Trainer to 9/11 Hijacker Is ‘Proud’

John Wilson goes from getting stoned at home every night to getting ripped in his latest episode of How To with John Wilson, which aired Friday night on HBO. It’s an inspirational path, even if it leads him to the strangest people in the world—like body-builders participating in a 9/11-themed competition, cat photographers, and giant pumpkin growers.

Wilson gets the idea for this episode—which is all about how to work out—from a muscularly built steward he sees on a flight. The man, he says, has biceps that look like “they might burst out of his uniform.” Wilson yearns to have a hulking bod. But he’ll be the first to admit: He looks a little like a couch potato at the moment. (Don’t we all, after the pandemic?)

After a harrowing stop at Planet Fitness, where Wilson feels threatened by the neon banana hues, the filmmaker visits his first subject. This episode is full of out-of-the-box characters, perhaps the weirdest Wilson has ever found. They only get more bizarre as the episode goes on. The first is a chronic masturbator. Wilson applauds him for being so committed to his craft. In fact, Wilson wishes he had the motivation to commit himself to something in the same way that the obsessive masturbator has done with pleasing himself.

So, he looks past the blinding yellow pull-up bars at Planet Fitness and tries again. But not long after that, Wilson hires a personal trainer who sends him on another detour. In order to see how far his training has come, the fitness instructor suggests, Wilson should take a photograph of himself now. Leave it to Wilson to find the wonkiest person to take the “Before” pic: a photographer at a cat show.

Wilson fills out all the paperwork to pay for the “semi-nude photos” that will be taken by this feline photographer. (His “breed” is Irish, his “color” is white, and his “owner” is HBO.) But after he has the pics taken, the photographer’s equipment is stolen. Wilson asks a novelist who writes cat detective stories to help him out, and while she can’t crack the case, she does finally take those Before pictures on her personal camera.

But then Wilson starts to worry that fitness has consumed him. Everything is protein to this man who wants so badly to be buff. He daydreams that ferrets are actually sausages. In a clever bit, he hallucinates that a line of cops are actually bacon. Get it? Pigs?

To figure out what it would be like to devote an entire life to being in overlit rooms with giant fans and dozens of treadmills, Wilson heads to a body-building competition in Manhattan. But it’s not just any body-building competition. This one is specifically 9/11 themed. There’s no real rhyme or reason. There are just a few banners that display the Twin Towers and say “Never Forget.” If you’re as intrigued as I was, you can stalk what appears to be their official Instagram.

The people competing seem miserable, having put their entire life into morphing their bodies and getting teased over it. The only happy person Wilson can find is a trainer who helps body-builders get into shape.

John Wilson at a giant pumpkin growing contest.

Wilson invites himself over to this trainer’s gym, where he learns about another connection to 9/11. One of this instructor’s clients became a hijacker involved with 9/11. It’s a harrowing moment for Wilson, who can only manage to ask how that makes the trainer feel.

“Made me feel proud,” the instructor responds. Wilson is too shocked to respond. “Made me feel good that I’d trained somebody for something committed that they were able to pull off. We may not agree with them, but they were committed. That’s what I liked about it.”

It’s times like these in How To With John Wilson where all viewers can do is let their jaw hang open, in complete awe of not only how bizarre people can be, but also how Wilson is able to get them to nab such wild quotes.

In light of the 9/11 statement, Wilson retreats into his own memories of the event. On that tragic day, Wilson was not mourning—instead, as a young boy, he made a film about a hero whose only power was that he owned a ladder. In thinking about his youth, Wilson realizes that the only thing he’s ever really committed to is filmmaking. Who needs Planet Fitness when you have a television?

Then, Wilson launches into a roast of HBO that, frankly, I’m shocked made it into the episode. He was nominated for an Emmy in 2022 for Outstanding Writing for a Nonfiction Program, so he attended the event. He filmed the Emmys with his smartphone. Wilson records the moment of loss when the award he was nominated for ultimately ends up in the hands of fellow HBO creator John Oliver. They picked the wrong John.

In another shocking twist, he hopes to lift his spirits at the HBO afterparty only to learn he hasn’t been added to the list. HBO needs to issue a public apology!

Or maybe they don’t, because it inspires Wilson to come to the conclusion that commitment shouldn’t require winning or losing. There never needs to be an “after” photo. Committing yourself to something you enjoy should bring you, well, happiness. Duh.

After his Emmys fiasco Wilson ponders: “You start to wonder if getting big really ever made anyone happy,” he says. Later on in the episode, he questions, “You wonder if your ego will ever really be satisfied.”

To answer his question, Wilson ventures off to a Northeastern pumpkin farm where he finds the owner preparing for the yearly pumpkin contest. The farmer hopes that, this year, for the first time, he will have the largest pumpkin in the county. Flash forward: He comes in second. Wilson is crushed. But when he interviews the farmer, he smiles and says he looks forward to doing it all over again next year. Commitment, Wilson learns, is not about working out until you’re ripped. It’s about working out because fitness brings you joy.

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