The hilarious pathos of ‘Nathan for You.’
Comedy Central’s business-reality show Nathan for You is unlike anything else on television because its host, Canadian comedian and writer Nathan Fielder, is unlike anyone else on television. A master of awkwardness and cringe comedy, Fielder is capable of making everyone in his presence feel uncomfortable in a way that extends to the viewers, who are left squirming in their seats as they wait for someone to break the silence. But look beyond his bizarre conversations and surreal “solutions” to the marketing problems of small businesses, and you’ll find Nathan for You to not only be the funniest show on television but the one with the most heart as well.
The majority of episodes in Nathan for You, which recently wrapped its fourth season on Comedy Central, follow the same basic structure: Fielder approaches a business struggling to attract customers and uses his business degree (and really good grades) to develop a marketing solution. This is never what the business owner expects, and Fielder often has to do some convincing to have his ideas implemented at all. When an antique shop falls on hard times, Fielder doesn’t just develop a plan to attract more customers with billboards or commercials. Instead, he exploits the store’s “you break it, you buy it” policy, attracting drunk pedestrians to the store with the promise of free pizza, which is located beyond a ridiculously narrow aisle filled with expensive ceramics.
Fielder’s plans are rarely this simple, however. In the most recent season, Fielder helps a company shipping smoke detectors save money on international sales by classifying the smoke detectors as musical instruments. Rather than simply labeling them as such, Fielder forms a band dubbed The Banzai Predicament and releases a song that heavily features a smoke detector. To give his group and the instrument notoriety, he poses as an employee for Shell, uses the song in one of the company’s promotional videos without crediting The Banzai Predicament, and informs the band of Shell’s wrongdoing in order to launch a protest that will make the local news. Needless to say, the smoke detectors have no problem reaching other countries. His client is less than impressed, but one can’t deny that Fielder has accomplished what he was asked to do.
Fielder is the primary source of laughter throughout Nathan for You, but his clients give the show its soul. These aren’t people champing at the bit to get on television or rip people off. They’re genuinely hard workers willing to make difficult decisions to further their businesses or careers, even if they have to watch as Fielder rebrands their coffee shop as Dumb Starbucks. When they tell their stories of hardship, we feel a little conflicted about what Fielder is about to do, but his ludicrous strategies do improve the businesses’ bottom lines.
Those he hires to help him with his schemes are often faced with the most difficult tasks. Fielder approaches a freelance writer named Austin Bowers more than once — first to ghostwrite a falsified autobiography written by a “friend” of Steve Jobs, and then to become the editor of The Diarrhea Times, a newspaper created solely for the purpose of publishing someone’s intent to change their name. Bowers doesn’t scoff at this opportunity, however, delivering an entertaining memoir in only a week. Bowers’ newspaper, odd title aside, is filled with news on EpiPen price increases, a Hillary Clinton scandal, a review of his personal favorite movie, and even political cartoons. It’s given away for free at several locations around the U.S., and my inability to find a copy of Bowers’ earnest commitment to journalism has left me disappointed for months.
Over the years, Nathan for You has developed a fan base willing to stray from the show’s stated premise in exchange for laughs and, occasionally, tears. Instead of helping small businesses, Fielder has sometimes used his show as a means of self-promotion. Early in the show’s fourth season, he created an elaborate scheme involving a stranger’s mother’s “ashes” to deliver the perfect anecdote on Jimmy Kimmel Live! It duped not just the show’s staff but also his own fans, who had no reason to believe it wasn’t a genuine story from his life.
But for the finale of this season, Fielder all but abandoned comedy to deliver a surreal stand-alone film — an episode so powerful that it could serve as the finale for Nathan for You in its entirety. Returning to a peculiar man named Bill Heath, who worked with the show on a past project, Fielder is drawn to his story of lost love. Decades earlier, Heath missed his opportunity to marry his girlfriend, a woman named Frances, who lived near the University of Arkansas. His life perpetually incomplete, he relays his story to Nathan, who ultimately decides to use the show’s resources to track down Frances and attempt to reconnect the two long-lost lovers.
The result, “Finding Frances,” is a two-hour emotional roller coaster. As we’re reintroduced to Bill and come to terms with his idiosyncrasies — wearing matching pajamas as an adult and extending the syllables on certain words — we laugh at the show’s classic awkwardness, but it soon morphs into something much less funny. Bill recounts stories of his time with Frances and how she promised to love him “to [her] grave.” He reveals his own infidelity, and Fielder begins to realize Bill could have been lying to him about his own life when they initially met. After they finally find Frances and we discover she’s married, the focus switches entirely from Bill back to Fielder himself. For the first time in the series, Nathan Fielder has no idea what to do, and eventually he finds solace in a new relationship of his own in order to keep himself sane.
In classic bizarre Nathan for You fashion, the woman Fielder chooses to see on numerous occasions isn’t an old friend but an escort named Maci he hired originally for Bill. The status of their “relationship” and whether or not they plan to keep seeing each other is left ambiguous, with Maci even asking Fielder if the primary purpose of their visits was to entertain his audience. He’s left staring into the abyss without an answer, as are we.
Is Fielder just trying to make us laugh, or is he genuinely attempting to help his clients achieve success in their own lives? As he pauses and reflects on his answer, he appears to feel guilty about his actions, but the truth is clear to anyone who watches the show carefully: Nathan always does both. The unique blend of emotion and humor in Nathan for You comes from a place of sincerity, and despite his occasional failures, Fielder does everything in his power to help those he meets. As we take a breath between laughs during the show’s most hilarious moments, we can’t help but feel we should do the same.