Essays · TV

It’s Been Real, ‘Nathan For You’

We say goodbye to Comedy Central’s ridiculous, deeply human series, ‘Nathan For You.’
Nathan For You Giant Suit
By  · Published on October 18th, 2018

Whether he’s helping an aging, peculiar Bill Gates impersonator find his long-lost love or asking an actress to look him in the eye and say “I love you” over and over again, comedian Nathan Fielder has provided some of television’s most surprising and exquisitely uncomfortable moments. His Comedy Central show, Nathan For You, ran for four engrossing and downright hilarious seasons, gained a devoted cult following online, and staged a handful of viral videos. It’s been a wild ride, and Comedy Central announced the disappointing albeit inevitable end of the series yesterday:

For the past five years Comedy Central had the pleasure of working with the brilliant Nathan Fielder on Nathan For You. His innovative and quick-witted humor has made the show a comedic touchstone and we’re proud to have been a part of it. We respect Nathan’s decision to end the series and look forward to geeking out over his next project.”

The series entailed Fielder — who graduated from a Canadian business school with “really good grades — playing a fictionalized version of himself who convinces real, struggling small business owners to employ his bonkers marketing stunts. His meandering and often humiliating plans usually required a business owner, who was unaware of Nathan For You‘s comedic premise, to surrender some part of their integrity and enter the realm of abject absurdity. A hotel struggling to attract families on vacation? Easy, introduce a soundproof box where children can retreat while their parents have sex. A coffee shop failing to generate revenue amid behemoths like Starbucks? Turn the cafe into a Starbucks parody. An already successful funeral home yearning to boost its profits? Give clients the option of paying for actors to stand in as “friends” or “family” for the recently deceased.

From its premise, Nathan For You feels mean-spirited — even cruel. While surrounded by cameras and a TV crew, the business owners willingly accepted the obtuseness of Fielder’s excursions, and Fielder appeared to exploit their own politeness. At its core, Nathan For You relied on people’s discomfort for laughs. The show, as a result, delivered palpable moral ambiguity — I often found myself asking questions like, “Should I really be watching this? Is this gross?” The question of the show’s moral efficacy encouraged us to become hyper-aware of our relegated role of complicit spectators. Unlike most comedies, Nathan For You challenged us; it never let us off the hook; it didn’t go down easily.

The show’s ability to transcend its spine-crawling, dehumanizing narratives established its unique presence in our media landscape. Crucially, Fielder intertwined himself in the shows’ schemes. Yes, he exposed business owners, but he also foregrounded his own vulnerability, loneliness, and inner turmoil, resulting in a quiet yet deeply felt humanity across many episodes. Fielder’s openness often led to others sharing their own personal upheaval  in one of the most famous episodes, “Gas Station/Caricature Artist,” Fielder convinces a gas station owner to offer gas for a colossally low $1.75 per gallon with rebate. The one caveat, though, is that patrons have to hike to the top of a mountain and answer a series of riddles to deposit the rebate.

Of course, several cheapskates join Fielder in hiking up the mountain, and a few of them even camp there overnight. The episode hilariously shows the lengths people will go to save $11, but it also displays an intrinsic need for intimacy. The lonely rebate campers and Fielder begin as strangers, but as the day and night progress, they lament and exchange personal stories with each other, share a warm campfire, and, more painfully, play spin the bottle. After the overnight, Fielder admits to the group that the pursuit for the rebate “will never end,” and they all simply laugh in response. One camper even responds, “The friendship we gained here was just incredible.”

Episodes like “Gas Station/Caricature Artist,” wherein the plot goes to unexpected places and unveils a potent vulnerability among its stars, showcase Nathan For You at its strongest. In these cases, our laughs of mockery and condescension transform into laughs of genuine surprise, delight, and recognition. These humanizing moments emerged organically in the episodes  while Nathan For You‘s premises may feel calculated and cold, there was always plenty of room for spontaneity and empathy.

As one of TV’s funniest and most empathetic shows, Nathan For You‘s end is bittersweet and unsurprising. Because the show premiered in 2013, it slowly gained some mainstream recognition and popularity. (Two of the show’s stunts, in the episodes “Dumb Starbucks” and “Santa/Petting Zoo,” became viral sensations before their respective episode airings.) While recognition for most series would be more than welcome, it’s best for a show like Nathan For You to maintain a low profile. If Fielder’s featured guests and business owners were aware of the Nathan For You‘s premise, such would defeat the purpose of the entire show. I, therefore, wouldn’t be shocked if seeking out unknowing businesses was becoming relentlessly difficult by the third or fourth seasons.

It’s also likely that, after four seasons, Fielder may feel tired of ardently devoting himself to the reality show’s formulas. Season four’s harrowing 90-minute finale, “Finding Frances,” deviates from familiar narrative beats and acts as somewhat of an epic coda to the series. In the episode, Fielder helps the aforementioned Bill Gates impersonator Bill Heath reconnect with an old flame. Fielder imbues the feature-length episode with his signature absurdity and cringey humor; more critically, the episode examines loss, regret, infidelity, and loneliness from the perspectives of both Heath and Fielder. As a wholeheartedly riveting drama, “Finding Frances” evokes Nathan For You’s greatest strength: considering the ramifications of human relationships when documented on reality TV. It’s a perfect swansong for one of television’s strangest and most remarkable series.

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Darby is a student who loves Jack Black and Nastassja Kinski's pink sweater in Paris, Texas.