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John Wilson steals cool stuff
The YOUNG HBO KING talks Dr. Zizmor-jawn-swiping, Coney Island freak-shooting, Safdie Bros.-befriending & more
HBO’s How To With John Wilson: Many people are saying it’s “the TV event of 2020,” “the no. 1 documentary-comedy series of 2020,” and “the no. 1 greatest show of 2020 in a tie with I May Destroy You.”
All these people ?? … are right ! Over 6 episodes, NYC filmmaker John Wilson captures his native city in ways that are funny, poignant and — in episode 4 — retina-scarringly strange. (Also, eagle-eyed jawnspotters will clock the sick toasted 990s he rocks throughout.)
We first caught wind of John’s stuff when BBSP SpyFriend Nathan Fielder told us about the new show, at which point we watched a bunch of John’s old online shorts and rapidly confirmed their extreme DOPENESS. (We f**k particularly heavy with “The Road to Magnasanti” and “The Spiritual Life of Wholesale Goods” — all are linked below.)
Since How To With John Wilson is the No. 1 work of art across all television for “unbeatable documenting” of funny under-the-radar phenomena, and since Blackbird Spyplane is the No. 1 source across all media for “unbeatable recon” on dope under-the-radar joints, it was ONLY NATURAL that we bang John’s line and ask him about some of his own personal rare & cherished possessions…
Blackbird Spyplane: All my friends love yr show — what’s the response been like for you?
John Wilson: “I was worried when we were editing that people wouldn’t want to time-travel back to a pre-pandemic era. I thought they might think it was crass to see me talking about these, like, pre-Covid problems. But it seems people are finding it refreshing! Someone actually recognized me in a thrift store the other day, which hasn’t happened before. Beyond that my personal physical reality hasn’t really changed much — I did go stand under my billboard for a few days when it was in Times Square, and every person who walked by, I’d say, ‘That’s me.’”
Blackbird Spyplane: U gotta make the most of a Times Square billboard !
John Wilson: “I was curious what would happen to it when they took it down, so I talked to a scaffolder outside One Times Square, and he put me in touch with a woman who put me in touch with another woman at the billboard company, and I called her and said, ‘Can I have it?’ and she was really nice and said, ‘Sure.’ So I took this massive piece of vinyl, folded up real compact, back home on the subway to Queens, and it’s in my apartment now. I sort of regret it because it’s the kind of thing that can really only exist in Times Square — I don’t know what to do with it. It’s huge.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Speaking of iconic NYC signage at yr crib, u have a framed Dr. Zizmor subway ad !?
John Wilson: “My parents would get angry at me growing up because I’d pilfer, like, things you couldn’t buy from places, like signs. This is something I stole relatively recently: A Dr. Zizmor ad was the holy grail for me, so one day I finally decided I was going to get one. I rode a car till it was empty and I took the ad and the plexiglass, because I wanted to frame it and didn’t want to pay for that. And shortly afterward all the Zizmor ads disappeared — I had no idea this decades-long ad-run was going to end, but it did, and now I’m like, Oh my god. These were such a cool piece of New York history.
“I also stole a Cellino & Barnes ad recently — when Barnes’s plane crashed, I went out and got a poster from a subway station. And the new ads with just Cellino on them went up before Barnes’s body was cold, so I’m glad I got this one.”
Blackbird Spyplane: So you were born in Astoria and moved to Long Island as a kid. I was born in Brooklyn and moved to Staten Island as a kid, which is a pretty parallel journey. I’ve always thought there’s something unique about growing up so close to Manhattan but just outside of it — do you think being an “L.I. Boy” shaped the way you see & shoot NYC?
John Wilson: “For sure. When I was a kid, my dad used to bring me to P.S. 1 and the Museum of the Moving Image all the time — P.S. 1 was like my playground. And then I went to middle school and high school in Long Island, and the suburbs were such a drab place by comparison. But they’re even worse now — there used to at least be a bowling alley and a mini-golf course, and now it’s, like, a Petco and a Kohl’s. I worked at this deli for years that was one of the last mom-and-pop places in my neighborhood — and it just turned into a 7-Eleven last year.
“So I think there’s a preservationist thing to what I do — so much of the New York City from my childhood has disappeared already. ”
Blackbird Spyplane: There’s a similar appeal for me when I watch your stuff and when I watch stuff from the Safdies — they split their childhood between Manhattan and Queens, so they have that real “outerborough P.O.V.” as well…
John Wilson: “Josh and Benny are doing some of the most accurate New York stuff right now. We’re friends, and Josh and I have been texting during, like, the premiere of my series, and he’s been telling me about little things he’s working on and things that remind him of the stuff I’m doing…
“I love the way their stuff is shot, but Josh and Benny and I have different styles — they tend to have very tight shots, you rarely get these panoramic wide shots in their stuff, whereas I want to have a more full-frame depiction of New York. I can’t fit enough into the frame. I want you to be totally hit in the head with the image — in a William Eggleston way, it’s these kind of really boring shots of this really banal stuff but there’s a beauty to it.”
“But yeah, all the little artifacts of bygone New York that I do have are important to me. There’s this photo of me in Coney Island as a kid. The ‘Shoot the Freak’ there was one of my favorite things — it was fucked-up to shoot a lethargic kid covered in hockey pads with an air-gun, but I still think Coney Island is one of the coolest places in the world.
“There’s also this one Coney Island mural I loved, on the side of a clam shack that might have been called Joey’s, because it had this guy spinning a clam and saying, ‘HEY JOEY!’ I loved it so much, I actually painted a huge version of it in a loft I was living in. I was actively trying to re-create this stuff I’d lost.”
Blackbird Spyplane: How To With John Wilson Episode 2 features footage from a conference u attended about the Mandela Effect, which is this phenomenon where ppl are convinced they remember a historical event happening, but it didn’t actually happen, or they remember a brand name being spelled a way that it isn’t actually spelled … A popular explanation they offer is that, in these moments, alternate timelines and multiverses are being revealed. Did u keep anything from the conference?
John Wilson: “Oh yeah, when I saw that they had a Mandela Effect merch table I got very excited because I wouldn’t really know where else to get these books, and the authors were right in front me and they signed the books and wrote nice messages in them.
“That conference was really hard to cut down for the episode, because everything was so fun to engage with. I’m looking at one of the books now and this woman is writing about how she’s sure McDonald’s used to be spelled ‘MacDonald’s’ … So much of the Mandela Effect has to do with logos and product names, and to me it’s like, these are all things you don’t usually pay very close attention to for a reason! But they don’t think about it like that.
“I had a lot of fun hanging out with them, though, because my memory’s not good either, so I felt like a celebrity just for misremembering things they’d never heard of anyone else misremembering — they’d get excited, like, ‘That’s a timeline I haven’t heard before!’”
In this Thursday’s newsletter we’ve got BONUS John Wilson intel featuring some of his all-time favorite documentary filmmakers & books …
-The full “Blackbird Spyplane Interview” archive with such luminaries of the arts & sciences as Nathan Fielder, Jerry Seinfeld, André 3000, Lorde, Rashida Jones, Emily Bode, Ezra Koenig, Online Ceramics and more — is here.
ALL our life-improving “UNBEATABLE RECON” is at BlackbirdSpyplane.com