Nathan For Whoever

Published on November 25th, 2017

Alex writes about Nathan For You.

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Nathan for You is a reality show, hosted by Nathan Fielder. Nathan Fielder is a person I do not understand, despite having watched each episode of his so-called reality more than once. Watching Nathan For You has been – pretty much from the beginning – about the process of the viewer trying to figure out who Fielder is. Making Nathan For You, on the other hand, seems to have been – from slightly after the beginning – the process of Fielder trying to find out the same thing for himself.

I believe I have written about reality television at some point before, although I cannot fully recall when. The Real World definitely came up in something I wrote in early 2011, but I think that was mostly in the context of writing about the film American Teen, a movie I was briefly obsessed with. As I am in the process of finding out today, reality television is a difficult thing to discuss, because you never quite know which decisions were pre-decided and which had to be made on a moment’s notice. (Which is often the case on a scripted film set as well, but it’s always infinitely more obvious on reality television simply because of the constructs of the genre.) Nathan For You doubles down on this specifically because I don’t actually believe Nathan For You is a reality show.

So this is where we begin, I suppose. I call a non-reality show a reality show, and we try to find the happy medium from there.

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The basic construction of a standard episode of Nathan For You goes as follows: Nathan Fielder enters a business that is looking to become more successful, pitches an idea that seems like it could only possibly make the business less successful, and convinces the proprietors that this pitch is not a terrible idea. From there, Fielder enacts this scheme in what is often the most difficult seeming way possible: say, growing a deli’s business via hiring a Michael Richards impersonator to leave a large tip (a scheme which, for some reason, also involves the creation of a fake newspaper called The Diarrhea Times). And yet, this deli’s scheme was in the lower 50% of bizarre hurdles Fielder and his team have laid out for themselves over four seasons.

Within these episodes, Nathan For You often plays on people’s willingness to do almost anything a camera crew asks them to, an instinct that remains weirdly prevalent in modern culture. Since a person with a camera crew is pitching the businesses these absurd ideas, for some reason the people who make it into the final cuts of the episodes trust that being surrounded by said crew means that the ideas captured on camera have been vetted. The subjects of Nathan For You are so used to reality television being prevalent in culture that they (presumably) assume this show will eventually be edited into something as boring and normal-seeming as an episode of Property Brothers, and (presumably) these subjects blame their ignorance of how television is produced on assuming the man in the windbreaker pitching these crazy ideas is not actually a crazy person. Nathan For You is a show that, in its third season premiere, had an electronics store owner describe Fielder’s schemes to a clinical psychologist, after which the shop owner was promptly declared insane. And yet people still do what Fielder asks. This construction of a certain sort of reality leads to some unreal levels of humour.

(I feel obligated to note that Nathan For You often seems to be built on the outright stupidity of others. Sometimes this makes me uncomfortable, because there are episodes of Nathan For You that are clearly built around people who simply don’t quite grasp what is happening. Sometimes Fielder will outright lie to a subject’s face to trick them: the pest control scheme features a scene where Fielder convinces a hotel manager that signing a contract will only be used for the purposes of giving the show’s story an ending [and that this contract is not legally binding]. Instead, the contract ends up having a clause in it that has language basically saying that even though Fielder said this wasn’t the case, the contract is still legally binding.

In my semi-professional existence, I have to sign contracts pretty frequently. Due to the aforementioned semi-ness of my professionalism, I cannot afford a lawyer to look over my contracts, so surely it is relatively easy to slip a clause or two past me. Usually I am given these contracts in a situation that is not ideal to take fifteen minutes to stop a meeting and go read some legalese, so I read the contract in a room where it seems more than plausible I could miss a line in a contract. Usually these contracts come from established businesses or organizations, so I assume they are not trying to screw me over, which is exactly the thought process these Nathan For You subjects go through on camera. They sign because they trust Fielder is legitimate, and they don’t want to be the one person holding up the process.

Do I think people should read contracts before they sign them? Yes. Do I think the average person should be able to sort out that the show they are participating in is a prank show? Most of the time, yes. I suppose I worry that in the same situation I might react in the same way.)

In the episodes that more or less fit the Nathan For You formula, the most intriguing moments are always when Fielder seems to be genuinely surprised. There is the moment in the gas station episode where Fielder is flummoxed by the owner’s casual mention that he has consumed his grandson’s urine, leading to some hilariously reactionary questioning from Fielder. In the ghost realtor episode – where the realtor drops the informational bomb that a spirit once attacked her in Switzerland – Fielder appears to have no idea this information was coming. In the latter case, it seems unlikely that the producers hadn’t known about the realtor’s experience (in screening potential realtors for an episode that was going to hinge on belief in the paranormal, there surely would have been questions about these topics in the realtor’s initial interview), but I also believe those producers willfully left Fielder in the dark. I suspect this is what happens almost every time Fielder appears surprised over the course of the show: he too is in the dark about what they’re really getting at on the show. It’s a show with a mystery man’s name in the title, but the show frequently seems a mystery to even that man.

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Naturally, anybody writing about Nathan For You has to reference its outlier episodes, if only partially because the most recent season wrapped up with its biggest outlier yet. Finding Frances, the season four finale, has spawned more thinkpieces (including my own) in the weeks after its release than everything Nathan For You has done since going on the air in February 2013. It is not the most widely known moment of the show (that would be Dumb Starbucks), but Finding Frances seems to be the call to action for all the dummies like me who have thought about this show for four years without quite being able to find our way into its world.

But not yet. We’ll get there when we get there.

Since its first season, Nathan For You has taken exceptional amounts of glee in fucking with people who accept what they’re seeing on a screen as undoctored fact. From the second episode of the show – which featured the creation of a widely-circulated video where a pig appears to rescue a goat from drowning – Fielder has been playing with expectations of both viewers of his own show and those whose most recent experience with a Comedy Central show was seeing a clip of Dave Chappelle saying “I’m Rick James, bitch!” in 2003. Fielder wants us all to know that this world is a lie, but he refuses to outright tell us. He’ll show us instead, and at least hide the truth from us for a bit before revealing we’re all idiots.

As mentioned above, the show’s biggest crossover moment came with Dumb Starbucks, a scheme that used fair use and parody law to basically open a Starbucks store simply by putting the word “dumb” in front of everything on the menu. (Dumb Latte, Dumb Americano, Dumb Norah Jones Duets, etc.) The store (which was technically an art gallery) became an overnight sensation, and even more than the previous season’s petting zoo video (eventually) drew attention to Nathan For You itself when Fielder gave a press conference in front of the store. By not revealing who was behind the shop at first, though, rumours even began swirling that the store was the work of Banksy, which is a fucking hilarious anecdote that Fielder should tell in every social situation for the rest of his life. Dumb Starbucks somehow became a de facto deleted scene from Exit Through the Gift Shop: if you tell people something is art over and over, they just might believe it.

Nathan For You is art. Nathan For You is art. Nathan For You is art. Nathan For You is art. Nathan For You is art. Nathan For You is art. Nathan For You is art.

In the last couple of seasons, Fielder seems to have become interested in special episodes with a bit more specificity, focusing on niches of media we watch. With The Hero, Fielder and company looked at the concept of one-off stunt shows, and the idea that a person can seem like a hero for attempting something that is basically an ill-advised idea. And this year, Fielder created a story that couldn’t possibly be real to tell on various talk shows during his season four press tour before actually making that story (technically, in some capacity) real. Fielder got himself invited to a stranger’s wedding simply by asking and being silent long enough to make them uncomfortable, and flew somebody who would conceivably wear a larger suit than Fielder to and from Los Angeles to San Francisco exclusively to create a luggage mix-up. The resulting episode reminded the viewer of the stupidity of talk shows, the fakery that goes into the promotion of any piece of media, and the unrelenting dedication Nathan Fielder has for exposing stupidity and fakery.

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That is where the joy of the show lies. The pain though, the hardest parts of Nathan For You to watch, are always the scenes that are left to feel slightly too real. These are, of course, the scenes where Fielder is being purposefully weird exclusively to make the people around him squirm. There’s the scene in the rapid house cleaning episode where he tries to convince a group of maids that the man whose house they just cleaned is single and available, or basically any scene where Fielder asks somebody if they want to hang out off-camera. In these scenes, Fielder is clearly acting in some capacity, but the idea from the awkwardness always seems to come from somewhere real. (Fielder has said his Nathan For You persona is based on his teenage self.)

Anytime you’re watching a comedy designed to make you uncomfortable, you’re laughing mostly because the person making you uncomfortable can’t read the room. Fielder should know that these people don’t really want to hang out with him off-camera, and yet he tries anyway. We laugh because this self-characterization of Fielder can’t read the room, but we can’t watch because there have been too many times when we were the person who couldn’t read the space we were in. And this is where we come to Finding Frances.

(If you’re reading this, you know what Finding Frances is. You know that it features Nathan For You’s resident Bill Gates impersonator, the seventy-seven year-old Bill Heath, trying to find the long lost love of his youth. It takes Fielder and Heath all over the place, but mostly Alabama and Michigan, and features all sorts of schemes and self-delusion. I shouldn’t need to tell you this, because you are a person with a vested interest in Nathan For You who has already read over 2000 of my largely nonsensical words about it. But in discussing a show about pointing out constructions, I must point out the particular constructions of my own writing. To not do so would be as irresponsible as not reading a contract before signing it.)

Nathan For You’s purest distillation of the tendency to make the viewer uncomfortable comes in the scene where Bill calls Frances from the car, a car that is parked just outside Frances’ house in rural Michigan. I initially laughed incredibly hard at Fielder’s reactions to Bill’s awkward phone conversation, but I quickly began to find the scene physically impossible to look at. At this point, we have been in this story for (assuming you’re watching a commercial-free download of the extra long special) a full hour, and who knows how long Bill has been living this quest in real time. Bill’s total failure to understand what he’s doing is a hardheaded quest that can’t possibly end the way he wants it to is depressing, because anybody watching Finding Frances has gone through the experience of slowly realizing that they are wrong and felt stupid about it. Bill just seems to be coming to this realization in front of a camera crew that has followed his idiocy cross country.

This is where I come to the conclusion that the people making Nathan For You are not horrible people. When Bill and Nathan arrive at Frances’ driveway, Nathan seems entirely unwilling to bring the cameras to the doorstep with Bill as he rings the bell (even though Bill explicitly asks him to). Any other reality show that only cared about getting the most sensational moment possible obviously would have followed Bill to the doorstep; Nathan For You’s decision not to indicates that there are some private moments that even they won’t intrude on. After all the time spent on finding Frances, the producers and Fielder knew that the only thing waiting was embarrassment. And despite some of Bill’s more questionable views on politics and consent, even Fielder isn’t comfortable with the idea of profiting off of this man’s total crushing disappointment (they’ll take a partial version of that disappointment instead). The filmmakers still let Bill feel it gradually, and he’s still on camera when he does, but somehow there’s a feeling of kindness present in the choice. They let Bill get punched in the face, but they broke up the fight before he could get pummeled.

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There’s an easy reason why the people on this show wouldn’t want to hang out with Fielder off-camera: they’re getting paid to be on camera, and they are not getting paid to go out with him for after work fajitas. The show knows this and plays with it, and begins taking it to its logical conclusion during Finding Frances, when Fielder actually begins to pay an Alabaman prostitute named Maci simply to hang out with him. As Finding Frances comes to its ending, the final scene shows Nathan and Maci hanging out together, and Maci explicitly asks Nathan if they could hang out with the cameras off.

Maci: “It’s kinda weird having cameras around, right?”

Nathan: “We could turn them off if you want.”

Maci: [vaguely uncomfortable laugh] “Could we?”

Nathan: “Do you want to?”

Maci: [slightly less vague, more uncomfortable laughter] “I feel like that… Does that defeat the purpose?”

Nathan: “Of what?”

Maci: “I don’t know.”

Nathan: “What’s the purpose?”

Maci: “You’re filming something. That’s kinda the purpose, right?”

Nathan: [long pause, looks directly at camera one, looks directly at camera two] “We do have this drone… it would be cool to get a drone shot maybe.”

Maci: “Yeah.” [chuckles, reaches for Nathan’s hand]

The pair hold hands, inch slightly closer together, and look at the drone that has been slightly off-camera as a camera whip-pans around to a shot of it. We see the drone shot as the drone flies up and away from Nathan and Maci, and a song by a group called the Kinnardlys plays with the refrain “Don’t be sad, be happy for me.”

I have not read a single one of the aforementioned thinkpieces about this show, but I bet they all use this moment as the crux of the metaphorical biscuit. It’s the only way, mostly because (and I’m sure every one of my fellow thinkpiecers said this as well) it fucking works. The scene is – at bare minimum – kind of sad. The problem is I don’t totally understand why. Do I actually want Nathan Fielder to be happy? Have I merely been conditioned to want to feel emotion at the end of a media product I enjoy? Am I reflecting on my own happiness or lack thereof? Or am I mostly terrified that one day I’ll find out Maci is an actor and it will break my goddamn heart?

I have no fucking idea. For a show that continually relishes in telling us one thing and quietly demands we believe another, it would be obtuse to actually follow the chorus of the mediocre song playing over the credits. Nathan For You might just be a reality show after all, in that every time I watch it I realize I truly do not understand my own existence.

Nathan Fielder is an existentialist. Nathan Fielder is an existentialist. Nathan Fielder is an existentialist. Nathan Fielder is an existentialist. Nathan Fielder is an existentialist.

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There is an ever-changing collective reality we participate in without knowing it. In the version of reality we have all come to accept, removing a bedbug-infested mattress from a hotel via a Chinese dragon celebration so the guests don’t realize the hotel has bedbugs is certifiably bananas (because it is). In this same reality, we agree to be on camera because we believe it will bring us some sort of happiness (doubtful). And in this version of reality we all accept that we only spend time with Nathan Fielder when we’re getting paid to.

When I say there is an ever-changing collective reality, I mean it, but I also have to couch that by saying there are more collectives than ever before, with more realities to be comprehended. Nathan For You explicitly plays on the concept of the bubble, and the continually growing chasm between different types of people living different types of lives has made the laughs harder and the steps away from our own reality more uncomfortable. This is part of the reason the show is able to continue existing: because there are so many television shows, Nathan For You is able to be mostly ignored, and fellow wizards of loneliness like myself are free to laugh at it from afar, knowing we’re safely encased in the Nathan bubble. The problems start when too many people can’t look into and understand a version of reality that isn’t their own.

In Nathan For You, Fielder walks through the day-to-day lives of various types of people and tries to come to some sort of understanding about humanity. He toys with our expectations of what is accepted and not accepted as a small business promotion, and then he toys with our expectations about who we should talk to. I don’t know anything about the off-camera version of Nathan Fielder – even more than most celebrities I suspect every time he’s in public is some sort of mild performance – but the version of Fielder I see every week understands this world. Fielder knows that people will accept some insane shit like it’s normal in order to be on television, but once that recording is done, everybody just goes on with their own separate lives.

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