Tonight’s episode of Nathan For You puts the “trap” into trappings—specifically, the trappings of celebrity, of mass media, and of Hollywood prestige. Many of the bystanders attracted by Nathan’s Potemkin village of a film project end up being sucked in more deeply than they could have imagined. That’s because this show doesn’t construct mere pranks; it builds elaborate frameworks of mischief that extend their tendrils into the laws and mores of our society. When there’s a supposed flaw in a particular stunt, Nathan For You often responds by adding another layer of misdirection to account for the loophole, continuing to build until all the trappings and facades constitute a little world in themselves.
It’s amazing to see how deep Nathan For You will go in its deceptions. Even before we get into secondary complications, the souvenir-shop premise is intricate enough: Nathan aims to boost a souvenir shop’s foot traffic by constructing an elaborate ersatz film set (complete with director’s chair labeled “MR. DEPP”) around the shop, attracting the attention of celebrity-hungry tourists. The plan comes to fruition as soon as “director” Nathan steps outside the shop to see if anyone would like to be an extra in the film—before he’s finished his sentence, eager volunteers are shooting their hands up, begging to be let through the sidewalk cordon so they might taste a moment of celebrity.
What price is too great to pay for fame? For one woman, it’s $87, the tab she unwillingly racks up as Nathan makes the most of her moment on camera. She returns with her basket of fake Oscars and other Hollywood junk, wondering why, exactly, her credit card was charged. But all she accomplishes with her polite protest is to peel away one layer of the onion, as Nathan is prepared for this contingency. If this customer wasn’t satisfied by her brush with fake personal fame, he reasons, maybe she’d be placated by a brush with a fake celebrity. And so she is, although she has to contain her agony as “Johnny Depp” autographs every last one of her items, making them ineligible for a refund.
That’s a case where Nathan For You constructed a new fraud within an existing one, but as the show moves along, Nathan has to build outward, too. After the production team supposedly learns that the souvenir-shop scheme may have broken the law—a discovery that feels more like a forgivable plot device than a genuine surprise—Nathan is forced to assemble a slapdash movie around his footage of the extras/customers, in the hopes of lending some after-the-fact legitimacy (and legality) to the stunt.
From here, the show gets into the ontological territory that always serves it well, essentially asking what the bare-minimum requirements are for a video to be considered a “film.” Screening a rough cut of his movie to the unimpressed ex-judge Anthony Filosa—nice to see this good sport back for season two—Nathan protests Filosa’s contention that no jury would consider The Web (starring Ronnie Rodriguez!) a legitimate work of cinema. “But you said anything can be a movie!” Nathan whines.
And so it’s time to build yet another layer, inventing fake prestige for this fake movie that was fake-shot on a fake set by a fake crew. At first, it’s hard to tell whether the purveyor of that much-needed prestige, “industry legend” Crayton Smith, has bought into the First Annual Eastern Los Angeles International Film Festival. But Smith shows that he’s taking his assignment seriously when he interrupts Nathan’s opening speech to ask for an on-the-spot revision: He was only a second unit script supervisor on Bonnie And Clyde, Smith explains, but he got an on-screen credit for The Wild Bunch.
The long-retired script supervisor doesn’t appear to mind that Nathan builds a mythos of film-industry success on the basis of his obscure, five-decade-old accomplishments—Smith just wants the E.L.A.I.F.F. impresario to focus on his biggest hits. Here is a guy whose IMDB page employs the word “uncredited” on the majority of his credits, and still he’s not immune to pride. Nathan For You has a knack for finding these people. Smith’s interruption works out perfectly: His protests just give Nathan another opportunity to heighten the awkwardness in the room as he amends Smith’s bio for the benefit of the practically nonexistent crowd. It all culminates in history’s most pathetic award ceremony, as Smith hands a pointy slab of lucite to Nathan. “Uh, this is…” Smith begins. “You don’t need a speech or anything,” Nathan says. And that’s what it takes for a crappy souvenir-shop video to become a “film.”
The subplot with Nathan and the actress turns the episode’s dynamic on its head: What happens when, instead of adding another layer of bullshit, Nathan tries to strip away some of the show-business fakery that he’s built up? It turns out that route is just as painful, if not more so. Before shooting his love scene with actress Jessee Foudray, Nathan tries to relax the tension by saying, “It’s not like we’re kissing. It’s our characters kissing.” This sets up the extraordinarily awkward scene in which Nathan tries to take it back: “That might have been a lie. … I feel like there might have been some of me in there.” Foudray’s eyes widen as Nathan speaks, and you can see her growing retroactively uncomfortable with that fateful shoot. (I say that as if the shoot weren’t uncomfortable to begin with, but it was—Fielder finds an impressive number of ways to screw up a kiss.)
In the space of 22 minutes, Nathan For You can put together a dizzying array of deception, truth, and half-lies. It’s complex comedy, which only makes me appreciate that all of the madness originates with a character, Nathan, whose motivations are so simple. He just wants to help people and make friends. Even though the maudlin tone of his closing narration is funny and intentionally over-the-top, I can’t help feeling sympathy for pathetic Nathan, whose takeaway is that he shared a kiss with a pretty girl and left “with nothing but a souvenir.” I get suckered in by my affection for the poor guy, making me no smarter than the other unwitting folks duped by Nathan For You.
- Fake Bill Gates uses Microsoft Asteroid 95, and in last week’s episode, Nathan accuses the polygraph technician of using Windows 95. Is Windows 95 going to be a running gag this season?
- Anthony Filosa isn’t just an ex-judge, he’s also an ex-Press Your Luck contestant. And he did pretty well! I guess that’s why he’s always unperturbed by weird, awkward Nathan. Once you’ve stared down the Whammy and walked away a winner, nothing much fazes you anymore.
- It’s beautiful that the Johnny Depp impersonator’s name is Ronnie.
- When Nathan haltingly asked the actress if she’d ever done an on-camera kiss before, it had an eerie resonance for me. When I was a sophomore in college, I once helped out an acquaintance with his directing class. He needed actors for a scene in which two former lovers encounter each other in a park, and apparently thespians were in short supply, as I had no acting experience aside from a bit part in my high school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—nor did I have any former lovers of note from which I could draw inspiration for the scene.
Before the first rehearsal, I met my scene partner: an intense junior with short hair, a couple strange piercings, and an overtly aloof air that made clear she was a Student Of The Theatre. She was like a more aggressive version of Thora Birch circa Ghost World. Anyway, the script called for a kiss, and I was nervous. “Is this your first time doing this?” I asked her. She kind of laughed and said, “Yeah.” I breathed a little sigh of relief. “Oh, cool, mine too.” Then she scoffed, scrunched up her nose, and said, “Uh, I was just kidding. I’ve done this before. Haven’t you?” Which really put me at ease. That gives you a picture of the kind of chemistry we had onstage and off.
Anyway, it came time to rehearse the part of the scene with the kiss. The director said, “Just do a quick stage kiss there, and move on to the next beat.” I didn’t know what a “stage kiss” was, but I could imagine, and I was grateful that he’d taken the tension out of the moment. We finally got to the kiss, and I leaned in for a tasteful, professional peck. That’s when my scene partner slid her hand around the back of my neck and forced her tongue into my mouth, wiggling and slapping it around in there for good measure. It was the most violent kiss I’d ever experienced, but I was too much of an awkward nerd to protest. I don’t know how long this oral assault lasted—my best estimate at the time was approximately forever. Yet even in the midst of being violated, I figured it was some kind of “method” thing to get an authentic reaction out of me, and it was my fault for not being enough of an Actor to understand the artistic merit of this awful thing. (In fact, it was months before I realized that she was just a jerk on some weird power trip.) So when, at long last, she released my face from her unbearably wet grasp, I just gulped and continued running lines.
This star-crossed dramaturgical endeavor had a number of other miserable moments, but those are stories for another day. The point is that I really empathized with Nathan for a moment tonight. Thanks for the terrible flashback, Nathan For You.