Try to explain Nathan For You to somebody who’s never seen it, and you’ll find that it defies easy description. Where do you begin? There’s the stated premise: A business-school graduate helps struggling companies get on their feet. Except the plans he comes up with are really elaborate pranks. Except the pranks typically become experiments in human nature. Oh, and the host is a socially clumsy man-child who shouldn’t be on TV, but he’s really a brilliant comedian who’s just pretending, mostly.
When I’m proselytizing on behalf of Nathan For You, I tend to rattle through inadequate half-explanations like this. It’s no use. I end up boring my friends and frustrating myself with my inability to capture the show’s magic. It’s pointless. So now I simply say that Nathan For You is not only one of the funniest series I’ve ever seen, but it’s also the most honest reality show on TV.
This may seem like an odd description for a program that, for instance, rebrands a failed toy by billing it as “the only proof you’re not a baby.” That marketing tack, which Nathan applies to the Doink-It from Mark Rappaport’s Marky Sparky Toys, is so dishonest that a TV station rejects Nathan’s TV commercial on the basis that he’s “lying to kids.” Never mind that all of toy advertising is grounded in the time-tested practice of lying to kids. Even in this craven sphere, there are apparently limits to acceptable deception, and Nathan finds them.
So yes, Nathan is spreading dishonesty on a large scale here. When I talk about honesty, though, I’m thinking more of the genuine people that Nathan involves in his schemes and the honest reactions they produce. The show is almost dogmatic in its dedication to regular folks—people pulled off the street, culled from Craigslist, or simply accosted while they’re shopping for toys. The producers know that, as opposed to showbiz types, people unaccustomed to the camera have an earthiness that can’t be faked. The kids who make up the Doink-It focus group, for instance, are just kids—not telegenic cuties who say the darnedest things.
And still a star emerges, in the form of one girl who does not buy what Nathan’s selling, even after he gets a call from “the president” affirming Doink-It’s status as proof of non-baby-ness. (A commenter informs me that this poised young girl is an actress after all, albeit one who wasn’t in on the joke. Ah well.) After her two fellow focus group members have resigned themselves to Doink-It ownership, she still refuses. Nathan goads her: “But are you a baby?” She gives him a long stare. “No,” she answers. After Nathan pushes her further, she finally succumbs, but I would love to know the calculations that go through her mind as she reaches for one of those damn idiot balls. She appears to be wondering if she could bludgeon Nathan to death with a Doink-It.
Nathan also tends to demand honesty from the citizens he encounters. In last week’s episode, we punished a transgressor who had the temerity to dissemble his way to the front of a line at a hot dog stand, and this week, he demands similar snack-related integrity from moviegoers. His “no sharing” rule is liable to irritate customers rather than attract them, but Nathan somehow casts this as an asset as he discusses the idea with Eric Chaffino, the manager of Whittier Village Cinemas. “You know, if Edison was worried about his candle customers, he never would have invented the light bulb,” Nathan says (adding that his no-sharing idea “could be of that caliber”). Trying to convince himself, Chaffino formulates the argument in his own words: “What Edison did with the candles, y’know, if he was afraid of that, he wouldn’t have invented light bulbs then, so.” It’s always a pleasure to watch people regurgitate the nonsense that Nathan has fed them.
Alas, old habits derail Nathan’s attempt to remake American cinema lovers’ eating habits, as he spots countless couples sticking their hands into the same popcorn tub. This despite the fact that they were informed of the policy at the register and verbally agreed to it. We tell so many of these lies each day just so we can get on with our lives. “Have you tried our new flatbread sandwiches?” Yes. “Are you interested in saving money on your telephone bill?” No. And so on. Nathan takes these just-get-it-over-with conversations literally, however, leaving his marks no leg to stand on. When he confronts one popcorn-sharing couple in the theater—“discreetly,” with his double headlamp and extra-bright halogen lantern—they don’t argue that the policy is stupid. After all, they already signed on at the register. Instead, they lie some more to cover up their transgressions, haplessly hoping that Nathan will give up. But no, Nathan can smell a liar every time. Especially when he literally smells the liar’s hand.
Nathan sets up an infrared camera system that can be used to identify not just snack-sharers but also “perverts,” to use the word of one cinema staffer. To test this setup, Nathan has the staffer sit in the theater while an assistant adjusts the camera angle. Oh, and the staffer is made to faux-masturbate the whole time for the sake of verisimilitude. This creates the hilarious spectacle of a fellow making small talk about the beautiful town of Whittier—“I think it has the most trees in any city, variety of trees”—while he dutifully makes a jerking-off motion. But even that is less humiliating than the double-duty “POPCORN SHARERS AND THEATER MASTURBATORS” display, which lumps all cinema crimes into one category on account of it would cost $20 to secure a separate cork board.
But we shouldn’t blame Nathan for demanding the truth from his public, as the TV industry itself has taught him that honesty is a virtue. After private investigator Brian Wolfe lavishly insulted Nathan last season, he got a deal to host his own reality show, Cry Wolfe. Apparently, Hollywood likes Wolfe’s brand of forthrightness, so Nathan concocts his own straight-shooting reality format—Simon Sees—around Simon Kellogg, the mammary-loving security guard from season one. (Simon is one of two Nathan For You favorites who returns in this episode, the other being the gun-toting mall Santa from the Christmas-in-July experiment.)
What ensues is a tour de force of unabashed honesty. Simon Kellogg is an uncomplicated man, but he lays out his daily routine in astonishing detail, even noting the order in which he puts on his clothes—shirts first, then pants. As he describes his technique for cooling off a “Hot Pocket sandwich,” the segment gets ever funnier because it’s wasting time on two levels. First, and most obviously, you picture the reality show producer who’s forced to watch this insipid demo reel. Yet the sequence is also funny because as we watch it, it’s airing on actual television: A prominent cable network’s broadcast capabilities are being used to watch a man blow on his microwaved junk food.
Posted on guard duty at a jewelry store, Simon explains his defining character flaw to the shop owner: “Sometimes I get distracted by women with big chests—I might be looking at them or something.” The owner is baffled and wonders aloud why this is even a topic of conversation. It’s simply the honest truth, and on Nathan For You, that’s enough.
- Nathan lays a great trap when he encourages Simon to engage in some “Hollywood chit-chat” to grease the wheels at the beginning of the reality-show pitch meeting. This creates a natural suspense as we wait to see how Simon will interpret Nathan’s suggestion. So he establishes his “industry cred” by talking about how one of the actors from Captain Phillips is broke now.
- In terms of inanity, the title Cry Wolfe is indistinguishable from something that Nathan For You would have invented for Wolfe if it had the opportunity.
- Kids really listen to Santa. After he tells one boy, “That must mean you wear diapers,” the kid makes his mom buy not one but two Doink-Its.
- The spokesperson’s puff on a cigarette at the beginning of the toy commercial is a fantastic touch.
- That does it for Nathan For You season two, an eight-episode run that continued and extended the genius of the first season. Thanks for reading these reviews—so many of your comments were insightful and helped me see the show in different ways.