The Loopy Logic of TV’s Best New Comedy, “Nathan For You”

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Comedy Central

[Look, we all know that the Emmys aren’t the most credible of enterprises. Case in point, this is the awards show that gave The Wire only TWO nominations in its entire five-year run (and no, the show didn’t win either one). But for all their faults, these awards DO matter – low-rated risk-taking shows have extended their lifespans based on Emmy recognition, in part because network execs have wet dreams about holding those golden trophies. So when the voters can’t quite get it right, we’re here to fill you in on the boldest, most exciting shows that you (and more Emmy voters) should really be watching.]

“Experiment: text your parents ‘got 2 grams for $40’ then right after ‘Sorry ignore that txt. Not for you.’”

Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder scored some press for that innocuous Twitter gag (Buzzfeed is considered press, right?), and gained several hundred followers in the process. He employs the same brand of wit on Comedy Central’s Nathan For You, the laugh-out-loud mock-reality show that both confounds expectation and provides sly social insight. I’d call it television’s first postmodern reality show – if that didn’t sound completely stupid in light of Fielder’s breezy form of merriment – but it’s undeniably unique. Fielder plays “himself,” a deadpan up-and-comer to rival Joe Pera, who flaunts his business degree obtained “from one of Canada’s top business schools… with really good grades.” The show highlights his somewhat earnest attempts to drum up new business for struggling vendors across Los Angeles by concocting unorthodox strategies.

Fielder’s diverse list of clients includes a yogurt shop, a haunted house, a caricature artist, and a taxi company, and he somehow locates the funniest possible plan to implement for each successive one. What immediately elevates the show’s concept to great heights is the warped but indisputable logic to each new idea. Episode two boasts a perfect example, as Fielder aims to boost the popularity of an out-of-the-way petting zoo by staging a would-be viral video (starring a heroic pig). Though completely absurd and amateurish in production, the joke is on any viewer who dares to scoff – the actual video was uploaded to Youtube in September 2012, months before the show premiered, and received over seven MILLION views. Fielder and his producers were likely cackling with glee as their hoax even featured on national news broadcasts, including the NBC Nightly News. The video’s success never pays off for the petting zoo (for reasons I’ll leave the show to reveal), but it nonetheless proves the demented genius of Fielder’s methodology.

With the glut of reality TV today, its tropes and rhythms have become familiar enough to breed parody. Burning Love skewers The Bachelor by creating a carbon copy that’s ever so slightly elevated. Children’s Hospital similarly spoofs the stereotypical hospital show, while NTSF:SD:SUV takes on the acronym-happy CBS procedural. But Nathan For You is the first in this lineage to not just create a full-fledged bizarre version of well-trodden TV tropes, but to do something slightly cleverer. The show’s brilliance comes in its flexibility to transform into several brands of reality show from week-to-week, and in its ability to constantly springboard beyond their conceit. During the recent, thrilling broadcast of Nik Wallenda tightrope-walk across the Grand Canyon, I couldn’t help recalling this show’s send-up of such stunts – the “Claw of Shame,” where Nathan risks unlawfully exposing himself (via robot-controlled mechanical claw) to a group of children.

Fielder’s full committal to his deadpan persona helps to sell these loopy experiments, and his skill at improvisation allows him to get the most out of his unsuspecting subjects, often allowing them the biggest punchlines. In one of the show’s most memorable segments, he gently guides a gas station manager into a soliloquy on the health benefits of drinking children’s urine (a scene that also marks the only time Fielder can’t quite hold the deadpan). Much of the show’s charm comes from the oddball troupe of real-life characters that agree to go along with the charade. It’s unclear how much coercion actually occurs behind the scenes, but their ultimate decision to submit to Nathan’s insanity reveals an unexpected tenderness beneath the satire. Even if some proprietors know that his idea’s going to fail, a part of them connects with Nathan enough to see things play out. For every “failure,” there are few who don’t leave the experience with a smile on their face — even if they’re holding onto the hope that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

For all its flights of fancy, the show is surprisingly able to craft complete story arcs within each episode. Like many of the vaguely scripted reality shows, there’s an air of predestination to Fielder’s format (in that his strategy will not become a permanent solution), but the show consistently surprises in how separate elements come together. Whether it’s a mall Santa Claus reappearing to provide voiceover for the pig video, or an elaborate gag played on a private investigator, the show zigs when you expect it to zag. That the show could be pitched as a bizarre sociological study (think a less cynical Sacha Baron Cohen character) makes it all the more rich.

After the success of the “2 grams for $40” gag, Fielder trotted out a similar test by tweeting “text the person ur dating ‘I haven’t been fully honest with you’ then dont reply to them for 1 hr.” Again the results were hilarious, and made me consider how such a joke construction was further example of Fielder’s forward-thinking comedic brand. On one level he’s using new technology to deliver jokes in a new way. But more importantly, just like on the show, Fielder reveals his underlying love of humanity in one simple, sneaky way: he gives us the punchline. Once again he provides a context – creates a bizarre alternate reality in which such a mishap could occur – and allows us to glimpse the outcome for just a moment. Crowd-sourcing is at an all-time high, but in an age where Youtube allows comedians the opportunity to connect with an audience without leaving their living rooms, Nathan Fielder is pioneering a more inclusive brand. Nathan For You showcases a gifted comic at the top of his game — giving everyone the opportunity to laugh at themselves.

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