On the morning I’m to meet the comedian Nathan Fielder, a two-story Payless shoe store near the corner of Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard is on fire. Columns of black smoke swirl in the sky. As I crawl through the detour route, down side streets and secondary roads, I keep thinking: Fire sale. Fire sale. Fire sale.
Creative marketing is on my mind because it is what Fielder does. When asked by my sister-in-law to describe his current project Nathan for You, I tell her it is a reality show in which a mild Canadian man goes around giving bad advice to small businesses. Anxious for exposure or just too polite to say no, the businesses take the advice, and somehow, everything works out anyway. Fielder makes no adjustments to this description. “It’s a very clear premise when you explain it to people,” he says. “It’s just not that funny.”
Fielder is one of those comedians whose jokes are funny in part because it’s not immediately clear that they’re supposed to be jokes at all. “I think that when you say ‘comedy,’ the average person expects something silly,” he says. “You know, someone coming [out] in a weird outfit.” Fielder prefers sensible shoes and the occasional fleece. In working out the first season of Nathan for You with Comedy Central, he remembers the network asking for something “bigger.” That was the memo: “We want bigger.”
Fielder agreed, and presented them with an episode in which, with the help of food scientists, he aids a frozen-yogurt shop in the development and marketing of a radical new flavor: feces.
He sells it like he means it. When it comes time to work the floor, he is motivated and composed — not just a hired gun, but a soul for the cause. “I benefit from the fact that when I tell people I’m a comedian, they’re surprised,” he says.
Despite Fielder’s flat affect and seemingly limitless collection of crisp oxford shirts, Nathan for You tends to be jazzy and anarchic. Plots unfold in a linear fashion, each new piece of information a trapdoor. In an episode from the show’s second season, he approaches a real estate agent with a plan to market her properties as “100 percent ghost- and demon-free.” With the uneasy grace of someone trying not to hurt someone else’s feelings, she agrees. Part of this, of course, means hiring a medium to canvass the agent’s listings for supernatural activity. The medium wanders the rooms, metaphysical antennae up, shooting ominous glances into empty hallways and corners. Fielder and the agent — a genial woman named Sue — follow. The moment is hot with possibility.
In the bedroom, a tremor comes over the medium, and he announces his discovery: “an incubus” — or, more specifically, “a ghost that will have sex with you until you die.” The real estate agent, who until this point has seemed like she has better things to do with her time, says she knows what the medium means. It reminds her of a ghost she met many years ago in Switzerland. A violent ghost that grabbed her by the throat and choked her.
Fielder has no idea what his subjects will say until they say it, and does his best to contain his astonishment. “It seems like your job is basically to get into an awkward situation and hold on,” I tell him. His response — flatly — is: “You’ve discovered my big secret.” Proud of the show but modest on the subject of its radical structure, Fielder says that going on a shoot is “a little like a fishing trip.”
Nathan in real life and Nathan on TV appear to be more or less the same person: dry, deferential, and reserved. It is hard to imagine him having ever shouted anything from a rooftop or gone through a skateboarding phase. At times his calm is almost bovine. For breakfast he orders oatmeal, and, cautiously, strawberries, noting that it’s good to “mix it up.”
As a teenager growing up in Vancouver, he participated in improv and theater. His young efforts culminated in a play called Yellow Squash, which he and a few friends performed at Point Grey Secondary School. The premise of Yellow Squash is that a scientist invents an invisibility cloak, which then gets stolen by two cops who claim the scientist is insane and have him thrown into an asylum. “These asshole cops,” Fielder remembers with uncharacteristic bite, “being reckless with this scientist’s invention.”
With the exception of a couple of teachers, the audience was pleased. Fielder felt at home doing comedy, but by the time college rolled around, he had, like many young people, surrendered to illusory ideas about how his life should go. He enrolled at the University of Victoria with the intention of becoming a dentist. “I figured I would make a lot of money, I guess.”1 He ended up with a bachelor of commerce in entrepreneurship and marketing, but from the way he talks about it, neither course was as useful to him as the ability to ferry back to his parents’ house on weekends to do laundry.
Realizing he had to do what he liked and couldn’t convincingly do anything else, Fielder moved to Toronto and started making short films.2 One of them features Fielder — who will probably look like a teenager for a very long time — on the subject of aging. “Age is a universal thing,” he says. “And everyone experiences those different stages we go through in life: being born, being a baby, and then” — he hesitates — “passing away.” Inspirational music soars in the background. The entire time, Fielder is sitting on a yoga ball.
“It’s hard to think of a situation where a parent would be younger than a child,” he continues. His cadence is friendly, his smile reassuring. It is common knowledge delivered with the condescending air of revelation. Why this is funny is beyond his threshold of concern, but it seems to have something to do with the arbitrary nature of authority. Yellow Squash was prescient: People believe cops because cops are the ones with badges. Ditto sitting on a yoga ball in front of a laptop. Look like you know what you’re talking about, and chances are people will assume you do, no matter what you say.
Improbably, Fielder was working as an interviewer for Canadian Idol when a man named Michael Donovan came across the shorts on YouTube and asked to see more. At the time, Donovan was the executive producer of a broad current-events comedy called This Hour Has 22 Minutes, which has been running on the CBC since 1993. “I remember having to burn the DVD, and it seemed like a real inconvenience,” Fielder says.3 He did it anyway. This was in the mid-2000s, when the hover-car dream of sourcing talent from the Internet was just starting to become a reality. Now, Fielder acknowledges the obvious: “I lucked out.”
Mark Farrell, formerly a showrunner on 22 Minutes and now an executive producer on a program called Seed, remembers telling Fielder to do “something I could pretend would have been on a news show.” Fielder came up with a segment called “Nathan on Your Side.” The conceit, as Farrell explains it, is that Fielder is “a consumer reporter, but he’s really kinda shitty at it.”4 When a viewer named Jasmine from Coquitlam, British Columbia, writes in asking which winter tires to buy to protect her family, Fielder begins with the advice that if Jasmine wants protection, she should probably consider “a more conventional weapon, like a small knife or some pepper spray,” but dutifully goes to the tire shop anyway.
22 Minutes was shot in Halifax, a different climate from the urbane Toronto that Fielder had become used to. “You’d see mostly gray hair when you looked into the audience,” he says. It was a healthy challenge. “If it’s funny, then anyone can get it,” he says, “unless I’m trying to make it weird.” When he wanted to take the temperature of an idea, he ran it by Alberta, a “nice middle-aged lady who did work around the office.”
My favorite Fielder segment of 22 Minutes is not part of “Nathan on Your Side,” but something called “Nathan’s Nook.” It is about 30 seconds long. After a high-powered, rock-and-roll intro, we cut to the image of Fielder’s shoulder peeking out from behind a brick wall on a quiet city street. He emerges and starts walking, straining to look casual. “You know what’s really pissing me off these days,” he says, pointing at the camera. “Those jokers up on Parliament Hill.” He is just a regular guy interrupted between point A and point B, a literal man on the street.
He keeps walking, looking back and forth between the sidewalk and the camera, unsure of why it might still be following him. He has said everything he needs to say. After about three seconds, he pauses and takes a half turn away from the lens, protecting himself, and then lowers his head slightly and glances up, like a dog that has been punished but has not yet come to understand why. For about a second we are alone with his nervous eyes. Cue high-powered rock-and-roll outro.
“You’d never get someone writing in saying, ‘Oh, we kinda like that Nathan guy,’” Mark Farrell remembers. “They either thought he saved the show or that we’d made a terrible, terrible mistake.”
Though most of Fielder’s work relies on the improvisatory rhythms of live performance, he functions more like a filmmaker than a stand-up comedian.5 At 22 Minutes, he edited all his own material; at Nathan for You, he works with a small team. Only in edits — in the shaping, sequencing, and juxtaposition of material — does the show’s humor emerge. “If you saw the full scene as it played out in real time,” he says, “it would be excruciatingly uncomfortable.”6
Fielder is a modern curiosity this way — a performer whose vision isn’t just conveyed by the media he uses, but defined by it. Half of the jokes on Nathan for You manifest in the scrims of postproduction, the authoritative voice-overs, the slow pans and quick cuts between a blank-faced Fielder and his uncomprehending subject. Nathan for You isn’t just a satire about entrepreneurs, but about the pandering and overblown ways in which entrepreneurs are presented to us on TV.
The show is produced by a company called Abso Lutely, run by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Heidecker and Wareheim are best known for Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! From far away, that show might resemble a cable-access broadcast or a bumper for a Saturday-morning cartoon marathon, but on closer look, it becomes the kind of hot, disjointed dream from which you wake up haunted. Definitive is an ad for “Candy Tails,” an interactive treat made from horsehair extensions that can be dipped in buckets of sugar syrup. Unblinking and frenzied, the children in the ad appear to have crawled onto earth from the pits of hell.
The connection between Fielder, Heidecker, and Wareheim makes sense. “He recognizes the absurdity of the world and the self-seriousness that people have for certain things,” Heidecker says. And like Heidecker and Wareheim, Fielder is as invested in excoriating the style of television as in excoriating its content.7 For however subdued Fielder is on camera, Nathan for You is an incisive show — comedy as parasite, latching onto a familiar form and biting down.
On the afternoon after I meet Fielder in West Hollywood, I go with my brother-in-law and nephew to the zoo. My nephew is 2 years old and a grenade of random, unbridled energy. His favorite animal is a big bronze statue of an alligator, because it is the only one you can climb on. Walking toward the gates to leave, he is distracted by a spray of bubbles. All three of us turn to look. A young woman in a blue polo shirt and sunglasses stands expressionless among several racks of stuffed animals with a bubble gun, spraying children. This is the gift shop, and she is its siren.
My nephew runs toward the stuffed animals, grabbing at the air with his tiny fists, seized by a need for something that 10 seconds earlier he hadn’t realized existed. Why should being sprayed with bubbles by a furtive woman in a polo shirt make anyone want to buy anything? Logic offers no solace, but my guess is that Fielder would understand. A few seconds later, another kid walks by and she pulls the trigger again. The Art of the Sale, Los Angeles Zoo, California, United States, 2014.
“The joke,” Tim Heidecker says, “is that Nathan is stupid and misguided.” On camera, Fielder is by turns clueless, tactless, helpless, and in general not what you would call a “people person.” His guests seem to find him pitiable. They’re the ones doing him the favor, not the other way around.
“What we discovered, with time and in general, is that it’s not as funny to exaggerate those kind of shitty qualities that we all have,” Fielder says. “It’s much funnier when the comedy can happen with me just trying my best to genuinely do a good thing.” He is the boxer and the punching bag and the mat trampled underfoot.
This is often but not always the case. In Fielder’s most conventionally successful PR stunt, he started a coffee shop that resembled a Starbucks in nearly every way, the elemental difference being frequent use of the word “Dumb” on the marquee and menu. “By adding the word ‘Dumb,’ we are legally allowed to use the coveted Starbucks name and logo, because we have fulfilled the minimum requirements to be considered a parody under U.S. law,” Fielder explains in the store’s informational video.
“Many of you probably know me as a comedian,” he continues, “but this is no bit or joke. This is a real business I plan to get rich from.” Would that it were so. The health department shut him down quickly, but to date the store’s video has been seen by over three and a half million people. The butt of the joke is Starbucks, which issued a statement saying, “While we appreciate the humor, they cannot use our name,” which is just as good as saying that the company doesn’t appreciate the humor, and why should it? In another prank — well, maybe it’s a prank, though Fielder shies away from the word — he suggested that his Twitter followers text their parents the message “got 2 grams for $40” and then invited them to share the responses. In these situations, Fielder seems less like the fall guy than the puppeteer, a misfit wimp who controls his victims by poking and teasing instead of just socking them in the face.
At the heart of Nathan for You is the impossible distance between Fielder and other people. “Social interactions have always been a bit of a difficult thing for me,” he says. “I think I have a natural tendency to make people not 100 percent super comfortable. It’s out of my control. So I find myself putting in physical effort to try to keep things flowing, keep things light.”
A shy kid, he remembers watching his mother, a now retired social worker, glide through conversations with anyone and everyone without breaking a sweat, a wizard of that interpersonal space in which people talk a lot without saying anything at all. “She can engage strangers in an hour-long conversation and leave being their best friend,” he says in wonder. “It takes forever to do stuff with her.”
By his own admission, Fielder shares none of her gifts. As he refined his comedy, he became interested in ways he could disrupt small talk without ever seeming rude. “If you throw a curveball into that kind of situation, people can’t maintain a false, light-and-fluffy attitude,” he says. “You see a glimpse of who they really are.”8
A secret star of Nathan for You is the city of Los Angeles, whose agreeable weather, general lack of sarcasm, and low level of ambient anxiety make it a perfect place to ask people to do things that under even a modicum of stress they would probably not want to do. “I could see if I did this show in New York or something, where things are a lot busier and people don’t have a lot of time for you, people might say more what they’re thinking,” Fielder says. “And the show relies on finding that middle ground where people aren’t really telling you that.”
When he finds out that I’ve offered to pay for breakfast despite not having discussed expenses with my editor beforehand, he says, “The guy from the New York Times can expense everything.” Embarrassed, I insist. After a fugue of manners — I’ll get it. No, I’ll get it. No, really. No, really — we go Dutch. Later, I realize the exchange was probably as uncomfortable for him as it was for me. I’ve been Fieldered, and Fielder has been Fieldered, too.
It is a lonely, sometimes awkward and sometimes sublime place. “If there is a natural silence, I just let it stay,” he says. “I won’t scramble to fill it.” Cornered by cameras and face-to-face with an almost total stranger, Fielder describes the experience of shooting the show as “freeing.”
At one point, he tells me he actually feels more comfortable when conversations go below the frictionless surface of small talk and into the murk of who we really are. “Don’t you think that ultimately, everybody is?” I ask. He looks me in the eye and answers without hesitation: “No.”
For as commanding and idiosyncratic as Fielder is, Nathan for You belongs to other people: his subjects, his targets, the supposedly ordinary Americans around whom his experiments unfold. They are the ones who blossom and change. Opposite them, Fielder often seems static, a buoy bobbing on strange currents underneath.
In a revelatory segment from Season 1, he ends up camped out on the top of a mountain with three middle-aged strangers who have abandoned their entire day for a minor rebate on gas. After working through a series of sub-clauses — including Fielder asking the group literally hours of riddles — they pitch tents, build a fire, and start to unpack the details of their private lives. There is hugging and crying, and Fielder singing a song with an acoustic guitar. At one point, a man named Ray shows the group the wedding ring he can’t bear to take off, 23 years after his divorce.
When Fielder comes back to tell the gas station owner about his night, he mentions that Ray is a naturopath who believes, conditionally, in the benefits of drinking his own urine. Fielder is presumably trying to get a rise out of the gas station owner, but the conversation pivots. Yes, the gas station attendant tells him, it can be a good thing to drink urine, especially the urine of your grandchildren — an old-world cure-all. From behind the counter, he produces a photo of himself and a child, the child’s face blurred. His grandson, he points out tenderly.
When I see the segment, I don’t envy Fielder but the middle-aged confessors and the gas station owner, comfortable enough in their own skin to bare the full light of their truths to a stranger. To say that Fielder laughs at them would be too simple. It’s more that he can’t believe that a world so judgmental would allow them to exist. A show ostensibly about manners, Nathan for You often ends up being about people who break away from them and, momentarily, become free.
Then there’s the “ghost real estate agent,” Sue Stanford. She accepted the invitation to be on the show because honestly, why not? The worst that could happen was — well, she hadn’t seemed to worry about what that might be. “I couldn’t work him out,” she says of Fielder. “He’s so deadpan serious when he talks, but then he says some funny things.”
On the subject of the episode’s climax, her mood shifts. It rocked her, pried her open. “I’ll never forget it as long as I’ll live,” she says. She mentioned it to friends and coworkers, hesitantly at first, then openly. It turned out a lot of people she knew had had their own spectral encounters — encounters they’d kept hidden for fear they would be too strange to mention, too outside the bounds of social convention, too real.
“It’s amazing,” she says, with a chuckle. “People keep things like that quiet until someone else brings it up.”
Mike Powell (@sternlunch) lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is a contributing editor at Pitchfork.
Illustration by Shannon May.