Published Dec 09, 2020It's been an incredibly weird year that capped off plenty of weird years before it, meaning the only TV show that really made any sense was the comedic docuseries How To with John Wilson. The series, which is better seen than described, exists like a weird, pun-filled visual collage based on the experiences of New Yorker John Wilson as he goes through his day-to-day life. The episodes are loosely themed, but often reach dizzying heights as every visual gag and seemingly mundane observation builds to a cacophony of ideas. Produced by Nathan Fielder (and, as an interesting aside, edited by Adam Locke-Norton who once played in the similarly hard-to-describe Vancouver indie rock outfit the Bloggers), the show scratches the itch for strangeness in a way that is both subtle and incredibly audacious. Thank goodness it was just renewed for Season 2.
Many pointed to the season finale of the show as its greatest height, but I'd counter that episode 4, "How to Cover Your Furniture," was really its crowning achievement. That's in big part thanks to anti-circumcision activist Ron Low, who has built a series of "foreskin restoration" devices that he sells through his company TLC Tugger. These strange, labyrinthine penis skin stretchers are gleefully demonstrated by Low on the show, who makes small talk with Wilson about the movie Parasite while his entire nether regions are enmeshed with a complex anti-circumcision Rube Goldberg machine.
There was something about Low's impossibly thoughtful take on pop culture and impossibly relaxed demeanour that was far too appealing to leave it all on HBO. As such, I caught up with Low to find out more about his thoughts on movies, music and foreskins.
For those who don't know about you, please introduce yourself.
I'm Ron Low, and I run TLC Tugger foreskin restoration devices. We've been doing this work since 2004. We've helped about 45,000 men undo some of the damage, which always follows a childhood circumcision.
Is that your full-time job?
Yes, in 2008, I was working as an engineer for a toothbrush factory, and starting to sell so many of these devices that I really wasn't getting enough sleep. We were making them all the time. And so I quit my day job in the middle of that year, and my wife was working for a mail order company that went out of business locally. It relocated to New York at about the same time. So we both, suddenly, we're doing this as our full-time calling. And it didn't seem very auspicious at first, because that's when you may recall, there was a giant housing crisis, mortgage crisis… it caused the whole economy to collapse. We thought, well, nobody's gonna have enough money to buy a foreskin device in the near future. And we're panicked. And then I got the chance to appear on Howard Stern. And it really kept us afloat, because people found us as a result of that appearance.
I didn't listen to that. But I do remember that era and the anti-circumcision movement sort of emerging around then.
I do what I can. I mean, my main contribution is to make these devices. And I think the men who get help and realize how much better their sexual experience can be are very likely to join the chorus that's shouting down infant circumcision. But I don't spend as much time on the activism side as I would like, just because this is a full time job.
I've never spoken to somebody who runs a business like yours before. There's so many different questions I have, my mind is kind of going all over the place. But the main reason I heard of you is because you made an appearance on one of the year's best TV shows, How To with John Wilson. Tell me about that experience. How did you end up on that show?
I had some very good luck. Like I've had many times in my life. I'm sitting around in my house, and somebody calls me and says, "Do you want to be on TV?" That was early this year. And it was the producer for the John Wilson show. Apparently, they had heard about me, from a friend of mine in New York. The show is based in New York.
Was the producer who called you Nathan Fielder?
No, it was the associate producer, Clark Filio. My friend in New York drives around with this truck he outfitted. It's basically a rolling circumcision museum. It's a billboard truck with some museum-quality exhibits that he can roll out when he parks. And he's a common sight in New York now. John Wilson had already filmed a segment with my friend, Anthony Losquadro. Before he came to see me in Chicago, and he showed up and spent a whole day filming me doing all sorts of things related to running the business and demonstrating the devices.
The very few minutes you see on his show represents his excellent ability to distill things to their essence, and capture what makes them funny. For example, all day, he was asking me things that I found puzzling. We would be talking about the business and he would just make small talk. "What do you think about the idea of keeping pets? Is it ethical?" Well, what does that have to do with with my business? I kind of knew what he was up to. He was just trying to understand people, as human beings, not just what they are known for, but their whole life, you know? Yeah. So I got in the habit of answering questions like that for him in the most thoughtful way I could. And so as you see on the TV show, I'm in the middle of demonstrating a device and he asks me a completely unrelated question. And it makes my answer completely hilarious without any effort to be funny.
You clearly understand the chess game that he was playing with you.
I think I do. And I was happy to play that game. I don't mind looking silly, or eager. If it is a way to help people have a discussion about circumcision, I'm in.
Were you at all hesitant to get naked on HBO, knowing that so many people were going to see it?
I have never hesitated to get naked ever since the 2008 Howard Stern appearance. The idea that I had just quit my day job as an engineer was very liberating. I could then demonstrate a device for any audience without having to worry what my co workers would think. And so no, it doesn't bother me to to show how our device works. What am I going to do, hire a model to do that? I'm the best person to speak about it. So here I am.
So you've seen the edit that made the episode, and you're okay with how it played out?
I am perfectly okay with the fact that he made the show very funny. For example, at one point he has filmed me offering him and his crew a drink. And then, with no break, the camera pivots and you see a person just sitting in a chair sitting with their iPhone, and everybody who sees that assumes it's my wife or my daughter, turning away from the action, very embarrassed by what I'm up to. Right. And that's fine with me. In fact, it was our production manager. Just spending time because her desk was unavailable due to the filming. I see. And I don't mind. It's a really good visual joke.
I'm not sure if you've watched the whole season, but it is a very interesting show kind of unlike anything I've seen before.
Yes, I'm really a fan of the show. I enjoyed every episode except the finale, which I'm going to watch tonight.
That one's really cool, because it ties them all together in a very poetic kind of way.
Yeah, I've seen everyone discussing online, how deeply it touched them. And I'm in the right mood to be touched by something. You know, we all have to have some high art.
Definitely. That's what I wanted to ask you about, just hearing your thoughtful review of Parasite while wearing your own device. I mean, as you've admitted yourself, it's a hilarious image.
The funny thing is when they asked me about the movie Parasite while my penis is attached to a pulley. I finally coughed up the title, and then described a different movie. I was describing the movie Knives Out. The joke's on them.
Wait so when you're talking about Parasite, you're thinking of Knives Out?
"A perfect tail of virtue and vice?" Yes.
Have you seen Parasite?
Yeah, I loved it.
That's very funny. Is there anything else you watched this year that that was memorable for you?
Oh, let me think. I mean, mostly. It has been civil rights documentaries around the passing of John Lewis. I can't remember any fiction. That really got me going.
Are you talking about Good Trouble on CNN?
Good Trouble, and there was one on PBS. I mean, just on the whole, I get so weepy whenever I watch those, because I just think about all the people that dealt with hurdles in their past, and how much good luck I've had. And it just really affects me to think about the people that work so hard for us to live in a more ideal nation.
You make music as well. And earlier this week, I saw my friend tweeted that they thought your music kind of sounded like the Magnetic Fields and you revealed yourself to be a big Magnetic Fields fan.
Yeah, I only own one of the Magnetic Fields albums, but it's a double album. It's a beautiful collection. But yeah, I like the work of Edwin Sharpe very much.
(Note: About an hour after our interview, Ron wrote me to explain that he was actually thinking of a different band. "Not only did I describe the wrong movie on national TV, I loved the wrong band on Twitter," he said. "The band I like is Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros not Magnetic Fields. Never heard of them actually. Feel free to parenthetically point out my mistake." An hour after that, Ron wrote back again to say, "Uh, it gets worse. Years ago I saw the Magnetic Zeros unplugged on a show and went to eBay to buy a CD, but in fact I DID buy and fall in love with 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, so I was right the first time. Sorry for the confusion.")
What else do you listen to? And what have you been listening to lately?
Oh, gosh. The music I really like was written a long time ago, like in the '90s. Third Eye Blind, Crash Test Dummies, Midnight Oil. I guess a little closer to the present day you've got Coldplay, Dashboard Confessional. I'm just really a fan of any music that has something important to say. I don't really care for you know, dance music.
I mean, that's an eclectic batch of music, I think there's something to be said about you talking about pop culture, within the context of your products that you sell. I mean, you could almost start a pop culture panel show, similar to your John Wilson segment.
I mean, I would love to have a show. And if it gave me a wide audience to sneak in, and a message from time to time about children's rights to be left intact, that might be a good use of my time. But really, I think my life's work, making these restoration devices is probably going to have to suffice despite my other dreams.
I'm not sure if you've seen the Netflix sketch comedy series I Think You Should Leave by Tim Robinson. But something I found really interesting is that your product is called the TLC Tugger. And then he has a sketch about a product called the TC Tugger.
I'm aware. I am aware and I've seen the sketch. And it makes me laugh. I really, in my heart believe that whoever produced that segment is winking at me. If you look at the graphics they used, it is the same typeface for the logo for a TC Tugger that we use on our website. And of course, we were offering TLC Tuggers for 10 years before that sketch was ever a thing,
Hopefully, it's some sort of nod. I mean, hopefully we can figure this out and get some kind of confirmation.
Feel free to investigate. I don't really care. I think it's cute. I don't know how many people saw that. I mean enough that they bring it up on Twitter and stuff. But I'm not offended by it. I thought it was funny.
I'm so glad that you're a fan of How To with John Wilson, too. I can't wait for you to watch this finale.
Yeah, it's going to move me I know. I think, from what I read on Twitter last night, I think people are including spoilers in their tweets, which annoys me. Yeah. So I'm a little bit prepped for what I'm going to see. But yeah, it is such a wonderful show. It's it's one of the very few shows that one dare not watch while doing something else. Don't sit there on your Facebook while trying to watch How To with John Wilson. There's just too much visually to take in. It is really excellent.