One of the great pleasures of Nathan For You is Nathan Fielder’s talent for staying in character, but “staying in character” feels like an inadequate way to describe the comedian’s approach. It might be more appropriate to say that Fielder has a gift for staying out of character. Yes, the insecure, half-oblivious problem-solver “Nathan Fielder” is an invention—nobody suspects we’re seeing the authentic man here—but the persona is distinguished by its lack of affectation. While the correspondents of The Daily Show are heightened avatars of lunatic TV news, skewering their interviewees from a place of authority, Fielder’s performance heightens nothing. He’s a pitiable man-child, the kind of person who fades into the background of daily life, which makes him hilariously out of place in the always-on!, always-up! broadcast realm.
Both The Daily Show and Nathan For You depend on the presence of cameras to make regular folks do strange things, but where the former program plays with the tension induced by TV’s watchful eye, Nathan plays against it. Fielder knows that the camera crew behind him inevitably raises the energy in the room, so he counters that with his low-energy approach. Caught between two poles, Fielder’s interlocutors don’t know which way to go—should they take their cues from the artifice of the cameras or from the apparent authenticity of woefully human Nathan? It’s funny to watch the participants in Nathan For You struggle with these opposing guideposts, and it’s even funnier to see the personal honesty that emerges amid their uncertainty.
Honesty is the topic of tonight’s first half, which makes it a fitting introduction of the show’s basic dynamic for viewers who didn’t see Nathan For You’s brilliant first season. Nathan aims to improve mechanic Greg Boodaghian’s reputation by convincing customers that G&Y Auto Repair gives truthful, fair estimates. First, Nathan tests Boodaghian’s sincerity by serving him a plate of cookies made with salt instead of sugar. What would be a childish prank on almost any other show serves as a compelling test of human nature here, and Boodaghian passes, sweetly finding a middle ground between the dictates of politeness and honesty: “They’re a little salty—different!” An approving Nathan declares this semi-truthfulness “good enough,” but he also pushes Boodaghian to eat another cookie until the beleaguered mechanic finally utters a clipped “no.” You don’t get to fence-sit on Nathan For You.
The lie-detector segments reprise a gag that Fielder first pulled on the Canadian comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, whose “Nathan On Your Side” segments were a spiritual predecessor to Nathan For You. But Fielder takes the joke further here, challenging the polygraph technicians more directly than he did on 22 Minutes.
When Nathan takes his second lie-detector test, there are a couple of subtle, expert touches by Fielder that lead the unwitting technician, John Grogan, into his trap. The first comes when Nathan invites Grogan to shit on less modern polygraph technology, an opportunity Grogan eagerly accepts: The older machines are “only 80-percent accurate,” he scoffs. This sets up the later irony of Grogan taking umbrage at questions about his own technology. Grogan’s first instinct is not to engage with Nathan’s inane objections and to let his professionalism speak for himself. But Fielder draws him in with another crafty move: He passingly disdains Grogan’s computer by remarking that it’s a Dell. Grogan can no longer resist. “Computer’s a Toshiba,” he mutters.
Now he’s down on Nathan’s level. Even though Grogan is aware that the objections make no sense, the technician finds himself arguing on Nathan’s terms. It’s a comical dynamic encapsulated in one moment of beautiful exasperation after Nathan suggests that the computer’s Windows 95 installation is tainting the results. “Jesus, dude, you’re grasping at straws! The operating system has nothing to do with what you’re shooting out,” Grogan says. Then there’s a short pause as Grogan tries not to pursue the matter further. His point has been made. The operating system is irrelevant. But once again, he can’t help himself: “And it’s not Windows 95.” So often when people on this show think they’re out, they pull themselves back in.
The segment plays out nicely, with Nathan—still wounded by the notion that he was fibbing about his porn habits—openly questioning the lie detector in the presence of customers who are supposed to be reassured by it. The auto mechanic proves himself to be a good egg when his claim to be “happy” with Nathan’s efforts is verified by polygraph; Boodaghian wisely makes no attempt to endear himself to the host when Nathan asks him the now-standard question of whether he might like to hang out sometime. “No,” the mechanic says. “True,” Grogan says, with admirably concealed relish.
Fielder is such a nimble comedian that his humor works whether his marks get on board or not. Where Boodaghian is skeptical of Nathan from the start, realtor Sue Stanford is eventually convinced to buy into Nathan’s “ghost-free homes” marketing plan. What ensues is a typically hilarious Nathan For You affair, as Stanford’s agreeability leads her into deeper and deeper madness. Indeed, the realtor’s interest in the ghost-free scheme only deepens as a sketchy psychic is called in to detect house-bound spirits, followed by a somehow even sketchier exorcist who banishes the demons that the psychic found. Stanford happily lets the exorcist try to cure her back pain with his patented method of yelling at her a lot. It’s a weird scene that would be entirely uncomfortable were it not for the comic relief of Nathan snapping iPhone pics in the background.
But the highlight of the real-estate segment is one of those organic bizarre moments that sometimes happen as people navigate the shaky footing of Nathan For You. After the psychic explains that an incubus rapes people until they die, Stanford says, “Wow, that’s like what happened to me in Switzerland.” It’s in instants like this one that Fielder comes close to breaking his facade: You can see his eyes lock onto Stanford before she even finishes her sentence. After the practically salivating comedian asks Stanford to elaborate, she explains matter-of-factly that she was choked by a ghost in Switzerland. “Oh, yes,” she says, “there’s been many things that has happened to me in my life.”
As my colleague Erik Adams noted in his pre-air review, that exchange was reminiscent of the scene in season one where a gas station owner recommended the healthful benefits of drinking young children’s urine. There are few shows that would be capable of prompting such odd, un-self-conscious spontaneity; Nathan For You achieves it by pairing its elaborate, inventive scenarios with a host who seems too dull to come up with something so diabolical. Because he’s devoid of TV affectation, Nathan leaves little room for interview subjects to question his motives; the only logical course they see is to go along for the ride. As it happens, when perfectly sane people find themselves caught up in an insane premise, they expose their own inner madness—a madness that is Nathan For You’s stock in trade.
- If you haven’t seen the first season of Nathan For You, I highly recommend it, especially since all eight season-one episodes are available to stream on Comedy Central’s website.
- Look closely at the bench sign for Sue Stanford’s realty—there’s a demon in the top-floor bedroom window of this supposedly demon-free home. And as you’d expect on a show with such attention to detail, the ghostfreehomes.com URL goes to a working site.
- Speaking of signage detail, kudos to the production for finding the perfect font to make “We’re G&Y!” look as much like “We’re GAY!” as possible.
- I love Stanford’s delivery as she cautiously explains the concept of an incubus. “It’s a spirit that rapes women,” she says, and then she clenches her teeth in a little “Yikes, right?” gesture.
- The exorcist’s patter gets pretty shaggy as Nathan asks him to banish the small-penis-size demons that are plaguing his body. Also, he doesn’t know what hemorrhoids are, but he knows they’re definitely demon-based.
- Nathan in a nutshell: “So is that enough small talk to make you feel comfortable?”