To my fellow bloggers, Kerri and Graeme, you were right. Nathan For You is brilliant TV.
If you haven’t seen Nathan For You, it’s a half-hour comedy show on Comedy Central, where comedian and business school graduate, Nathan Fielder offers advice to business owners. The advice is always unique (unorthodox… silly… dumb… negligent…) and it always leads to awkward and funny results as the owners gamely try to follow Fielder’s suggestions. The first episode of season one features a segment where Fielder suggests that a yogurt shop introduce poo-flavoured yogurt to bring in curious clientele.
Since season 1 aired, I’ve watched a few episodes and I’ve repeated the same line: “I understand that it’s really funny, but I don’t enjoy watching.” I respected the man, Nathan Fielder. He’s a good actor and a smart businessman. I laughed at the pranks. (Who wouldn’t laugh at a robot built to pants a man?) But the full-body cringe that comes with watching Nathan For You was enough to deter me from becoming a fan.
Slowly, and ever-so subtly, my mind began to change.
First, I heard about Dumb Starbucks, the business Fielder set up in Los Angeles. By labelling everything in the store “Dumb __” (ex. Dumb Latte, Dumb Blonde Roast) Fielder could call the business a parody, and therefore work around the copyright laws that would have protected the Starbucks image. The store was closed after 3 days due by the health inspectors, but the Dumb Starbucks youtube video has over 3 million hits:
Then, weeks later, long after my thoughts had returned to normal Canadian things, such as mosquitos and cold ones, Nathan Fielder popped up in my consciousness again, with his Instagram shenanigans. Fielder posted normal pictures of himself, each including a reflective surface, like a fork or sunglasses. In each reflection, a naked man. Around the time Fielder posted these photos, Instagram was policing users for nudity and Rihanna was banned for posting pictures with her nipples showing. Eventually, Fielder’s pics were taken down, but the prank remains as pics were around long enough for the internet to circulate them widely.
Yup, penises are funny, but I didn’t anticipate that this silly stunt would make me think hard about Instagram’s nudity policy. Nathan Fielder’s photo of a man’s penis led me to the conclusion that nipples are ok to show. Was that the intended reaction? No. But that was my reaction. And that – the outsider’s reaction – is Nathan For You‘s bread and butter.
Yes, Nathan For You is like other prank shows a la Punk’d, Jackass, etc., but Nathan For You isn’t just fishing for the reaction of “shock” like the others. He also wants pity, embarrassment, bemusement, and delight. He wants an unexpected reaction. Like when he asks a ghost exorcist to exorcise the hemorrhoids from his butt. The exorcist responds with confusion, but sincerity: “Yes, that is definitely demonic.” Nathan Fielder is so good at playing sincere, that his actions aren’t taken by the participants as mocking. Participants would turn away if their only reaction was shock and disgust.
As explained in this feature article from the NY Times, each episode of Nathan For You is both scripted and unscripted. Fielder has a plan for each segment, but the reactions from outsiders is completely unscripted. Their reactions are what make each segment special and interesting and ultimately, very funny. When offered a cookie made with salt instead of sugar, will the response be polite or rude? The reactions tell more about the participant than the prank tells about Nathan. And humans are so weird and diverse, that their reactions will often be as interesting, or more, than the setup.
My reaction to Nathan For You was certainly layered. First I balked at the discomfort Nathan was creating for his participants. Then, when I got used to the awkward silence, I was free to enjoy the rest of the show. Nathan Fielder’s public persona certainly helped my enjoyment of Nathan For You. On the show, he is the enthusiastic straight-man. On Twitter, he’s a goofball. On both, there is the joke and then maybe something else. Something more. Dumb Starbucks, nude men on Instagram, poo-flavoured yogurt. Taken in isolation, each of these events is kind of dumb. But the Nathan Fielder experience is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
Season 2 of Nathan For You is now airing on Tuesdays, on Comedy Central (MuchMusic in Canada).You can also watch full episodes online in Canada at MuchMusic’s website.