A Few Thoughts about John Wilson, Futurama, and "The Leap"

"How To" is one of the great shows of our time.

A Few Thoughts about John Wilson, Futurama, and "The Leap"
Header image via YouTube/HBO.
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The poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert describes “the leap” as the moment in a poem, or really any work of art, where things get interesting. It’s a small moment, hardly dramatic or unusual, that essentially perks the reader’s ears. Think of it as an early punchline in a longer joke, offering a small taste of what's to come. Gabbert likens it to a tablecloth pulled out from under the world. “It reminds me that the next line, the next word, could always be anything.”

She offers a few examples of the device, but this is my newsletter and I’m going to give you some different examples. Consider one of my favorite poems, Steve Scafidi’s “Song for the Carry-On”:

SONG FOR THE CARRY ON / In the minute and a half it takes / for a plane to fall from the sky / there is time to pray for all of us / living now who will in this way / die the excruciating slow fall of / strangers cloud-high and plunging / down together and there is time / while the lights flicker and the fire / grows and the human noise stuns / everyone and all certainty disappears / except for the impending one now / rising up like cornfields or cities / to snatch us back—there is still / a moment or two in the chaos of / gravity to say something—it's OK— / It's OK. / Once as a boy my father helped / a sheep give birth and the thing was / stuck and so he put his hand inside / the body and pulled out a thick bouquet / of flowers—tulips, roses and a spray / of Queen Anne's lace. He was a boy. / He told me this when I was grown, / old enough to know better. It's ok. / Breath carries us and we fall away. / -Steve Scafidi
Broadside via stevescafidi.net.

To my eye, the leap seems to happen in that enjambed "way / die" in the movement from line four to line five. Until this point, we have no idea the poem is going to rhyme. Then it hits us with two rhymes in immediate succession, both of which use an unconventional structure—the end of a line rhymed with the beginning or middle of another—to create a sense of delayed release. The sudden musicality is disorienting, both because we weren’t expecting it and because it’s inherently pleasurable, a quality that seems to be in tension with the poem’s subject matter. This tension creates a forward momentum, a desire to see what happens next. So do the rhymes, their energy amplified by "high" a few words later. Here we see how the leap functions like a punchline. It makes you feel good, and it makes you want more of that good feeling.

Poetry, like comedy, trades in surprise. “The leap is the unpredictable,” Gabbert writes, “the word or phrase or idea or action that no one could foresee.” I like to think of it not exactly as something unexpected, but something I didn't even know was possible in the poem's internal universe. The leap is humbling in that way. It reminds me how little I actually understand. Consider Stephen Dobyns’ “How to Like It”:

The leap is when the dog starts talking, right? It’s a simple, silly little thing that tells us we’re in a different world with different rules. Sometimes a poem explores these rules to create a series of leaps, much in the same way that comedy uses game. This can be as simple as maintaining a common rhyme scheme or metrical pattern (or both), or it can be something more specific to the poem. I’m particularly fond of the way Christian Wiman’s “Every Riven Thing” keeps you on your toes:

Every Riven Thing
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.

I’m a sucker for poems that function as a sort of meditative act. I like to be lulled into a trance and then wakened out of it, lulled and wakened. Mostly I like to be reminded that new and strange things are hiding all around me, and I can find them if I only look.

Here I will join the chorus of voices hailing How To with John Wilson as one of the great shows of our time. I think it’s truly magical, to the point that I almost don’t want to think too hard about it. (And you know I love thinking too hard.) It wasn’t until last week’s episode that I realized how much of the show’s power comes from its willingness to take leaps. Really it’s an endless series of them. A thread about cooking risotto in the first season finale spins into a tangent about nicotine withdrawal, which spins into a fascinating interview with a man who has apparently never confronted the ethical implications of his smoke-spewing truck. (This is shortly before the episode transforms into a haunting record of the pandemic’s early days in New York City.) In the third season premiere, Wilson’s search for a public restroom lands him in a conversation with a woman getting ready to drive her RV to Burning Man. He asks if he can go with her, and with one wonderful smash-cut they’re on the road together.

It’s so beautifully simple. By subordinating his own presence and following his curiosity wherever it leads—by treating everyone and everything as potential subjects—Wilson consistently ends up in places I never would have expected, often because I had no idea they even exist.

More remarkably still, he finds compelling human depths in these places, even the ones that might initially seem like fodder for humor: the Avatar fan group in season two, for instance, or the convention for vacuum enthusiasts in last week’s “How to Watch the Game.” I think this episode is one the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. I encourage you to watch it tonight if you haven’t already. Without getting too deeply into it, I want to highlight one small example of how it uses the leap. This isn’t exactly a show you can spoil, but I’ll try to avoid giving away too much about the episode’s surprises.

“How to Watch the Game” finds Wilson inviting a few friends over to watch the big game. (It’s not specified which.) As he’s cleaning up his apartment, he discovers that his vacuum cleaner is broken, so he takes it to a local repair shop. There he picks up a flyer for a vacuum cleaner collectors’ convention, to which he promptly sets off. The story will eventually climax in a conversation with one of these collectors, a 64-year-old man named Joe. That comes later. When Wilson introduces us to Joe, at a board meeting early in the convention, he does so with a two-second shot of the man's face. He appears to us unnamed, his expression sullen and bored, listening or perhaps not listening to a discussion of mundane business concerns. The camera turns to the speaker, then to a cell phone resting on another attendee's lap. A ringtone goes off—Katy Perry’s “Roar,” not exactly what you’d expect from this mostly middle-aged and male crowd. The camera moves to reveal that the offending phone is not the one in the frame; it's Joe’s. He silences it, then covers his face in a mix of amusement and embarrassment.

Again, it’s a small and simple moment. And really it's the setup for a much richer payoff later in the episode. But like that rhyme in the Steve Scafidi poem, it jolts us into seeing things in a surprising new light. That Wilson and his team manage this again and again in every episode, teasing out the complexity in what seems like every background player they meet, is a staggering achievement.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last month, Wilson described the rigor that goes into his show, much of which he attributes to the influence of executive producer Nathan Fielder:

But as for Nathan, like one example, in the very first episode I used a bunch of shots of mannequin faces to express some thought. And then in the second episode I was like, “Let’s use some mannequins again.” And he is just like, “No, we used that earlier.” That was the first time I was like, “Oh, OK, so don’t ever go backwards. Just keep the material fresh.” That was this philosophy that has extended until now: continue to surprise people, don’t regress, stuff like that.

I was thinking of this as I caught up on the new Futurama reboot, which I find terribly disappointing. There’s no surprise to the show, nothing fresh about its vision of the 31st century. It seems as if the writers ran out of ideas for the future and turned to clumsy transpositions of the present. (To be fair, this was also a problem with the previous reboot.) The first episode is about Fry binge-watching TV. The third is about Bitcoin. The fifth is about Amazon. I gather from episode titles that we’ll soon get Futurama’s take on anti-vaxxers and cancel culture, which—well, I'll reserve my judgment. The show has always placed modern-day people and things in the future, it's true, but this time around the references are patronizingly literal (why introduce "Momazon" when MomCorp already served the same function?) and the beats are much too familiar. The Bitcoin episode’s Old West pastiche offers nothing that can’t be found in season three’s “Where the Buggalo Roam,” while this week’s out-of-control Alexa parody combines the best parts of “Mother’s Day” and “Love and Rocket,” right down to the HAL references. It just doesn’t have the juice.

“There is a sense in which a writer must abandon their knowledge to get better,” Gabbert writes, citing other writers who warned that once you master a particular mode or effect, you can either leave it behind or condemn yourself to writing paler and paler self-imitations. I’ll keep watching Futurama; I am nothing if not a loyal fan. But I will do so in the hopes that it eventually takes a page out of John Wilson’s book—hell, out of its own book—and leaves the past behind, going out in search of something we haven't seen before, something we wouldn’t even know to expect.

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