“Why Stop at Pencils?”: David Rees on His New TV Show, ‘Going Deep,’ and Unconventional Career Path


David Rees may be the most sincere motherfucker on the planet. Whether you know him for his cult comics Get Your War On and My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable, which combined post-9/11 Bush-era political anxiety with the bland comfort of clip art and torrents of eloquent swearing, or his mastery of artisanal pencil sharpening — summed up in 2012’s book How to Sharpen Pencils — Rees has been a talent for the age after irony, tapping into our worries and obsessions with his inherently comical pursuits.

Now, he’s likely to become nationally known as the host of the National Geographic Channel’s excellent and very funny new show. Tonight sees the debut of Going Deep With David Rees, a how-to series that takes everyday tasks and breaks them down into minute applications of science and wonder: tying your shoes, digging holes, climbing a tree, making ice cubes. I spoke with Rees on the phone from his home in Beacon, New York (“not quite Brooklyn, but every six months The New York Times calls it the new Brooklyn”).

Flavorwire: Do you consider yourself a humorist? Your humor is interesting because it is so sincere — you mean it. Part of what makes me laugh when I see your work is trying to figure out the line between you meaning it and not meaning it.

David Rees: Humor is very important to me. I love to laugh and I love to goof off. I understand that writing a 230-page book about sharpening pencils is kind of funny. But I feel like the whole project wouldn’t work if it was just a joke. Our mission with making this TV show was that if it’s going to work, it has to be an honest-to-God how-to show. We have to teach you better ways of tying your shoes or opening a door or swatting a fly. Otherwise the whole project kind of falls apart and becomes really insubstantial, you know?

What kind of experts did you talk to for the show?

For “How to Swat a Fly,” we were talking about how you use a fly-swatter, and if there’s a way to minimize air turbulence until the last possible moment so the fly doesn’t have time to process the change in air pressure and move. And we found a squash coach, a semi-professional squash player, because a big part of playing squash is the way you strike the ball. You withhold all information about how you’re going to hit the ball until the last second, so that your opponent can’t read your body language or anticipate where the ball’s going to go.

Making connections like that is a big part of the spirit of the show. Because we are very interested in showing these connections between different disciplines, or taking hard science and applying it to something lighthearted, or vice versa, and all that kind of stuff.

But I thought squash was just for people who hate walls.

Well there is some wall-hatred that goes on – there’s a long history of wall-hatred, because you are trapped in a box while playing squash.

What’s it like to host a show?

I had never been on camera before hosting a show. There was a long learning curve. The crew and the producers were very patient. In the most recent episodes I assume I’ve been a lot easier to edit because I’m less incompetent and fumbling as a TV host.

Do you think you’ll ever do an episode “How to Host”?

That is a big subtext. The whole time – this whole process – basically the last 11 months of my life, while all that was going on, I was also on this deeper topic: How to host a TV show. I was always learning two things simultaneously. How to make a TV show, being involved in the edits, and making a lot of the music and a lot of the animations and stuff and dressing the set and doing those types of things.

That’s a big part of why we acknowledge in these episodes that we’re making a TV show, like I’ll yell at the cameraman or we’ll mention that we’re making a TV show or something like that, because I wanted the show to really try to reflect my experience: traveling around the country with this group of people, finding interesting people and arguing about stuff like, “What is a hole?”

What kind of skills have you gotten from the show that you can pull out at parties or bars?

Well I’m much better at tying my shoes. I did master the Ian Knot. It’s not a new knot, it’s a way of creating the standard shoelace knot, the proper standard shoelace knot, which technically is called a Double Slippery Reef Knot. It’s a way that cuts the tying time down to a third of its normal time. I’m really good at that. That’s something I literally have shown people at parties, because it does look fake. It happens so quickly.

There’s some practical stuff I’ve taken away from this experience, but also there’s just a lot of ideas and stuff to think about, which hopefully translates to the viewers because the real goal of the show was just to remind people how interesting these simple things are, and how weird and strange and fun and exciting the world is.

I really loved Get Your War On – it was therapeutic, almost, at a time when the world was very scary. And you’ve just done a really interesting range of things. What’s your inspiration? How do you describe your career to people?

I think on my tax return my accountant just puts, “Writer.” The sad fact is I don’t have a career. I don’t have what that word implies. I don’t have job stability, I don’t have a retirement plan. I don’t have a steady stream of coworkers, I don’t have an air conditioned office I can go to when it’s really hot out. I kind of sit around in my house and hope somebody calls me and asks if I want to work on a project.

With the TV show, I was doing my pencil sharpening thing, and a friend of mine, Christine Connor, who’s one of the co-creators and an executive producer – it was her idea. She said, “Do you think we can make a TV show in the world of how to sharpen pencils?”

We were trying to figure out, OK, what was important to me about that whole pencil sharpening thing, really? For me, the deepest part of it was celebrating these things that are all around us that we use all the time without thinking about them.

Pencils are incredibly well-engineered objects. They’ve been around for 500 years, and sharpening a pencil well is very satisfying. Once I answered that question, it was like, “OK, so now we’ll just do that for everything.” Why stop at pencils? Go out and open doors well, or learn how to tie your shoes well, or make ice cubes well, climb a tree well, and celebrate all the science and history and aesthetics and comedy that goes into these practices.

You’re like Thoreau. You’ve got your pencil thing, and he was the son of a pencil factory man. And half of Walden was about how to make ice cubes and, you know, live far away in the wilderness.

Don’t think that I’m living in some remote idyllic cabin in Beacon. I’m right on a major busy thoroughfare with cars honking all day, right by the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge. But I’m not going to turn down that comparison. Good for my resume.

Walden really is a lot about ice cubes, and being cranky about it. And also going into the woods and picking flowers.

Maybe there is something there. The thing people take away from that book is, “Slow down, appreciate stuff.” You don’t need to be on your iPhone all the time. I can’t remember if that sentence is actually in Walden, but the spirit of that sentence is in Walden, and that’s certainly a part of what we’re trying to do with the show, because we live in this post-industrial consumer-capitalist society where celebrity is very valuable and new technology is very valuable and flashy bullshit is celebrated. And I’m not saying I’m more authentic than anybody else – I’m into all that stuff too. I have a smartphone. But we wanted to look at the other end of the spectrum. Like the most boring, simple things you can imagine, we’re going to prove to you that they’re interesting.