Diminutive Canadian Nathan Fielder looks and acts like the kind of clammy, Poindexter co-workers actively avoid at the Christmas party. On Nathan For You, his brilliant Comedy Central show that ends its first season tonight, Fielder cuts an unabashedly meek figure that contrasts dramatically with the ballsy nature of his comedy.
Fielder can get away with the most ridiculous, offensive ideas in part because he looks so doggedly sane and normal. Like Sacha Baron Cohen, Fielder traffics in what might be called stunt comedy if that label didn’t feel insulting and reductive. At their best, Cohen and Fielder are furtively renegade sociologists whose crazy comedy experiments end up revealing a lot about human behavior and particularly the complexities of how we interact and process other people and their ideas. Fielder isn’t just a uniquely warped comic mind: He’s also a student of human psychology and how being on television alters the way we see ourselves, the world, and the strange folks in front of the camera.
When it comes to fearlessness and audacity, it would be difficult to top last week’s “The Claw Of Shame.” In an almost unbelievably bold stunt, Fielder risked going through the rest of his life a registered sexual offender when he performs a Houdini-style feat that could’ve resulted in him exposing himself to a group of small children. Part of the genius of Nathan For You lies in the way Fielder keeps adding bizarre flourishes to already surreal scenarios, like the robot arm that strips Fielder while he attempts to slip out of a pair of handcuffs and press a button that will stop the robot before it can completely tear off his underwear. “Private Investigator/Taxi Company” doesn’t boast anything quite as audacious as “The Claw Of Shame,” a stunt that might actually usurp Cohen’s “Throw The Jew Down The Well” bit for sheer ballsiness. It does, however, feel like a proper season finale in the way it pays off threads from earlier episodes while ending on a cliffhanger.
The episode begins with an idea that’s relatively straightforward for Nathan For You: Fielder wants to get an obnoxious private investigator with a thick Boston accent and a belligerent personal manner his very first five star Yelp review. This is a quest that contradicts the indignant shamus’ strong, profane insistence that he could give a fuck about a five star Yelp review, or Yelp, or Fielder in general. Fielder’s plan? Get the perfect score by having the detective track down Fielder’s whereabouts. To make the gumshoe’s job a little more challenging, Fielder hires a group of actors to impersonate him and serve as decoys. Ah, but the bit doesn’t stop there. One of the themes running through Nathan For You’s first season is the host’s willingness/eagerness to use his position as the host of a national television show to improve his social and romantic life in ways that run the gamut from creepy to questionably legal. In an earlier episode, for example, he created a reality-dating show solely to make it easier for him to talk to strange, attractive woman.
In “Private Investigator/Taxi Company,” Fielder uses the show to try to change places with one of his decoys and in the process seduce his decoy’s understandably creeped-out fiancé. Since Nathan For You thrives on the element of surprise and unpredictability, I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that that the “Private Investigator” part of the episode undergoes several more hilarious turns seemingly designed as a bridge between the first season of Nathan For You and the second.
Fielder is never afraid to push good ideas into weird directions. Noting his own social awkwardness—another resonant theme on the show—Fielder proposes that a struggling taxi company give riders the option of choosing to either talk or not talk to their driver via a touch-screen computer. If riders decide to talk, it then gives them a series of conversational topics. This idea plays out much more smoothly than others—mainly because people are so quick to avoid unstructured conversations with their drivers—but runs into a snag when a passenger wants to talk to a nice older cab driver about marine life (one of four conversational topics proposed). The cab driver knows nothing of the topic, in spite of the fact that Fielder giving him books on the subject as homework. In moments like this, Nathan For You skirts accusations of mean-spiritedness, but the cab driver comes off well and Fielder invariably prefers to make himself the ultimate butt of any given joke (though he lays into the Boston detective eventually with uncharacteristic vitriol).
The episode’s most pointed and hilarious segment finds Fielder trying to play matchmaker between a nerdy co-worker and a woman who previously appeared on the fake reality-dating show episode. The catch this time? The meet-up is sponsored by Quizno’s, which insists that the awkward, mismatched pair have their first date at one of its franchise locations. For most shows, that would be enough. Not Nathan For You. No, Nathan For You features a marketing woman from Quizno’s “feeding” the nerdy employee lines, Cyrano De Bergerac style, about the deliciousness of Quizno’s subs. The segment doubles as a scathing indictment of product placement taken to a nonsensical extreme and the ugly invasiveness of corporate branding. With total disregard for what passes as plausibly human behavior, the Quizno’s marketing guru insists that the tongue-tied would-be romantic “talk about the artisan bread, the freshly sliced meat and cheeses” before proposing even more hilariously unlikely first-date banter like, “Did you know Baja Chicken has chef-inspired sauces?” It’s a segment as incisive and timely as it is guffaw-inducing. It’s remarkable that Fielder got Quizno’s to sign off on a stunt that depicts them as vulture-like parasites eager to insert promotions for their chef-inspired sauces, artisan bread, and freshly sliced meat and cheeses where they most assuredly do not belong and feel insane and wrong.
Though it’s not quite as epic or unforgettable as “The Claw Of Shame,” “Private Investigator/Taxi Company” illustrates the warped genius that has made Nathan For You an instant cult classic and a favorite of folks like Tom Scharpling, who has been stumping for Fielder on The Best Show for weeks. Nathan For You has echoes of Da Ali G Show, The Daily Show, and the aggressive anti-comedy of Tim Hiedecker and Eric Wareheim, whose production company produces the show, but Fielder also has a wicked, subversive sensibility all his own. Fielder may look like someone from human resources, but he has the soul of a daredevil. In the brilliant first season of Nathan For You the insane risks he takes pay huge comic dividends that will hopefully result in a second season, if not on Comedy Central, then perhaps on Adult Swim or FX or some other channel willing to take a calculated gamble on a singular comic talent and his brilliantly insane, if not quite insanely brilliant, ideas.
- Y’all have been angrily agitating for us to review this show, so here you go.
- What were some of your favorite moments from the first season of Nathan For You?
- Dear universe: Please renew Nathan For You. It is very good.