Learn How to Open a Door

The brilliant banality of National Geographic's new show Going Deep With David Rees
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National Geographic

If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, the National Geographic Channel's new show Going Deep With David Rees raises existential questions about what is less than nothing. There are episodes that teach the best way to do such thrilling stunts as open a door, climb a tree, dig a hole, tie your shoes, and make ice. But Rees, the creator of the comic strips “Get Your War On” and “My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable" and author of How To Sharpen Pencils, takes deadly dull themes and makes them both extraordinary and instructive.

It may sound like watching paint dry. But were Rees to ever film a segment on paint drying, I guarantee it would live up to the show’s motto: “DEFAMILIARIZING THE UBIQUITOUS SO AS TO INCREASE OUR APPRECIATION AND WONDER THEREBY.”

The show extends the concept of Ree’s hilariously deadpan book about artisanal pencil sharpening, which he has also performed before live audiences. Rees, a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina who hails from a family of academics, liked the idea of his weird how-to series airing under the august National Geographic banner. “I grew up reading National Geographic and looking at all the crazy photos of foreign cultures, and since our show is basically about exploring and celebrating the world (via the mundane) it was perfect,” he says. “We really wanted to honor that spirit of exploration and discovery.”

Rees is a kind of a Mr. Wizard anti-hero for millennials. Or rather: “I'm attempting to be the Episcopalian Guy Fieri. That's why I wear a black apron instead of a bowling shirt with flames on it.” He shot the first season in his house, where he made all the animations and a lot of the music. “I told my friends, this is artisanal, locally sourced, grass-fed television.”

The former stand-up comedian turns very serious, however, when explaining the philosophy of his show. “I feel like How To Sharpen Pencils and, now, Going Deep wouldn't work if they weren't honest-to-God, how-to instructionals,” he says. “The book has a lot of goofy stuff in it, but if you read it you will get better at sharpening pencils and you will (hopefully) come to appreciate how amazing pencils are—they represent 500 years of innovation, materials science, marketing strategies, the politics of resource depletion, etc. etc. Pencils are incredibly efficient and elegant communication tools! And I wanted to celebrate that. Same with Going Deep: There are NO fake facts in our show. The humor comes from my interactions with the experts, who have all been incredibly good-natured and (sometimes) silly without compromising the integrity of the information they're sharing with me. That's important to us, because we really do want this show to be a celebration of everything that's right under our noses—and for that mission to succeed, we need to honor the topics by not bullshitting our way through them.”

Not surprisingly, Rees acknowledges that his most significant influence in making this show was Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. “I love Mr. Rogers's curiosity and enthusiasm and how he took everything seriously. Everything. I really think Fred Rogers was a genius, maybe one of the great geniuses of our lifetime, at least when it comes to culture. His relationship to television was very interesting and sophisticated: He constantly acknowledged that he was making a TV show, and he would show his viewers behind-the-scenes stuff so they could understand how his TV show was made. ... So we goof on the conventions, but not the content. Because the content is very important to us.”

Another other big influence was the poem "Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. “I love that poem and I memorized it before we started shooting because it's about honoring all the awkward, imperfect things in our world— ‘Whatever is counter, original, spare, strange’—and how those things might not be majestic and flashy, but they are as worthy of our respect as anything else,” Rees said, adding, “You never know where an awkward, humble thing may lead you.” He was referring to the segment called “How To Flip a Coin,” where the question of how to flip a quarter with panache led him to research the nature of randomness and entropy and the eventual heat death of the universe. “Not all that stuff made it into the episode though.”

Rees explains that the most important criterion for a good episode is that its title has to sound like something you couldn't learn anything about, like "How to Open a Door." “We want people to see that episode title in their DVR listing or TV Guide or wherever and think, ‘No WAY are these people serious. What could I possibly learn about opening a door?!’ And then hopefully they watch the episode—just to find out if we're insane—and they realize, yeah, there is a lot to learn about opening a door, and doors themselves are very strange and profound artifacts of human culture, when you think about it. Same goes for digging a hole, throwing a paper airplane, etc.”

Take, for example, the episode “How to Dig a Hole,” which focuses on a "single-hole-quest-narrative," Rees said, “to use an industry term.” He decided to peg his narrative to being in confined spaces and how he hates it while also loving it. “That’s when I thought of just a nice, simple, David-sized hole I could hang out in all by myself and maybe drink a few beers. Basically, a Party Hole. So I talked to a bunch of experts and they all signed off on the feasibility of the Party Hole (except for the miners who explained it could kill me, which was pretty sobering).”

About a forthcoming episode on “How to Swat a Fly,” he refuses to give anything away, but “I will say that in that episode I got to look at a fly's brain through a super-powerful microscope and I got goosebumps. ... Flies are amazing! And so are microscopes—the microscope game has improved like 500% since the last time I looked through a microscope in high school. By the way, the fly was ALIVE when I was looking at its brain. We could watch the electrical charges pass through the brain as the fly watched a vertical band of lights sweep across its field of vision. It was totally crazy.”

More than Mr. Wizard meets Mr. Rogers, there’s a Pee-wee’s Playhouse sense of wonder to the show. Always pushing, ever exploring. But as Rees develops the series, some themes have been put on the back-burner. He concluded, for example, that “How To Go to the Bathroom” might be a little intense for the first season of a new TV series. “But I actually think that episode could be incredible, because the way our bodies process waste—and all the social conventions surrounding the expulsion of that waste—is fascinating.”

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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