How ‘Nathan for You’ Brought Charlie Kaufman’s Sensibility (Back) to Television
From Review to BoJack Horseman to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, this has been an impressive year for adventurous, boundary-pushing television dark comedies exploring the more sinister side of the human (or, in the case of BoJack Horseman, painfully human anthropomorphic talking horse) experience.
In its third season, Nathan for You has soared above this remarkable company in part by embodying the sensibility of Charlie Kaufman more purely and brilliantly than anything on television since, well, Charlie Kaufman himself paid his dues as a writer on two of the most poorly watched yet influential comedies of the 1990s: Get A Life and The Dana Carvey Show.
The similarities begin with an obsession with business as a window into the complexities, quirks and wonders of being human. In his screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Confessions Of a Dangerous Mind, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman used businesses dealing in such unusual trades as purposeful and highly targeted memory erasure (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), international assassination/game show tomfoolery (Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind), a business essentially offering time-shares inside the body of an award-winning character actor (Being John Malkovich), cinematic adaptations of non-fiction books that somehow morph into an insane post-modern melodrama (Adaptation), and a theatrical production that grows in ambition and scope until it is less a conventional play than a sprawling, living city of sadness (Synecdoche, New York) to examine our deepest fears, desires and anxieties.
What does it mean to be human? Can we extinguish the past and if so, would we want to? Is reality just an elaborate construct, a giant act of make-believe no different, ultimately, from the manipulative game-playing of show-business and entertainment? Is it possible to escape the prison of self and experience a genuine, profound connection with another human being? These are just some of the big questions behind the fantastical and science-fiction conceits at the heart of Kaufman’s oeuvre.
Nathan for You similarly uses business as a prism to explore human psychology and the grubby desires that unite humanity. Only in this case it’s not the businesses themselves that are the vehicle for this simultaneously satirical and philosophical exploration but rather the unusual, and seemingly insane, fixes Fielder comes up with to help struggling small businesses.
It isn’t unusual for the fixes Fielder comes up with to blur the line between reality and fantasy and challenge our conventional notions of what’s real and ersatz in a way that calls to mind the meta-textual intellectual exploration of Kaufman’s work. For example, in one episode, Fielder tries to get around a dreary ban on smoking that is hurting a struggling bar by allowing smokers to light up as part of a theatrical production that by definition plays by different rules (and is obligated to follow a different set of legal regulations) than a bar.
Beyond being hilarious, this stunt implicitly asks some provocative question. What is art, really? Can a group of people smoking and talking spontaneously with no script, or even a loose outline, be a theatrical production on par with something written by David Mamet or Eugene O’Neill? If people consider something art, or if it’s packaged as art, then does it by definition qualify as art? This calls to mind Synechdoce, New York, where the lines between theater and the life that informs that theater are blurry to the point of meaninglessness.
Since he deals in fiction even when ostensibly adapting a non-fiction book, Kaufman can be as fantastical and surreal and impossible as he likes; he is unbound by anything even vaguely resembling reality. He can create a business that erases memories for a fee, or a portal into John Malkovich’s brain. But Fielder must play in the real world, with real people with real problems, and that makes the way he twists and contorts and manipulates reality until it seems like the most impossible kind of fantasy all the more impressive.
In the third season of Nathan for You, for example, Fielder hits upon what would be the craziest idea in anyone else’s lifetime but is about par for the course for Fielder: to help a small electronics store compete with Best Buy’s price-match program he proposes that the small businessman sell televisions for a dollar, so that Best Buy would then be forced to also sell televisions for a dollar, at which point the small businessman would be able to go to Best Buy and purchase one-dollar televisions that he could then sell at a steep mark-up.
To prevent anyone from being able to take advantage of the small businessman’s one-dollar television offer, Fielder sets in place a series of challenges that make actually buying a one dollar television prohibitively difficult, if not downright impossible. He begins with a strict formal-wear dress code and then forces consumers to somehow make it through a two-foot high door, at which point they would be greeted with the piece de resistance; a live alligator designed to successfully scare away even the most dedicated bargain-hunters.
That’s only the beginning of the experiment, really; when Best Buy balks at honoring the one-dollar price-match guarantee, Fielder then sets about suing Best Buy and to that end, establishes a fake dating show in an attempt to steal trade secrets from a Best Buy employee understandably confused as to why her date is so obsessed with talking about Best Buy’s price-match policy.
As part of his lawsuit, Fielder tries to get the small businessman declared legally insane by taking him to a psychiatrist where he calmly recounts how he implemented the changes Fielder suggested and the psychiatrist responds the way anyone would when told a story involving a previously unassuming electronics store, a formal-wear dress code, a tiny door (not unlike the weirdly low-ceilinged floor in Being John Malkovich), and a live alligator: she assumes that he’s completely insane and living in a bizarre fantasy world.
In Nathan for You, as in Kaufman’s work, reality often looks like insane fantasy and insane fantasies become unlikely realities. Fielder’s business fixes often take the form of experiments not unlike the Stanford Prison Experiment, only a little more perverse and a whole lot more humane.
Nathan for You plays with celebrity, entertainment and reality in ways that recall Kaufman, like a scheme to increase business at a tacky souvenir shop by tricking audiences into thinking that they’re extras in a Johnny Depp hacker movie. The movie only exists in Fielder’s imagination, but the purchases the fake extras purchase turn out to be very, very real. Like all of Fielder’s experiments, this takes a series of bizarre and inspired turns, but at the sequence’s heart lies a provocative question: what price will we pay, literally as well as figuratively, for a brief shot of fame, and proximity to the famous?
Kaufman gave sad losers an opportunity to inhabit Malkovich’s strange fame for a brief moment; Nathan for You afforded its star-struck opportunists an even stranger taste of quasi-fame, but both Being John Malkovich and this segment tap into our sense that if we were only more famous, or more successful, or richer, our lives would have more value and we would be the people we want to be and not the people we actually are.
There’s also a commonality between the persona Fielder has developed on the show and the persona of Kaufman in Adaptation. Though Fielder’s words are actually extremely confident on Nathan for You (that unearned confidence is actually something of a running joke), everything else belies that confidence, with the exception of Fielder’s fearlessness as a performer. Part of what makes Nathan for You so audacious is that its button-pushing titular provocateur is a satirical badass in the vein of Andy Kaufman or Sacha Baron Cohen yet he looks, acts, and talks like a Blockbuster regional manager. He’s the most milquetoast-seeming of comic mavericks. Like Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, Fielder is a neurotic Jewish man desperately seeking love, friendship, and connection in a world seemingly hostile to his mere existence, who must exert extraordinary effort and will to make the kinds of connections that come effortlessly to other people.
What ultimately makes Kaufman more than just a singularly clever writer and Nathan for You more than just an ingenious television show is the messy, tragicomic humanity at each’s core. At the heart of Nathan for You lies Fielder’s yearning to be loved, accepted, and validated, for the curious, understandably skeptical strangers he’s working with to like him and his ideas and to be happy their lives overlapped. In its most surreal and pure form, this desperate need to be liked takes the form of Fielder surreptitiously purloining the urine of someone he’s hanging out with to then take to a prove that he’s fun on a scientific, analytical basis. It’s the show in a nutshell — a squirmily, uncomfortably human desire (the need to be assured that other people like spending time with you, and that you are a likable and entertaining person) expressed in the most absurd and surreal, yet bizarrely real and honest fashion.
Behind their insane premises and post-modern mind-fuckery, Nathan for You and Kaufman’s films are rooted in painful emotions and the messiness of human existence. They traffic in the comedy of awkwardness and discomfort but they’re also informed by a distinct humanism, curiosity and compassion.
Given the current television renaissance, it’s tempting to imagine what might happen if Netflix or FX opened their coffers and gave Kaufman carte blanche to return to television with his own show. Yet thanks to Nathan for You, which is just ending a season so impressive it deserves a goddamned Nobel Prize, not just an Emmy, the bar for Charlie Kaufman-style television shows has been set so high that it’s likely only a genius on the level of Kaufman could clear it.