David Rees on How to Make a “How-To” Show
Fans of the 2001-2009 comic strip Get Your War On will be happy to know that David Rees, the man behind the cult classic political send-up, is back with a new project. Only this time, Rees has his sights set on ice cubes, shoelaces, and holes.
Going Deep with David Rees, which premiered Monday on National Geographic channel, is a how-to show that puts tasks we take for granted – say, swatting a fly – under the microscope. It’s a testament to Rees’s abilities as a humorist that he’s so easily able to pivot from blunt critiques of post-9/11 U.S. politics to the dry, though entirely earnest wit he brings to his show explaining the best way to open doors.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Rees about his new show, how he came to be involved with artisanal pencil sharpening, and why he was relieved to discover the scientific community loves heavy metal.
Can you tell me how Going Deep with David Rees came together? I’m guessing this is something that was an offshoot of How to Sharpen Pencils. It has the same sensibility.
Totally. I had been touring doing these workshops on pencil sharpening and pencil sharpening classes, doing lectures and stuff, and published the book, obviously, and then a couple friends of mine who were TV producers came to me and said they wondered if there’s something we could do here that would work on television. We decided in the end to take the spirit of the pencil sharpening project, which is teaching people to think more deeply about pencil sharpening than they’re used to. Taking something familiar and making it weird and exotic – anything in the world that seems like there’s nothing to learn about, that’s what we want to learn about.
Was this your first foray into TV? Pitching a show, writing, producing and everything?
My experience with TV is I once wrote on a pilot for John Hodgman, and I had also pitched one or two shows with my writing partner. But this is the first thing where I was totally involved: executive producer, going to series, on-camera, all that stuff. Also, I made all the illustrations, the animations, a lot of the music, and we shot at my house. I was very involved in this TV production.
No on-camera experience? You seem very comfortable in the clips that I’ve seen.
Thank you. No. I’ve done a lot of live performing. I used to be a cartoonist, and I would give readings of my cartoons using an overhead projector. I’d done a little standup and obviously the pencil sharpening thing had a live component. I’ve been interviewed on the TV news, like “Here’s this man who’s sharpening pencils.” But the crew from the show has been great. When we started, I didn’t necessarily know not to turn my back to the camera. They had to coach me very carefully on how to be an effective TV host, how not to cross the line with whoever I’m interviewing, the way to be so the camera can position to get a reaction shot, all that stuff.
The point of the show is the how-to show about all these different topics, but also, while that was going on, it was a how-to show for me about how to make a TV show, which we totally acknowledged in the episodes. It was my experience on this project, and I wanted it to be true to that experience, which is a bunch of people driving around in a van and just interviewing experts and interesting people about how to tie shoes and stuff.
Can you tell us some interesting stories from the show? I’d love to hear more about Professor Shoelace or any other interesting characters you met along the way.
Here’s the thing: making a TV show is a great excuse to do things you always wanted to do and never have for whatever time or logistical reasons. We did an episode on how to climb a tree because basically, when I was growing up in North Carolina, there was a huge magnolia tree in the front yard and my parents wouldn’t let me climb it and I always wanted to climb it. I thought, “If I have to climb it as part of a TV show, my parents will have to support that.” Not only did I get to climb that tree, but I also got to go to the Redwood Forest in California, and I had always wanted to go and see these 3,000 year-old Redwoods, which was incredible. Or for “How To Shake Hands,” we got access to cadaver specimens of arms and hands. That was actually really profound because they had cut open the arm and tied strings to all the ligaments so when you pulled the string, you could watch the finger bend over and flex into the palm of the hand. That was obviously very heavy for a lot of reasons.
The experts totally make the show. Maybe it’s because we’re on National Geographic, but we got access to some amazing people. We talked to a chief scientist at NASA at Edwards Air Force Base about paper airplane design. He had come up with an innovation in airplane length design that most people in the industry still refuse to believe is true. And he was explaining it to me, and I had this flash like, “I’m literally in the presence of genius.” “Genius” is thrown around a lot, but this was one of the rare moments in my life where I was like, “Oh my god, this man is literally a genius. This is incredible that he’s sitting here talking to me.” The whole reason I showed up was because I wanted to get better at throwing a paper airplane. So moments like that are really incomparable, amazing, and fun and very much in the spirit of the TV show.
Did you get the sense that these experts you talked to were invested in what you were doing? Were they ever like, “What is this silly show you’re doing?”
Again, I think being on National Geographic goes a long way towards legitimizing it. And I think our research staff and pre-production people were really, really good at explaining the spirit and the mission of the show, which is like, “You know, we do want to talk to you about shoelaces. The episode is about shoelaces, but also what it’s really about is the structural integrity of knots and how knots work.” The show is about how to light a match but we’re also interested in whether fire is predictable phenomenon or if it’s truly chaotic. So most people really get into it because we appreciate most scientists and most specialists are also totally focused on one part of a phenomena.
The interesting thing is, when I would show up sometimes you could tell they were worried that it was going to be like a Daily Show bit or a Borat bit where I’m going to make fun of them because I’m always dressed the same. I wear a black apron, it’s kind of the uniform of the show, kind of goofy. But usually after a couple minutes they realize like, “Okay, we’re about to go off. You really want to learn about this? Let’s go.” And then they would usually have a lot of fun, which was important because one of the things that was really crucial for me and for the spirit of the show was to present these scientists or craftsmen or whatever and give a sense of them outside of their professional identity. You know a lot of times when you watch the news and they have a scientist on, he’s got glasses, he’s just stating his facts, and obviously that’s appropriate, but I always wonder what that person is like.
I love talking to the experts about what kind of music they like. It turns out a lot of scientists are super into heavy metal, which is very surprising and encouraging. There are a lot of scenes of me singing heavy metal with scientists that we had cut out for licensing reasons. But the heavy music is really prevalent in the scientific community, which made me totally excited. I guess what I’m saying is a big part of the show is showing the personality of these very intelligent people and kind of celebrating that, not just in terms of what they do on their resume but how they are in real life, which is really fun.
Is it safe to say that you have at least a little bit of a fascination with what some people would consider the mundane, such as pencils, knots, holes? The overlooked aspects of life?
I think that my favorite thing about the pencil sharpening project, other than all the money I made sharpening pencils, is this idea that people would assume it was a joke. And they would come to my live events and assume it was going to be some crazy standup performance in character. There was a lot of humor in it, but at the end of those events I’d always say, “And now, if you guys have any questions about pencils or pencil sharpeners, you should ask me.” And then I would answer their questions and people would have this realization like, “Oh, this dude knows what he’s talking about. He did his homework.” And then people would start to ask sincere questions like, “Why is the pencil yellow?” “Does the pencil have lead in it?”
My hope was always that people would realize how interesting pencils are. A pencil represents 500 years of engineering and experimentation and materials research and stuff, and by extension how interesting the whole world is if you just decide to take a minute and get out a magnifying glass and just really study the shit out of shoelaces. To us, shoelaces are incredible. That was the total mission of the show. We live in this society that really values spectacle and the latest gizmos and gadgets. Part of the spirit of our show is that anything can be interesting. It’s just a matter of perspective and how obsessed with it you get. There are things that other people are obsessed with that I do not understand, like baseball. So we’re trying to bring that shift of perspective to everyday things that you would never think twice about, like opening a door. Seriously, opening a door is an incredibly complex series of psychological and physical maneuvers.
Can you retrace the origins of How to Sharpen Pencils and what made you decide this was something you wanted to explore and write about?
I was a political cartoonist back when Bush was president, and then I quit and I didn’t have anything else lined up. The economy collapsed, and I ran out of money. So I got a job working for the Census in the summer of 2010, just as a door knocker. All those Census forms are filled out in pencil, so we had to sharpen our pencils on the first day of staff training. And I had so much fun sharpening pencils, I just asked myself, “I wonder if I can get paid just sharpening pencils. I don’t want to go out and knock on doors and get yelled at by strangers. I want my job to be sharpening pencils.”
So that’s when I started the artisanal pencil sharpening business, and that kind of took off and exceeded my expectations and led to a book deal. It was in researching and writing the book that I really came to appreciate how amazing pencils are. That’s what got me thinking about all these ideas about taking something you do every day without really thinking about it and drilling it down. Taking familiar things and making them weird again is healthy and useful sometimes. That’s the spirit of the pencil sharpening project and, by extension, that’s the spirit of this TV show.
When you were sharpening pencils at the census, what made it fun for you? Were you ever asking yourself, “Why am I having so much fun doing a task most people don’t enjoy doing?”
For me, a big part of it was nostalgia. I hadn’t been using pencils because I’m left-handed and you get graphite smudges on the side of your hand. And it’s also all the sensory stuff, like the sound of it, the smell of the graphite. And then it was just like, “Oh, I’m pretty good at this.” I bet if I really applied myself, I could get super super good with pencils.
So when you were working for the Census, did you ever have a sense that you might be leaving life as an artist and just find a regular day job?
Oh, totally. It’s great to make money on creative stuff, but if you’re a freelancer, it can be incredibly stressful and unstable. I have friends with real salaries, pensions, retirement plans, and 401Ks, paid vacations. That’s incredible to me. And also the stability is something that I really miss. I understand now, whatever, we’re in late-stage post-industrial capitalism and crippling social order so stability in a job or career are more precious. But I definitely have fantasies about just getting a good job. It sucks to not have money. It sucks to have to pitch to people and get rejected. It sucks to wonder if you’ve wasted your entire life and to wonder why you majored in Philosophy in the first place, like why didn’t you study medicine or whatever? But as of this afternoon, I feel okay with all of that.
That’s great. I just love the idea that you had this germ of a concept of “Hey, I kind of like sharpening pencils” one thing leads to another, and now you have a TV show. It’s very cool.
When you put it like that, it makes it sound like I had a master plan, but I didn’t. I mean, my creative career has mostly just been stumbling from one accidental thing to another.
I also know you from The Best Show on WFMU. You were one of the great guests in the pantheon of Best Show guests, and I was just wondering how you got to know Tom [Scharpling] and how you became involved with the show.
I think I heard about The Best Show from Mac [McCaughan] from Superchunk and Merge Records because Jon Wurster plays drums with Superchunk. I think Mac had told me – I’m from Chapel Hill, which is where Merge Records is from, and I guess Jon Wurster lives down there sometimes? I think I was on tour with John Hodgman and a bunch of us were at a bar and I guess Jon Wurster was there and I remember Mac being like “You should listen to this guy he’s funny, he takes phone calls, blah, blah, blah.” Then I got back to New York and I started listening to it and I got completely obsessed with it. Probably made me laugh harder than anything else in 10 or 15 years.
Then John Hodgman was invited on and he just brought me along. I think that’s how I met Scharpling. And then after that, I think I went on once or twice, but it was always super fun, obviously. It was pure entertainment. To do your radio show and be able to draw on a comedy bit for 45 minutes is just such a unique way of pacing and structuring comedy as opposed to when you have a super tight 7 minutes or your web video that’s only 2 minutes or a sketch that’s maybe 7 minutes at the longest. They were just operating at a whole different level. It was an amazing body of work, totally great showcase for comedy and originality, just like a real positive vibe. I really miss it. It was incredible.
Such a loss. Hopefully they get something else going. Didn’t you do a segment on there – “Ask Doctor Pencil” or something, where people would call in – am I remembering that correctly?
Yeah, there was one time when I went on, I guess it was when my book had come out. We just took caller questions on the air about pencils for like 45 minutes. That was super, super fun.
That was hilarious. I also want to ask you a general question. I particularly like the dichotomy in your humor. There’s the dry inquisitiveness – How to Sharpen Pencils, Going Deep, etc. versus the writing you did for Get Your War On, which was much more caustic and profane. Which would be closer to your own natural sense of humor when you’re not performing or creating?
That’s interesting because obviously – I don’t see any overlap between those two at all, and it’s probably just because they represent different sides of my personality or just different interests. I feel like I’m not a talented enough artist where I could make something that sums up my entire identity or all of my interests, so everything gets spread out into these weird very specific projects, you know? Like whether it’s Get Your War On because I’m interested and frustrated with politics or live-tweeting when I work at my friend’s wine store because I love deliberately banal anti-humor, or going in deep which is trying to access the spirit of discovery and celebration that maybe I lost when I stopped believing in God. [Laughs.] I don’t know how psychological you want to get, but I feel like all of those different things are just little pieces of my identity and I don’t know how to turn them all into one cohesive thing, so I just do a bunch of different projects.
I think anyone who would watch your show would think “Wait, this is the same guy who wrote Get Your War On?”
The thing about having a career like that is that people hop on board for one project and then you do something else and they’re like, “What are you doing goofing off on something with pencils, you need to get back to calling Dick Cheney a war criminal.” It’s like being on an out of control train that’s taking corners too fast, kind of running off the rails. Some people hop on board, stay for a while, jump off. Other people get really pissed and abandon ship – talking about ships I know I started by talking about trains – and then some people are just like, “Yeah, whatever.” They’re along for the ride, and you know, I feel the same way about performers and writers. You like some of the stuff they do and then you’re like, “Why did they make that decision? That makes no sense.” But that’s the way it goes.
I enjoyed Codefellas, and that was your project as well, right? You co-created that?
Thank you. Yes. That was something where Brian Spinks, the executive producer, was approached by Wired and they said we want you to make something based on this Codefellas idea, and then he brought me on and Bob Powers – Bob’s a really funny comedy writer – and then we cast Hodgman and Emily Heller as the two characters. That was super fun. I hope we get to make more of those.
Were you pretty charged up about the whole NSA surveillance program? Like how you were when you wrote Get Your War On?
The thing about Get Your War On – when I started it, that was just a crazy, intense time. I started that like a month after 9/11. I was just hearing a lot, like everybody. I just had a lot going inside my head when I started that. And it was when I was kind of fumbling around in the dark, trying to figure out how I felt about those issues. Now I kind of feel like I’ve made my mind up on a lot of them. With the NSA thing, I was pretty surprised – everyone tries to be very jaded and cool – I guessed the NSA was doing it, I just assumed it. It’s still pretty insane the type of access and abuse that’s possible within the NSA. It wasn’t as emotional for me as Get Your War On. I didn’t feel like we were just blowing smoke, it still feels like a significant set of civil liberty issues and security issues, the type of access that they have, but it was much more character-based than Get Your War On. We really did try to write two actual characters with very specific histories and sensibilities and have those characters play off each other and not just have it be jokes about current events.
Are you guys going to do another season of that?
I think there’s some kind of contract thing going on. I’m probably not qualified to say.
I also love your Best of 2013 lists on your website. It seems like you were ahead of your time with your commentary on our obsession with lists.
Thank you. That’s the thing I was saying about having different parts of your personality. I would say, of everything I’ve done in the past five years, those lists probably made me laugh more than anything else.
It’s because they’re so dumb and silly. I love stuff like that.
Considering your fascination with them, what do you think of our list culture? Everything is a Buzzfeed list now, what does that say about us? I’m deferring to your expertise here.
I don’t know. I will say that I never – almost on principle that I do not click on internet lists. It feels like empty calories when it comes down to the actual contents. I really tried to avoid that. It feels just so noisy and cynical in a way. But obviously I’m into lists, I’m always asking people like, “What are your five favorite bands?” “What are your five favorite vegetables?” I mean, it’s a quick and easy way to prioritize things, that’s the use of a list, but it makes me sad to see lists move from casual conversation culture into so called “journalistic” serious culture. It feels kind of degrading to me. Now I sound like William F. Buckley, Jr., but that’s kind of how I feel.
[Laughs] That’s the answer I was hoping for.
Going Deep With David Rees airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on National Geographic.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.