- Comedy Central
- Nathan Fielder “helps” a gas station owner.
From the hidden-camera high jinks of Candid Camera (RIP Funt) to the faux news-correspondent interviews on the way-too-short-lived series Dog Bites Man, television has a vast and wonderful legacy of filming real people under false pretenses for comedy’s sake. If that’s ethically suspect, Nathan Fielder makes it easy to not care.
On Comedy Central’s Nathan for You—now in its second season—the pretense is that Fielder is a business expert and, presumably, the star of a show on which he helps people revolutionize their small businesses. In reality Fielder is a comedian and the gag is that all of his ideas are terrible, to the extent that they could be ruinous to these people’s reputations and livelihoods—or they could be just crazy enough to work.
In season one he helped a frozen-yogurt shop draw more business by commissioning a lab to develop a yogurt that tastes authentically like poop, because wouldn’t at least some people come in to try that? (They did.) He staged an elaborate video of a “hero pig” rescuing a “drowning goat” from a pond at a rural California petting zoo that wanted more exposure. The video went viral—it even wound up on NBC Evening News, where Brian Williams said they “couldn’t be sure” if it was real or not; good job news!—but in the end Fielder explained to the zoo’s owner that he didn’t put the business’s name anywhere on the video because that would be too obvious an attempt at publicity. His worst-slash-best idea? A rebate on gasoline with fine print requiring customers to bring their rebate forms to a drop box at the top of a mountain, where they’d then have to solve a series of riddles. What Fielder didn’t bet on—or, rather, what he definitely did bet on—is that a handful of people agreed to do it; three adorably desperate souls even stayed in tents overnight with Fielder and his crew only to be told in the morning that the rebate didn’t really exist. But hey, at least they’d found friendship.
In every episode, yes, we’re definitely laughing at the people unaware that they’re being had. But the comedic dynamic is more complex than that.
For every “Oh look, aren’t they stupid” there’s an “Oh god, they must think Nathan’s so stupid.” The Canadian comedian assumes a sort of socially awkward, doltish persona, and there’s never an indication he’s not being totally serious when he’s pitching his awful ideas to people (of course, we’re in on the joke). There’s a sad, cute vulnerability in his earnestness. In some instances, it seems like people go along with his schemes because they feel kind of bad for him. Fielder’s made what could’ve been a bullshit Punk’d-style gag show into one of the funniest shows on TV because he’s at least as willing to make an asshole of himself as he is to make an asshole of other people.
So far it looks like season two will be just as great as season one. In the premiere he helps a realtor with her image by branding her “the Ghost Realtor”—guaranteeing her homes are all 100 percent ghost free with the help of an exorcist—and helps an auto mechanic overcome a nasty stereotype by hooking him up to a polygraph every time he gives a customer a quote. As long as Fielder can keep coming up with bad ideas, the show should stay brilliant.