Nathan Fielder on Fascinating People, Social Awkwardness, and Taking ‘Nathan for You’ Abroad
Nathan Fielder might play a hopelessly awkward and highly unorthodox business consultant on his hit Comedy Central series Nathan for You, but it’s a role he’s mastered thanks to years of experience embracing and exaggerating what he once thought were the “terrible” parts to his personality — the compulsion to talk during awkward conversational pauses, a lack of finesse with girls, and the persistent insecurity that comes along with being a social outsider. Now that the second season of Nathan for You is in full swing, I recently talked with Fielder about what he’s learned from last season, how he and Nathan for You co-creator Michael Koman make the show, the impact of Dumb Starbucks, and his recommendations for the funniest Canadian comics on the rise.
First off, Happy Canada Day! Any plans for the occasion?
Thank you so much! I mainly celebrate Canada Day here by just trying to see Canadians. If I see Canadians I think okay, that’s good.
Can you recommend some of your favorite Canadian comedians working today?
There’s a lot of funny people right now in Toronto. I started doing comedy with a bunch of Canadians, and there wasn’t as much work up there in TV and stuff so we’d do these live shows every week, and I felt like they were some of the funniest people I have ever met. There’s a guy named Tim Gilbert who I started doing comedy with — we used to live together, but he’s one of my favorite standups and funny people all around. He made this blog of tattoos that’s so funny and just recorded a comedy album too, so hopefully that’ll be ready soon. My friend Chris Locke is doing stuff in Canada — really funny comedian. My friend Katie Crown, she lives down here [in LA] and does a lot of stuff and has helped out for ideas a lot on the show too. She’s super funny. Aaron Eves, James Hartnett — these are guys who, back in the day, we would make shorts and stuff together and just whatever we found funny, and they were some of the most naturally funny people I know.
Let’s talk about Nathan for You. What did you learn from the first season?
Well when you’re planning it and you’re writing it, you’re doing it as this thing where you’re intending it and expecting it to be funny, but a lot of people I interact with in the show are not the types of people I would see on a day-to-day basis or that are in my social circles, and I get to sometimes know them pretty intimately. It kind of takes you out of your own head and your own world too, so I did feel like after a few segments in the first season I left maybe a little bit wiser about people as a whole. But I’m endlessly fascinated by how if you just talk to someone long enough, how almost anyone — probably everyone — has something that’s shockingly interesting, it’s just about trying to see if they’ll talk about it or seeing whether or not it’ll come out. I mean, everyone is really fascinating — every person on the earth, probably. There might be a few not so fascinating people.
Have you communicated with any of the people featured last season since it aired?
I mean, there’s no one who I became friends with and started hanging out with, but there were some people who were actually in the show last season that we incorporated into this season; some stories that we’d come up with they’d serve a perfect purpose for, or sometimes it would be a situation where something happened after the show. We did a segment about stuff that happened after the show last year actually, and there was someone who was in the show last year and we do a piece that’s kind of built off of that this year.
There are some people who try to communicate with us, and you know, it’s LA, so I think once a lot of people are involved in a show sometimes they’ll come out of it thinking “Well hey, maybe I should be on TV more!” or something like that, so you do get some people like that who have other motivations from it, but in general, I find those people less interesting. That’s why Michael Koman and I try to find people who aren’t really aspiring to be famous or TV stars — we want regular people that the average person can relate to on that level, otherwise I feel like it’d turn into a bit of a one-note joke.
How does production work on your show? Can you run through how most segments are made?
Michael Koman and I did the pilot together, and we kind of came up with this idea of going to businesses with these unorthodox ideas and then having stories evolve from there. We like to keep it small so it’s just me, him, and a couple other friends we’ve worked with in the past. We’ll sit around for a while and try to figure out ideas we map out in paragraph form, and then from there we expand it into a more detailed piece and what we hope will happen. We try to think of how a reasonable person would act at a given situation and try to plan it around that, but the goal is always that at minimum it’ll play out as expected, but at best you’ll get something from the person you’re interacting with that will take you in a different direction and lead to a moment that’s even richer than what you initially planned. So that’s the goal, and then we also have really great editors on the show who, once they get all this footage, we have to work with them for a really long time to shape the story around the best stuff that happened. Because the show is so voiceover-heavy, oftentimes what we initially planned has to be totally thrown out, and we just start again to make a story around the footage that we have.
I know it’s only the second season, but have you thought about the point where the show makes you too recognizable to easily do these segments? Would you ever want to try taking it to other cities or countries in upcoming seasons?
I would love to do something overseas if I could figure it out and if Comedy Central would pay for it, but it’s hard to think that far ahead. When you’re developing a show, you’re not thinking about that being a possibility because it’s so weird. But honestly, either I don’t get recognized that often or people don’t approach me. [laughs] In Canada it actually happens a lot more, but so far it’s been okay.
What’s your general approach with the guests on your show? Is there anything you do in particular to encourage people to open up to you?
When I’m in situations where I’m with someone and they’re not giving a lot and I find them hard to read, I find that I feel this pressure to spill and just keep talking so the situation doesn’t get awkward. I don’t know why I put that all on myself because it should be equal for people to keep a conversation going, but I found that I do that. It’s partially patience and partially that I’m not really worried about being embarrassed or someone thinking less of me in those moments for asking or saying something weird, so I’ll try a bunch of things that might not pan out, but if they do, sometimes you’ll get someone opening up and it will take you down an interesting road. So I think I’m a little bit relentless with those things and spend a lot of time with someone and try to approach things from different angles to see if something interesting comes up.
A big reason I love Nathan for You is all the social awkwardness — it embraces it instead of fighting against it. You’ve mentioned your own struggles with anxiety in other interviews, so how much of the anxiety in your show is real?
I know I went through a phase when I was younger where I was in denial about my actual personality and I was trying to emulate my more confident friends, because I was aware of what all my deficits were and I would see friends who didn’t have those deficits or were better socially or better with girls, and rather than trying to find out what works for me I just emulated them. So I think for many years I had this strange, maybe even forced personality, and then I went through a phase in my late teens and early twenties where I started asking people what their first impression was of me and how in general I came across. I forced them to be honest, and over a couple of years I got very self-aware and realized I wasn’t coming across how I thought I was, and I guess I started to see what was funny about what I thought was terrible about me, and I went in the complete other direction where I started to embrace that and even exaggerate it. Me and my friends started going out taking photos of ourselves in terrible social disaster situations … we’d go up to places where we knew we wouldn’t fit in or just parties where we wouldn’t know anyone or maybe someone knew one friend there, and it would just be us feeling weird and out of place the whole night, and I thought it was really funny.
I guess I was just trying to embrace the outsiderness of who I was a bit more, and it started with taking photos and then it evolved into me making short films and gradually seeing what works. So the approach overall is trying to lose any facade that I was trying to put up and actually letting what I thought were the worst parts of myself be totally open to the world, and I guess that helped. But at the end of the day, when I started comedy I would just keep doing what I thought was funny. There wasn’t any big idea behind it, and this is me looking back and trying to analyze oh maybe it was this that I was doing? But it’s not that sophisticated.
Do you take the same approach with something like Dumb Starbucks — that it’s just a joke, and you leave it to viewers to project some deeper meaning onto it?
Well yeah, I mean with that one, that is the joke of that. Obviously things are funny for a reason and people respond to it for a reason, I’m just saying that I don’t think I’m the one who should be analyzing it. But that’s my hope with the show — that the experiences I went through and the moments I have with people and the way I see interactions, I feel and hope it’s very relatable. With a lot of the stuff we do on the show — like Dumb Starbucks — it’s not just nonsense. There’s an underlying pull behind it.
Nathan for You continues its second season tonight at 10:30pm on Comedy Central.