The Understated, Absurd Comedy of ‘Nathan for You’
Comedy Central’s new show, Nathan For You, has almost totally flown under our cultural radar. It received few reviews, and no review from a popular outlet. This is a mistake not only because the show is consistently funny and intelligent, but because it features a type of comedy rare these days: a sort of absurdist, incoherent, and mundane humor that actually works. In a sense, I’d describe this as pure comedy with no ulterior or secondary motives besides getting a laugh. Humor, even if we like to think otherwise, most often works within an ulterior purpose or function. Some find humor insightful, others wise, cathartic or satirical, and others see humor as highlighting unspoken aspects of life. (Even the show about nothing, Seinfeld, doubled as perceptive and brilliant depictions of people.) Nathan For You is just funny, bafflingly so, and accomplishes nothing else. This is a good thing.
The sketches might follow a similar pattern, i.e. helping a small business with a dismal business proposal (poo-flavored frozen yogurt…), but even then, Fielder breaks that pattern as often as he uses it. His conceit of satirizing small business in America is both illuminating yet obvious. He highlights some of the absurdities of small businesses, the delusions of money and fame, but it never reaches the point of social commentary. The structure of the show invites some thought, but the thought is never rewarded with analysis. Moreover, as a viewer, I always find myself laughing, but laughing in a confused manner. Watching the show, and rewatching the sketches, I still don’t fully know how to classify this type of humor. Fielder could be compared to Borat and Tom Green, but importantly differs from both. His targets are often middle class or lower middle class workers, not the best target for any sort of satire, and in each sketch it remains uncertain if these jokes are being made at someone’s expense, and if so, whose. Sometimes this atonal quality emerges from the natural flow of the sketches themselves, and sometimes, Fielder will bombard a sketch with so many different tonal elements (sincerity, cynicism, satire, slapstick) as to purposely confuse the viewer.
This point of confusion is best illustrated with a clip. Fielder created a lovable viral hit in which he manufactured a situation so that it would look like a pig was saving a goat from drowning (Why not, you know?). The video went viral, and news outlets everywhere reported on the heartwarming story, but as you attempt to figure out the point of it all, you can’t. (Did Fielder do this to prove the gullibility of the internet, or news media? Did he do this to unite people in our love of cuddly creatures? To that extent some of his better stunts feel like Andy Kaufman’s desire to fuck with the public for the sake of fucking with the public, nothing else, though Fielder displays no malice.)
To do so he enlisted divers, a professional pig and other helpers to make the stunt. At one point, Fielder begins to worry about a leak from the crew and makes people sign a nondisclosure agreement. (Fielder writes in the agreement that disclosure would be punishable by death, but we learn you can’t attach such a clause to this contract.) As the time of the release arrives, Fielder grows paranoid and invites one of the muscular divers to meet with him at a train station. While he reminds the diver about the non-disclosure deal, he holds him as if to push him onto the tracks. The man realizes this ruse and then intimidates Fielder who backs down like a lovable coward.
The bit is funny on its own, but it makes little sense and even less sense in the context of the skit. In every sketch we encounter you can ask the same questions: Is this satire? If so, what, if anything, is he satirizing? Is he making fun of these people, or is he making fun of himself? Fielder always seems on the verge of Baron Cohen territory, but his targets are understandable, albeit flawed, human beings. They are not the grotesque, the racist, awful crowd of Cohen’s world, but just normal people. Fielder never just acts like an asshole a la Tom Green; he always communicates with the people he interacts with. In one of his better sketches, he attempts to trap a vandal by setting up easily defaced pictures. Then he catches the teenager only to convince him that he has been chosen to star in an episode of something called Teen Street. You want to laugh at the teenager for being such a douche, but the kid turns out like everyone else — normal and innocuous.
You could argue that a lack of tone and a confusing sensibility undermines the coherency of the show, but for me that is the most endearing aspect of Fielder. There’s an unpredictability despite the fact that he always seems in complete control of his ideas. It’s these absurdist moments that stay with me, that engender laughter even in the realm of memory. At the end of the teenage vandal sketch, Fielder tries to get police officer to admit that graffitti could lead to murder (he won’t), then he tries to get the officer to urge the young ruffian to be more like Fielder, at which point the teenager, the officer, and the mother all disagree, volubly with Fielder. Instead they all suggest to just be yourself. It’s hard to try to explain this kind of humor. It shouldn’t work, it feels a bit staid and obvious when you talk about it out loud, but it kills me. His comedy lacks stakes, attempts nothing more than what you see, and succeeds because of these modest ambitions.