Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

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 it’s 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.

Sponsored Content
  • will

    This article makes me want to drink my grandson's pee.

  • http://www.kyleconrad.com Kyle Conrad

    Yeah, he's much more mocking marketers and marketing than he ever is making fun of the business owners.

  • Lou

    Nathan for You is a terrible, terrible show

  • Mae

    I laugh out loud whenever I watch this show. It is surprisingly hilarious

  • http://twitter.com/megh_wright Megh Wright

    Nice review. For me, the key to what makes this show great is that he's clearly an introvert at heart, but instead of battling against it, he creates the kind of humor that only a genuinely shy person can make. If you're an introvert, there's a lot of humor to mine out of embarrassment and general awkwardness and being forced to socially interact (lots of nightmares too)…this show's like forcing yourself to stay past the initial cringeworthiness of all that only to discover that there's actually a good joke on the other side.

    • mr. guy

      "introvert humor": maybe that's oversimplifying it but that resonates with me.

  • http://twitter.com/Gr8houseofHumor Z Ghouse

    Really like this show, glad you guys did a piece on it. Definitely has a unique premise and take on comedy.

  • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

    Probably my favorite new show this year. Hope it gets more buzz/ratings because as we know comedy central seems to do one season experiements like this all the time, only to cancel them when the don't immediately catch fire.

  • Yuck

    Fuck, this writer is awful. Trite and vague.

    • Tyler Miller

      Speaking of trite and vague…

  • Hayden Jacoves

    This is the funniest show on TV right now. I've shown it to my friends and everyone howls in laughter.

  • Bunk

    I liked the episode where he chickens out of going skydiving, then pays a random dude to pretend to be his friend that he had to go meet. Also the episode that he sets himself up on stage and makes it so that if he doesn't escape from handcuffs in time he would become a registered sex offender. The show is pretty amazing.

  • gentlemanstimes

    I love this show, too, but isn't the point of it being dead-on satire of garbage television? Not in a 'Burning Love' way, but more to play within its parameters and have some silly fun?

  • Jay

    Enjoyed your review. For me, this show is comforting. I'm not a shy person but find that most people don't identify with my humor and too often a, "are you being serious?" kills my moment.

  • Mike Bitter

    I hate this show and its host. It is not a sketch show. When you use real people, then make fools of them for entertainment, I have a problem with that. If I am completely honest, the Borat/Bruno character's do this, but they are Very Funny. This idiot is not funny, just mean and insincere. I look forward to when he eventually gets punced in the face.

    • Matt For You(r Ass)

      I hope somebody goes as far as to murder him.

    • bwat47

      You clearly haven't seen the show, he makes just as much of a fool of himself and is never mean spirited.

  • Adam

    I think what I love most about this show is how he pursues awkwardness by purposefully going against every social convention he can. It's not awkwardness for it's own sake, but awkwardness that illuminates all those social conventions which we go along with to keep things going smoothly. Like when he asks people to hang out with him when there's clearly no reason why they would, or when he tells the petting zoo owner that he doesn't want the video to be an ad anymore. And then there's awkwardness that's just hilarious, like when he gives that lady a pair of scissors to give to him as a gift

  • Rondonvolante

    Watch every tim and eric video you can find on youtube and you will come a lot closer to understanding whats at work. Watch "the universe".

  • k.c.

    He's making fun of capitalism and selfish individualism in the U.S. All his ideas to make money are immoral and highlight the inmorality of u.s. business. The selfish individualism part is the reality tv premise for one. Also his lack of real talent in business and putting up a front as a business experts. He also forces attention and solicits praise and is narcissistic and overvonfident in his (lack) of abilities. This highlights the attitudes and personalities of those seeking fame in the u.s. Very much social commentary and an underlying point. Probably has this viewpoint of the world being raised by two social workers. Brillant show and pure genuis. By the way the confusing tone is meant to showcase the confusion created in a viewer when false premises and thin content is attempted to be presented as entertainment with real value which is often seen in many of the less successful reality tv show attempts.