Nathan begins one of tonight’s segments by peeking out from behind a tree and letting out a tiny yelp. Fielder, the comedian, often gives Nathan, the character, odd bits of physical business when he’s opening a segment—filigrees of awkwardness that sometimes have something to do with the topic at hand but are just as likely to be non-sequiturs. In a segment a couple weeks ago, for instance, Nathan kicks off an interview with the owner of a maid service by shaking hands and then noting he likes to greet people with a weak handshake to establish that he’s not a threat.
Even back when he was doing brief “Nathan On Your Side” segments on the Canadian show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Fielder would pepper in these peculiarities. While Nathan’s introducing an “On Your Side” lie-detector piece, he pauses briefly to wipe something off on his jacket. As he sets up a segment on comedy in the workplace—embedded below—Nathan grabs his own hand to keep himself from forwarding an email, and then he calmly refuses to let go. (I also love the split-second appearance of an orange at the end.)
Although they might seem disposable, these off-kilter moments lend depth to Nathan. If the premise of the character were merely that he’s an awkward guy who shouldn’t be on TV, Nathan For You would be monotonous, like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. Nathan isn’t just awkward. He’s a fleshed-out character who sees the world through a strange, unpredictable lens, and when Fielder has a spare second or two to show us the view through that lens, he doesn’t waste the opportunity. Case in point: After his initial greeting in the park, as he walks away from the tree, he gives an almost imperceptible shrug to the camera, like he’s asking us, “Did that do anything for you? No?” You can see the post-peekaboo discomfort wash over him in his meek attempt to salvage the moment. This whole sequence takes about three seconds, yet it gives us a funny glimpse into Nathan’s mind. Fielder is spellbindingly good at developing and inhabiting the psyche of his persona.
The funniest experiment of tonight’s Nathan For You doesn’t even garner a mention in the episode’s title. It’s a motivational program that threatens participants with tangible shame, in the form of a humiliating photograph mailed to someone they know, if they fail to meet their weight-loss goals. The scheme is essentially a weaponization of the cringe factor that underlies much of the show’s humor. When we watch the show, we cringe at Nathan’s more socially transgressive antics because we’re vicariously embarrassed for the people involved. If you buy into Nathan’s plan, though, you run the risk of experiencing the embarrassment firsthand.
Nathan’s recruits are all too eager to blackmail themselves. When he invites them to come up with a scenario that would maximize their potential humiliation, they all appear to be game. Fred, for instance, imagines that it would be especially painful for his kids to learn that he was cheating on their mother with another woman. George, the “retired war veteran,” thinks that Nathan’s nude-man-in-a-hot-dog idea would be a good motivator for him, and he happily insists that he become a human frankfurter as well. Fielder is so delighted that he momentarily breaks character, laughing and asking George, “Really?” The strangeness of Nathan’s perspective is reliably amplified by the willingness of regular people to buy into it.
Self-blackmail proves to be a remarkable motivator for slimming down—in the short term, at least—as almost all of Nathan’s recruits meet their goal of losing five pounds in two weeks. Fred is so worried about traumatizing his kids, in fact, that he sheds 13 pounds. But poor Treacy (I’m guessing on the spelling) falls a single pound short. So she has to present a Jewish attorney at her firm with a photo of herself sticking her tongue out, pretending a banana is her penis, and holding up a sign that reads, “I HATE JEWS.” Treacy’s colleague, to his credit, responds with restrained, lawyerly eloquence: “To submit something like this to a Jewish member of the firm—a longstanding member her, for 35 years—it’s very hard for me to think kindly of you or to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
Nathan For You may be cringe-inducing and sometimes even provocative, but it’s not cruel. So now that Treacy has been humiliated, thus fulfilling her end of the bargain, Nathan does his best to save her reputation. While he’s sticking up for Treacy, though, there’s also a meta-game at work. Nathan convinced four people to go along with his somewhat deranged scheme, but those four all had a stake in it. Michael Cohen, attorney at law, has no such stake. So the challenge for Nathan is to see whether he can get Cohen to buy in, too. “Anybody that did hate Jews wouldn’t care about that photo being sent out,” Nathan argues, employing the kind of logic that reaches around its back to touch its bellybutton. Yet with time, Nathan and Treacy actually convince Cohen. “If it’s for weight loss,” Cohen says, “then I would accept it. It’s a motivator!” This line is followed by a smash cut to the credits, and we’re left to ponder what other atrocities a respectable lawyer might accept in the name of a colleague losing five pounds.
The Dating DNA experiment deals with the slippery nature of “safety.” Nathan argues to Dating DNA’s founder and CEO, Kevin Carmony, that the reason men outnumber women on his site is “because they think the person they meet up with could potentially be a killer and murder them.” Carmony blanches at the condescending nature of Nathan’s solution—a first-date surveillance program called “Daddy’s Watching”—but Nathan corners him by insisting that it would be bad PR to say anything bad about something that keeps women safe. (This is an oft-used, formidable trick in Nathan’s arsenal: threaten a sensible, well-meaning person with an angry public who will misconstrue his words.) If people will accept anti-Semitism in the name of weight loss, after all, then surely they can accept paternalism in the name of women’s safety. And so Carmony does, despite himself.
But that’s nothing. As the stunt develops, we see that, paradoxically, people will accept actual danger to keep themselves safe. The allure of enjoying peace of mind is apparently so great that a safety-minded dater will agree to surveillance by Mark, the amateur security enforcer who Nathan finds on Craigslist. (With his nervous manner, incoherent yet unerring confidence, and multiple techniques for “putting you out,” Mark is a real-life Dwight Schrute.) Nathan tells Polly, Bachelorette No. 2, that he has given Mark “your personal information, your address, your name, photographs, social [security number]” in case Mark needs to “track you down.” To this she says, “Okay.”
In other words, when presented with a flesh-and-bones manifestation of her supposed fears, Polly shrugs. All that matters is that Nathan implanted a worry and then provided a means to get rid of that worry. It’s very funny, but this kind of mind game is prevalent in our society: Here’s something that could hurt you, and here’s our paid solution for warding it off. Polly’s folly is a common one. We tend to assume that the self-appointed authority who knows about a problem also knows how to solve it. Nathan lays that stupidity bare.
The cleverest idea of the night is the spam-filter-exploiting party invitation system. Nathan turns a common annoyance of our day—“Did you check your spam?”—into a social lubricant that could benefit party planner Veronique Assouline. Although Assouline is dubious, Nathan’s freelance web developer throws himself into the project. He comes up with a few simple but ingenious methods, like routing messages through a Russian server and inserting hidden spammy keywords, to ensure that invitations for unwanted invitees will be treated as spam on the receiving end. And even if Nathan questions some of the programmer’s keyword choices—“1-inch penis” comes in for ridicule—it’s amusing to find that this scheme is even possible.
Yet the people whose invitations end up in the spam folder are actually the lucky ones if Nathan’s throwing the party. The centerpiece of this experiment is an interlude during which a Beverly Hills party planner is made to sit through the world’s worst party. She sits alone in a room with Nathan as he asks questions like, “Do you speak French, or is it just the accent you do?” After we see how an experienced party professional tries to worm her way out of a dull affair—haltingly and unconvincingly, just like the rest of us—Veronique’s anguish deepens with the arrival of the entertainment. The Bill Gates impersonator who we met in “Souvenir Shop/E.L.A.I.F.F.” is back, and his whole magnificent monologue deserves to be reproduced in full:
It’s really great to be here. There’s nothing like a party. You know, you work hard all your life. Especially when you’re trying to get Microsoft working. Microsoft! What would we have done without it? In the office days, older office days, in the ’80s, you had big computers in a room. I mean, enormous! And look at the technology now. It takes a inventive mind to run and invent this Microsoft, and I’m very happy.
At this, Nathan gives Bill some uncertain applause. Then Veronique claps. Finally, hilariously, Bill claps too, not knowing what else to do with himself. When human beings are lost and confused, they look to see what the other guy is doing. Nathan For You depends on it.
- Among the most reliable laughs on Nathan For You come when Nathan chimes in with a voiceover that directly contradicts what we just saw. Most episodes features at least one instance of “He loved the idea!” after someone grudgingly agrees to Nathan’s scheme. Another highlight tonight came after Mark, the “daddy”-for-hire, tells Polly—repeatedly and with escalating creepiness—that he intends to tuck her into bed. “Mark made Polly feel safe,” Nathan intones.
- The comedy of the first “Daddy’s Watching” encounter is heightened by the fact that Kamarin’s date, Cody, couldn’t be more unthreatening if he tried. In fact, with her various government conspiracy theories—including some standard 9/11 trutherism and a notion that Barack Obama engineers school shootings to “get rid of guns”—Cody appears more unnerved by Kamarin than the other way around. I hope this seemingly sweet guy finds the love he’s looking for.
- Then again, Cody’s Dating DNA profile lists him as nearly seven feet tall with a weight of 103 pounds, so maybe he’s not always such a straight shooter.
- “Looking for strong, responsible men for security work. (Burkas provided.)” How did this ad garner only one recruit?
- Nathan’s Looking For Susan screenplay—which appears to consist mostly of scenes in which people look for a woman named Susan—includes characters named Jack, Lo Lo La, Mr. Veal, Craig, Jimmy, Fillipe, and Francois. Also, Lo Lo La is some sort of “finger cymbalist.”
- When Nathan clumsily picks up Veronique Assouline’s little dog only to have the dog yip at him, it’s funny. When he does it again on the second visit—getting the same reaction—it’s genius.