I Came Out a Believer: The Magical L.A. of ‘Nathan for You’

Nathan Fielder’s Comedy Central show Nathan for You is a lot of things: a prank show, an absurdist art project, a filmed meditation on the limits of politeness. But it’s also a travelogue through some of Los Angeles’s most mundane areas. L.A. may be famous for places like Malibu, the Hollywood Hills, and even Calabasas, but it also has approximately 8 million mini-malls. Nathan for You covers these less glamorous territories, places like Glendale, Burbank, and North Hollywood. In depicting these areas, Nathan for You shows a side of L.A. most people never see in the media because it is so very regular. It’s the polar opposite of the city depicted on shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The clients Fielder targets for his business makeovers aren’t involved in the entertainment industry. They’re just normal working stiffs with retail jobs, toiling over grills and cash registers trying to make a paycheck. I’ve only recently become interested in business makeover shows like benevolent benefactor show Shark Tank and Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, but I’ve found myself constantly looking up the businesses featured on the shows to find out what happened after their small brush with TV fame. It’s mostly very depressing. For every genuine success story, there are several businesses that went broke despite riding off into the TV sunset at the end of the episode. A lot of these businesses seem to become very bitter, because they really bought into the promises of the show they went on. More than 60 percent of the restaurants that went on Kitchen Nightmares have closed during the show’s 10 years on the air. Many of the deals that are “closed” on Shark Tank episodes fall through during the more rigorous vetting process that takes place after taping. So it was with cautious curiosity that I decided to follow up with some of the businesses that got the Nathan for You treatment to see whether there was any sort of Nathan for You effect, positive or otherwise. Would they be angry about being the ostensible targets of Fielder’s pranks? Happy to get TV exposure? Or bewildered about why I was calling? Mostly the last, at least initially.

As I cold-called my way through a list of Nathan for You businesses, I felt myself becoming incredibly awkward. Maybe I’ve just become too used to texting, or perhaps I absorbed some of Fielder’s awkwardness by osmosis, but I felt like an alien trying to impersonate a human being each time I tried to explain why I was calling. I mean, I was calling taxi companies and pizza places but didn’t actually want to order any taxis or pizzas. Several people asked if I was a telemarketer, which was not that far-fetched, given my overly cheerful tone of voice. I once worked for a payola-funded music magazine where I had to cold-call record stores across the country and ask if they’d like any free promo materials for bands like the White Stripes and Papa Roach, trying to keep them on the line long enough to ask “Are you sure you don’t want a Papa Roach cardboard stand-up?” This felt exactly like that.

After I somehow convinced them I was some kind of journalist rather than a robocall, and that Grantland was not a porn site or pyramid scheme, I found that people were actually very nice and willing to talk to me about being on Nathan for You. And in a twist I had really not expected, everyone reported a net positive effect from going on the show. Nobody I spoke to regretted having been on Nathan for You. It turns out people like being on TV! Maybe especially Angelenos. One woman I spoke to was even thinking of pursuing her own reality show.

Yogurt Haven (Eagle Rock)

I drive by Yogurt Haven every day but I couldn’t work up the courage to walk in and ask whether they were still serving the poo-flavored yogurt from the first episode of Nathan for You. I did notice they were still very much in business, which seems pretty impressive for a non-Pinkberry yogurt place post-froyo bubble crash. Yogurt Haven isn’t heavily trafficked, but there is a steady amount of local kids and students coming in and out the door every day. It looks like a generic froyo place with a white interior, froyo machines, and a toppings bar. I thought it was a Yogurtland until the day I actually read the sign.

I called and asked for manager Nick, whom Nathan interacted with on the Yogurt Haven episode, and found out he no longer works there. Instead the phone was answered by a dude named Elver. Elver was friendly and happy to talk. He told me that people have come in asking about Nathan for You “more than once, actually” but that nobody had specifically requested the poo flavor, which is good, because they no longer have it. Elver said there had been a noticeable uptick in business after Nathan for You, but “just a tad.” I told him I thought a tad was pretty good, since most people never even get a tad of extra business.

Valley’s Pizza Land (North Hollywood)

Tony from Valley’s Pizza Land needed to be convinced I wasn’t just calling to order a pizza, but once I mentioned Nathan for You he opened right up with the same gruff but sweet affect he’d shown during the episode.

Tony said people had been coming in to take a picture with him since he appeared on Nathan for You. He said there’s been a sales bump of “like 10 percent,” which again seemed huge considering I hadn’t predicted any bump at all. He also said he couldn’t tell if anyone was specifically calling because they’d seen the restaurant on Nathan for You, but that he had noticed a boost. “When they call us, they don’t tell me, ‘Hey, we see the show and we would like to try your pizza.’ That’s why we don’t know about that.” Tony also reported that he’d been getting some prank calls from kids asking for the “eight minutes or it’s free” deal advertised on Nathan for You, but mostly they just giggled and hung up. Tony said he didn’t mind the prank calls, since there weren’t too many of them and it’s kids “just making crazy.”

Hardwear (Hancock Park)

This was the first bust. The girl I spoke to on the phone didn’t know the store had been on Nathan for You, or what the show was. “I don’t know what that is, sorry,” she said. Trying to explain Nathan for You to someone over the phone was even more difficult than trying to explain Grantland. She was very apologetic that she couldn’t be of more help. Then I tried to convince her that she should watch Nathan For You after work. By this point I really did feel like I was on some sort of Nathan for You street team.

Billy’s Deli (Glendale)

The host at Billy’s Deli thought about it for a moment. He hesitated at first and then seemed surprised to remember that the restaurant had been on the show. “Oh yes!” he said. He reported a spike in business after the episode aired during Nathan for You’s first season, but nothing more recently. “After they showed it, they put it on YouTube, customers were coming in here and asking … It was like a year ago?” he asked. He affirmed that business had been noticeably better for a bit, not that it had ever been bad.

G&Y Auto Repair (Glendale)

Greg Boodaghian from G&Y Auto Repair, who was hooked up to a lie detector during his episode, was warm and affable. Greg asked if I was a marketer, and I somehow convinced him I was a legitimate journalist, albeit one following up on the effects of a cultish Comedy Central prank show. Greg also reported prank calls, but also said he couldn’t really care less about them (there had only been two or three).

He said business hadn’t changed in either direction, but that he does get recognized for the episode. “My business is the same, nothing has changed. Some of my clients that have seen the program, they have just congratulated us.” I asked him to expound and he said, “They just say, ‘It’s funny, I saw you.’ Very simple.” Regulars recognized him on the show. “Sometime the client comes in for repairs and says, ‘Oh by the way, I saw your show, I saw you on TV.’”

He seemed very humble about his TV experience, even though he’d been hilarious. Greg said, “It was an experience for me, because I’m not in the show business. But it was a one-of-a-kind thing here.” I asked whether it had given him a taste for show business, and he laughed and said, “No. I wish it was 20 years ago, it’d be different,” and then I laughed, and then we both laughed together.

Pink’s Hot Dogs (Hollywood)

The guy I briefly talked to at Pink’s was too busy doing his job to be of very much help. There were loud sizzling sounds in the background, and I asked if he was manning the grill making hot dogs. “No, I’m on the register,” he said. He gave a customer his change and then apologized and asked me to repeat my questions. I told him it was OK, but then I tried to ask him some follow-up questions about why Pink’s always has such a long line even during the mellower times of day, and he apologized but said he actually did have to get back to work. Are the hot dogs really that good? I’ve never had the patience to stand in line.

Andy OC Taxi Cab (Orange County)

Andy from Andy OC Taxi Cab hadn’t seen the episode his company was on yet, but he was familiar with Nathan for You. “It’s funny,” he said. “Especially the one with the Starbucks, it was really funny.” That should probably be the quote on the Season 2 DVD. I told him he could watch all the episodes on the Comedy Central website, and he vowed to go try it later. He said he was glad he’d been on Nathan for You, but hadn’t noticed any kind of discernible effect on sales.

Bugs A to Z (Woodland Hills)

Javier Arteaga from Bugs A to Z was chill with the fact that I was calling to ask him about Nathan for You rather than order a pest control job. I might call him the next time I need pest control. “At first I was a little nervous,” he said. “So as soon as we started this whole ordeal, if you notice in the first scene, my face. So I went in and that’s when I told him, ‘Hey, you’re the professional, you know you’re a business major.’ As we went ahead and we shot all these different scenes and stuff I realized, like, oh wow. I said, like, this is some kind of a hoax. So I just started going with it. You know, it was a good experience, it was a fun experience. I’d do it again.

“As far as business going up? I haven’t had any customers telling me ‘I’ve seen you on the show’ or anything of that nature. I had another guy call me last week, earlier in the week, and say, ‘Hey, I’m watching your show, it’s pretty cool, it’s funny,’ and so forth and so on, and he was calling me from …” Javier hesitated. “I believe it was North Carolina. It was kind of a weird call because he called me directly. Where did he get my number from? I don’t know. That was like, really weird. Usually you have to go through the office or a call center to call me direct. But it was a good experience, it was cool.”

I asked if he was mad that he didn’t know about the show’s premise or that it was a comedy and not a serious better-business show. “Oh, no, not at all!” he said. “I took it as a joke. I took it as a fun experience. If anything, it is kind of bringing business — maybe in the future, they’ll order from our pest control company. I think people realize it’s all staged.” He said someone recently recognized him while working on a customer’s house. Then he asked, “Are you guys like a fan-based club for Nathan for You or something of that nature?” and I said “sorta” and tried to explain what Grantland was.

Sue Stanford the Ghost Realtor (West Hollywood)

Lastly I spoke to Sue Stanford, the realtor that Nathan for You rebranded as “The Ghost Realtor,” pairing her with psychic Ron Bard. Talking to Sue was the ultimate Nathan for You experience. I came out a believer. Sue was incredibly sweet and talkative on the phone, and I ended up talking to her for longer than anyone else. I was particularly interested in whether her segment had been at all staged. The twist in the episode is that Sue really does have an interest in ghosts, which Fielder’s crew claims to have not known. She confirmed it was all real and that her revelation had indeed been spontaneous.

Out of everyone I talked to, she is the only one to have continued the promotion that Fielder started. One of her coworkers helped her set up a Twitter account for “The Ghost Realtor,” and the web domain ghostfreehome.com redirects to her realtor page. Bard, the psychic, has been trying to convince her they should do a reality show pilot together about ghost realty, where she would “go to homes that are having problems with entities or ghosts and help them.” I would definitely watch that show. Not to mention that I’d consider calling Sue if I ever needed a realtor. The Nathan for You effect is real.

Sue said, “I’ve had a lot of response. I’m on Twitter and a lot of people really enjoyed the show, and they’re concerned because in the show you know I said that I had a bad back, so they ask me how I’m feeling now and that type of thing, which is really nice, it’s been a nice response.” That is a nice response! She said she liked watching her episode, and then revealed she’d been a commercial actress for decades before becoming a realtor. I asked her about what happened in Switzerland, in reference to a dark ghostly encounter she gets into slightly during the episode, and she started telling me about the different supernatural experiences she’d had over the years. Normally I’d be a total Scully, but Sue was so nice and her stories were so interesting that I became a Mulder instead.

She had never really spoken to anyone about her ghost encounters until Nathan for You, and said that since becoming The Ghost Realtor, other people have been opening up to her nonstop. “Everybody has a story about ghosts or experiences in their life where things like that in their life have happened to them,” she told me. I asked whether the television crew had screened any of the questions in advance, and she said no, that what you saw happening on camera on the show was real. Fielder really was flabbergasted to learn that the Ghost Realtor really was a ghost realtor. As was I!

When she asked if I’d ever had any experience with ghosts, I felt pressed to come up with something. I found myself telling Sue about how I’d been to an abandoned Civil War era fort on the coast of Florida called Fort Pickens, which resembled the abandoned Civil War fort True Detective used for Carcosa. I later found out Geronimo had been held prisoner there. Did I see any ghosts? I mean, no. Was it very spooky, cool, and atmospheric? Absolutely! And Sue was so nice, I just didn’t want to disappoint her by being a boring old skeptic.

Besides, all her ghost stories were so good. “I was at the Biltmore Hotel doing a TV show about 10, 12 years ago,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about the Biltmore and then I was feeling all these people dressed up in beautiful gowns walking through the lobby. I could feel their presence and I was like, oh my god, I’m like thinking, and later on I found out that it’s really haunted with all the celebrities. Because they used to have the Academy Awards there.” I told her it was kind of like The Shining. “Yeah, exactly!” she said. “It was wild.” I told her I’d tweet at her when the story went up. Nathan for You’s L.A. can be magical, you know?

Filed Under: Television, Reality TV, nathan for you, Los Angeles, ghost realtor

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert