By rights, Nathan Fielder’s name should be mentioned alongside Marina Abramovic, Laurie Anderson, and Robert Rauschenberg in any list of significant conceptual artists. Nathan For You exists at the intersection of performance art, invisible theater, improv comedy, and anti-corporate satire. Stripped of its comedic intent, much of Nathan’s output would qualify as legitimate, grant-winning modern art, which is why it came as no surprise when bemused passersby began spreading the rumor that the Dumb Starbucks store was a Banksy installation. “Smokers Allowed” resembles “Dumb Starbucks” more closely than any of Nathan’s stunts because it offers him the opportunity to create actual conceptual art under the guise of madcap marketing advice. Considering how many reasonable, sophisticated people don’t get Nathan For You on a comedic level, Fielder would probably be more widely known and critically acclaimed if something like “Smokers Allowed” was a deadly serious art installation rather than a goof for a television show.
Alas, it’s small business as usual in the high-concept world of Nathan For You, with Nathan bestowing his gift upon Ellen Sancer, owner of an unassuming dive called the 1881 Club. Nathan suggests circumvent a statute prohibiting smoking in bars using a loophole exempting theatrical performances from the otherwise bright-line rule. The stunt is as brilliant as it is simple. All Nathan has to do to shield the 1881 Club from legal ramifications is post a “Smokers Allowed” sign outside, along with a notice informing patrons that, simply by entering the bar, they’re consenting to act (without compensation, of course) in a play also called Smokers Allowed. Nathan installs a pair of theatre-style seats and red curtains to approximate the Off-Off Broadway experience he hoped to provide his guests, two local theater enthusiasts who are surprisingly into the “play.” “It’s so…nothing, in a way, but incredibly profound,” says one of the women, who compares the experimental show to the work of Sam Shepard.
Nathan’s so encouraged by the warm reception to the work, he decides to get an expert opinion from Jeanette Farr, head of Glendale Community College’s theatre department. Farr is not quite as enthusiastic about Smokers Allowed, perhaps because she’s watching it on a laptop rather than experiencing the play live like the attendees. But she’s still complimentary of the 1881 Club’s slice-of-life theatre, calling it reminiscent of John Patrick Shanley. The next step, for anyone familiar with Nathan’s work, is easy enough to anticipate. Nathan has thrown himself headlong into his insane schemes with far less encouragement than he gets in “Smokers Allowed” from the women who compare his work favorably with that of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights. Obviously, the show must go on.
What comes out of left field is Nathan’s plan for how to turn the one-time performance of Smokers Allowed into an ongoing business interest. Rather than continue using 1881 Club patrons as the performers in a new original play every night, Nathan suggests something even bigger and, in theory, more potentially lucrative. The idea is to stop thinking of 1881 as a club at all and start thinking of it as a performance space that will earn its revenue with ticket sales for the critically-acclaimed Smokers Allowed. Sure, Nathan could have done a different show with new characters each night, thereby putting the Smokers Allowed brand in potential jeopardy again and again. But why risk it when the first night’s show had everything? Original recipe Smokers Allowed had all-consuming love, three-way selfies, and the rigorous stress testing of a skateboard deck—basically all the reasons you come to the theatre. Rather than tweak a successful formula, Nathan opts to recreate it.
The recreation of Smokers Allowed is one of the most brilliant things I’ve seen on Nathan For You. It’s funny, of course, in a way that complements what we already know about Nathan. He has a tendency to become so enamored of his own big ideas that he has no compunction about sidelining the business owners if they don’t fit into his grand design. Ellen finds this out firsthand when Nathan breaks to her the news that another actress edged her out for key role of “Female bar owner.” But there’s so much work involved in something like this. Seriously, just think about the painstaking process involved here. There’s a trio of conscientious transcribers capturing all the random bits of dialogue from Smokers Allowed, then the casting process, and all the rehearsal. It’s a tall enough order just putting on a show, let alone one that perfectly recreates a random night at a bar. Hell, not even Ellen can convincingly recreate the small talk she engaged in that night. To recreate Smokers Allowed with such accuracy that the footage of the two nights can be shown side-by-side is an astonishing feat.
But the split-screen Smokers Allowed isn’t the most arresting part of the episode. That comes during rehearsals, when Nathan steps into a scene depicting a couple’s tender moment at the 1881 Club. He doesn’t believe the chemistry between them, so he takes the actor’s place and asks the actress to look him in the eye and say “I love you,” over and over again. Obviously it takes a ton of practice and precision to nail a performance like Smokers Allowed, but Nathan takes it to Kubrickian levels of repetition (she’s forced to say “I love you” 11 times) in order to get the validation and human connection he so desperately needs. Fielder is an expert at maintaining his poker face, and it isn’t always easy to tell where “Nathan” ends and Fielder begins. But this time, I’m not sure Fielder himself is totally clear on what happened when he stepped into that rehearsal. The artist was present.
- I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but our recently appointed editor-in-chief John Teti has officially handed me the keys to the Nathan For You TV Club. I’ll do my best.
- Leave it to Nathan to make a cup of apple juice sound so creepy and unappealing.
- Nathan, when asked what allows the 1881 Club to ignore the smoking ban: “Theater law.” Patron: “Oh, okay.”
- The one thing this episode was missing was a little resistance from someone, perhaps a state regulatory agency or something. Nathan is at his best when squaring off against a bureaucracy, and here his biggest challenge was the bored audience.
- The anti-smoking PSA at the end of the performance is a brilliant touch.