 

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He doesn’t sound like a typical TV announcer. “Someone told me that they wished that my voice was two octaves lower,” he laughed.

“That’s a weird wish for someone else to have!”

“Yeah, but it stuck with me.”

Wilson features people on the street, captured in unguarded moments. He sees his show as a kind of nature documentary, like the BBC’s “Planet Earth.”

Sanneh said, “You’re the David Attenborough, telling viewers what they’re seeing?”

“I think that might be insulting to David Attenborough!”

Wilson’s approach is a bit more “do-it-yourself.” He paints his own title cards on newspaper. 

“HBO doesn’t have people who can make signs?” asked Sanneh.

“I’m sure I could have had a title budget if I wanted one, but I’m more interested in the title as an art object in a way.”

“It’s like a warning for viewers, or an alert, that this show is literally homemade?”

“Yeah, it’s a warning!” Wilson laughed.

John Wilson’s high-end graphics. 

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The special paint he uses: Wite-Out. “Yeah, this is the only thing that HBO bought for the titles, was they supplied me with a few bottles of Wite-Out. I have to buy my own newspaper.”

Wilson grew up on New York’s Long Island. Using the family video camera, he turned his average teenage life into what he called “The Johnny Show.” “I made a movie every single day growing up,” he said. “It was just so fun to be able to make your friends laugh.”

He always had an eye for the obscure and the rejected … and sometimes he’s the one who’s rejected. While out with Sanneh, Wilson was approached by a security guard: “All right guys, unless you guys have a permit, you gotta move along.”

Wilson asked, “But, like, where does, like, the private space, like, begin and where does the public space end?”

“Well, the private space starts once you cross those lines,” the guard replied.

Busted! John Wilson and his camera encounter an occupational hazard. 

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His method is simple: just keep filming. Sanneh asked, “You feel a little safer when you’re holding that camera?”

“Filming is the one thing I don’t regret,” he said. “I regret so many other things that I do, but I never regret filming something.”

Ten years ago, he began posting “How To” videos online, like “How to Clean a Cast Iron Pan”:

Wilson said, “It was basically like a portrait of a friend of mine who didn’t clean up after himself.  And I just continued to make things in that style, because tutorials are a really elastic kind of format.”

In 2015, he tagged along during the making of a David Byrne documentary, called “Contemporary Color.” (“They had an extra spot in the van.”) Wilson called his film, “Temporary Color”:

It could have been called, “How to Get a Film Distributed.”  “I don’t even think David had approved me to be there,” Wilson said. “But then, after I made the movie, he saw it and he liked it so much that he put it on the DVD, and that was really nice.”

Soon, HBO took interest in his “How To” videos. “The tragedy is that you never really learn how to do the thing that I’m telling you how to do. But you kind of learn something about yourself, hopefully, in the process.”

“How To with John Wilson” premiered in October 2020 to enthusiastic reviews. Its second season just began. 

Sanneh asked, “Is there something therapeutic about making this show?”

“Yeah. You know, I think the show deals with a lot of personal issues of mine that I hope other people can relate to,” Wilson replied. “Every single episode is kind of this therapy.”

“Very public therapy for you!”

“Yeah. I don’t go to actual therapy, so everything in the show is very unprocessed. There’s something I really like about that. It kind of helps me cope with the world, in a way. And I hope it helps other people cope, too.”

He’s 35 now, and John Wilson has gone from posting pseudo instructional videos online to learning an unexpected lesson himself:  how to become a TV star. “Yeah, it’s a real Cinderella story!” he laughed.

To watch a trailer for Season 2 of “How To with John Wilson,” click on the video player below: 

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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: James Taylor.