‘Nathan For You’ Expanded The Possibilities Of What TV Comedy Could Be

The white whale for anyone whose humor censors and set-up detectors are fried from overuse is a joke that cannot be explained. Music, at its root, is just math, and comedy is mostly just a surprise-generating engine. We can know these things intuitively and still enjoy them, the job of the artist is to make us temporarily forget. To lose yourself in a joke or a song is a kind of leap of faith, an act of willfully seeing the ghost in the machine. In those few moments you belong to the spirit world.

The best joke is a coincidence of cosmic proportions that feels like it could only have happened in just that way, and only just the once, where the mechanisms behind it are either impossible or pointless to explain. I think that’s why I was so obsessed with Nathan For You, a show that felt like the ultimate anomaly. It was a show that was elaborately planned and meticulously staged and yet everything funny about it only seemed to happen by accident. It stands as one of the most weirdly edifying television experiences I’ve ever had.

Nathan For You followed comedian Nathan Fielder as he “helped” apparently real struggling businesses, by designing elaborate, convoluted solutions to their business problems. In the show’s intro, he pitched himself as the ideal consultant because he had “graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades.” This as the camera flashed across a transcript showing three Bs, an A, and a C, in classes with comically vague titles like “strategic management.”

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Some of his early episodes showed him helping a yogurt shop by creating a buzzworthy “poo-flavored” yogurt, designing a fake viral video for a petting zoo, and creating a “rebate” for a gas station that was impossible to collect — even after the patrons ran up a hill. Along the way, it introduced us to a series of fascinating oddballs, like a foul-mouthed private detective who seemed to hate Fielder, several celebrity impersonators, and an obese ghost expert who described an incubus as an entity that “basically has sex wid em until they died.” The ghost expert died during the show’s run, becoming a ghost himself.

Nathan For You wasn’t the first comedy ever to mix documentary segments with scripted, to introduce us to oddball characters, feature a host who was awkward and dry, or be funny in a way that was hard to explain. Jackass, the Ali G Show, Tim & Eric (who produced the show), and Tom Green (often unfairly left out of discussions like these) all feel like spiritual precursors, to varying degrees (with Eric André running in parallel). Yet Nathan for You was singularly itself, and I’d like to think was perfect for its cultural moment.

Subtly underpinning every gag was the idea of late capitalism as a dehumanizing hellscape. Succeeding at business in Nathan For You almost always required treachery (faking viral videos, exploiting fair use to create a coffee shop that would compete with Starbucks by looking like Starbucks) and disdain for the customer (making them run up hills for a few cents, assuming they’d be too dumb to know Johnny Depp from a bad Johnny Depp impersonator). His “solutions” turned what should’ve been intuitive interactions — eating chili or buying yogurt — into rube-goldbergian attempts to extract profit. Whether those attempts even succeeded or not was almost beside the point; the point was to try. Not treating fellow humans as rubes to be exploited was shirking your responsibilities as a business owner.

Creating these elaborate, quasi-inept business plans, meanwhile, required an expert’s grasp of LA Craigslist and how to exploit it, and an intuitive understanding of what people would be willing to do. Without desperation and the gig economy, Nathan For You couldn’t have existed.

In playing a more awkward, desperate version of himself (a running gag was Fielder creepily hitting on women), he cast himself as the ultimate parody of a McKinsey consultant, some snot-nosed preppy virgin sent to “fix” a business he knew nothing about, the banality of evil made flesh (pre-empting by years the rise of Pete Buttigieg). When Fielder’s solution to fix a yogurt shop was to design a flavor that was deliberately inedible, the joke was on the market. The way to make money is to literally feed your customers shit.

Critics love to find our own worldviews reflected back at us in other people’s art, but I don’t think I’m projecting here — in a 2015 LA Times profile, Fielder said his show had been partly inspired by the mortgage crisis:

“I was really obsessed when the mortgage crisis happened and how it came down to these personal moments between people where someone senses something’s wrong, but they don’t want to speak up,” Fielder told Libby Hill.

“For Nathan on the show, ethics are not on my radar as much,” Fielder said of the version of himself he portrayed on the show. “Risk and effort don’t seem to register and it’s inspired by that modern Wall Street mindset of finding loopholes.”

Which is to say, the Nathan Fielder that Nathan Fielder played on his show was overtly a parody of amoral capitalism. It doesn’t matter how you do whatever you thought was your job, it’s how you game the system.

The show had a clear format, but not really a formula, and for the finale, it threw out what rules it did have. In place of joke-Nathan trying to joke help a business for a half hour, there was a slightly less contrived version of Nathan helping a Bill Gates impersonator from a previous episode try to reconnect with a long lost love — in a two-hour finale, “Finding Frances.” It’s hard to overstate what a surreal thing this was to be able to see on basic cable television.

It was a wonder that Nathan For You ever got on the air in the first place, but the finale was its swan song — brilliant, strange, empathetic, hilarious, and occasionally creepy. It stands as one of the greatest, strangest, most heartfelt and funniest things I’ve ever seen on TV. Legendary documentarian Errol Morris called it “unfathomably great.”

“Finding Frances” took what was normally a sub-theme in Nathan for You and made it the theme — an attempt to make genuine a human connection in a world that seems designed to thwart them. And like virtually all the other episodes, that attempt turned quixotic. This was a show that asked not only why we can’t make more genuine connections but whether we even deserve to.

It ran just four short seasons, but considering the kind of coincidences and candor it took for it to work, it’s a wonder we even got that many. It was a show about strategic planning whose appeal rested on plans going awry. That’s hard to plan for. Nathan For You manages to stand as both the show we deserved and a show we didn’t deserve.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.