6 episodes of Nathan For You that laid the groundwork for The Rehearsal

6 episodes of Nathan For You that laid the groundwork for The Rehearsal

Dumb Starbucks, fake dates, alligators, and other TV tricks that foreshadowed the host's next project

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Nathan For You (Screenshots: HBO Max)
Nathan For You (Screenshots: HBO Max)
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal is one of the most fascinating reality shows in the genre’s history—in part because its approach to “reality” is so frequently full of constructions, manipulations, and blatantly unreal moments. With every episode, Fielder (or maybe “Fielder,” the curated, sometimes-deranged version of himself that the comedian has been putting in front of cameras for nearly a decade at this point) seems to retreat deeper and deeper into the false worlds he’s built around both his subjects and himself. To lift a Willy Wonka metaphor from Kor Skeete, the trivia-loving subject of The Rehearsal’s table-setting first episode: It’s like he’s constantly threatening to lose himself in his own candy factory.

As we desperately prepare our spirits for the show’s season finale this week (and the possibility that “Fielder” might simply disappear into his world of warehouse bars and false fatherhood, possibly for good), it feels germane to look back at how we got here. After all, The Rehearsal didn’t just miraculously appear, like a six-year-old child actor being secreted in through a bedroom window by a deeply dedicated production staff. It’s built from the base material of Fielder’s Comedy Central series, Nathan For You, a show that masqueraded as a prank show masquerading as a business advice show, but which often revealed itself, like The Rehearsal, as a platform for Fielder to explore the themes that seem to obsess him: false faces, emotional disconnection, and the fundamental paradox of reality TV—a genre that purports to capture “real” moments of human existence within the reality-devouring lens of a television camera.

Thus, this piece: An examination of six episodes of Nathan For You that chart the ideas and themes that power The Rehearsal, and which might—maybe, possibly—give us some window into what Fielder is thinking as he unleashes the finale, revealing the next vista of his ever-evolving, increasingly confusing, and sometimes ethically dubious worlds of pure imagination.

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Season 1, Episode 5: “Haunted House / The Hunk”

Season 1, Episode 5: “Haunted House / The Hunk”

The Hunk logo from Nathan For You
Screenshot: HBO Max

One of the central jokes of Nathan For You is that “Fielder,” ostensibly nothing more than a well-meaning and mild-mannered business consultant lobbing manifestly terrible promotional ideas at small business owners, can never seem to keep himself, or his desperate loneliness, out of the narrative of any of his schemes. That’s present from the very first episode—which initiates the running gag of the comedian trying to leverage his business interactions with his subjects into some kind of unwanted hang session—but it comes into the foreground with season one’s “The Hunk,” in which he devises a fake reality dating show ostensibly designed to help “Nathan” get more comfortable around women.

Besides putting Fielder front and center for the bit—after nudging handsome professional host Anthony Napoli out of the spotlight, of course—“The Hunk” is also important because it’s the first time the show deliberately acknowledges the awesome manipulative power it wields just by being a TV show. Despite Fielder intentionally dialing his charisma down to nil, the women brought on to date the “Hunk” are all happy to fawn over him, even declare that they “love” him, because, hey, that’s what you do on a reality TV dating show, right?

Nathan For You’s best moments often come when Fielder himself is shocked by his subjects’ actions, and we get one of our first big examples here: Deep into the segment, Lais, one of the women, suddenly leans in for a kiss mid-chat. Fielder recoils, seemingly genuinely surprised that the presence of a TV camera could be such a powerful “romantic” motivator. It’s a funny, queasy, “Should he be doing this/should we be watching it?” moment—planting the seeds for many such camera-assisted manipulations to come.

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Season 2, Episode 5: “Dumb Starbucks”

Season 2, Episode 5: “Dumb Starbucks”

Nathan Fielder wearing a Dumb Starbucks apron
Screenshot: HBO Max

“Dumb Starbucks” is probably the most famous episode of Nathan For You (to the extent there are people who’ve heard of this prank, but not the show itself), as well as the first time Fielder’s antics managed to catch some real attention on a national scale. The basic premise of the episode is the same sort of clever-dumb loophole abuse that “Fielder” pitched on almost every episode of the series, though: in this case, attempting to argue that a coffee shop could blatantly steal Starbucks’ corporate branding by claiming it was operating as a parody of the national chain.

Beyond the notoriety, however, “Dumb Starbucks” is key for two reasons. The first is its ambition, which sees Fielder and his crew construct a perfect approximation of a working Starbucks in pursuit of that all-important comedic specificity. (The health department eventually shuts them down; we can’t help but imagine that Rehearsal-era Fielder, with an HBO budget behind him, could have kept the thing running pretty much indefinitely.) Fielder’s ideas have only gotten bigger over the years, and it’s not hard to see “Dumb Starbucks” as a key moment in convincing TV executives that there was merit, and potentially huge free advertising, in backing this weird, quiet Canadian guy’s increasingly oddball plans.

The other notable thing about the episode, though, is far more human: the original business owner, Elias, who bails on “Fielder’s” increasingly silly demands at an early point in the episode. When approached for help later, ostensibly “as a friend,” Elias lays out the misapprehension bluntly: “My friends don’t hire lawyers to come and sign contracts,” he says, genuine unhappiness in his voice. “My friends don’t have cameras and lights and lawyers and producers. That’s not how you establish a friendship.” “Fielder” the character is devastated; we can only imagine Fielder the creator secretly pumping his fist at someone finally cottoning on to his deeper artistic goals.

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Season 3, Episode 1: “Electronics Store”

Season 3, Episode 1: “Electronics Store”

Nathan Fielder
Screenshot: HBO Max

Amidst all the philosophical wankery about “deeper artistic goals,” it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that Fielder is a comedian and that his shows are still some of the most riotously funny TV produced over the last decade. Let “Electronics Store” serve as an antidote to our own academic woolgathering, then. Sure, it contains a few moments of deep moral ambiguity, as when Nathan tricks a psychologist into deeming the week’s business owner, Alan, mentally unwell, simply by having the poor guy rattle off the details of Fielder’s latest scheme in a clinical context. And sure, it features Fielder attempting to manipulate a perfectly pleasant-seeming young woman into a combination of fake dating and corporate espionage as part of his war on Best Buy due to their unfair applications of their price-matching doctrine.

But “Electronics Store” also features the image of “Fielder” dressed up like his conception of a Hot Topic manager and his attempts to coach his cheerful accomplices through blatantly perjurious legal testimony and multiple moments when determined bargain hunters dressed in full black tie regalia crawl through a tiny Alice In Wonderland door, only to be confronted by a living alligator standing between them and a discount TV. It might be kind of evil; it’s definitely funny as hell.

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Season 3, Episode 5: “Smokers Allowed”

Season 3, Episode 5: “Smokers Allowed”

Nathan Fielder rehearsing a scene for a play with an actor
Screenshot: HBO Max

The plan: Allow a failing bar to flout local smoking bans by re-branding its patrons as “actors,” supposedly performing in an experimental play on behalf of a tiny audience of hoodwinked theater-goers. The result: Planting the first seeds of the show that would eventually become The Rehearsal, as “Nathan” becomes increasingly fixated on the artistic merits of his impromptu slab of slice of life theater, eventually deciding to hire a crew of actors to artificially recreate every moment of that initial night.

The meta throughline of “Smokers Allowed” is obvious, as Fielder’s attempts to re-capture the success of that first “show” slowly begin to absorb more and more of poor Ellen’s bar (including the moment where he has to inform her that she’s been re-cast with a more glamorous performer). But beyond being an early foray into the world of elaborate, life-based rehearsals, “Smokers” also interrogates, for neither the first nor the last time, why Fielder is moved to do the things he does. (Which, we sometimes have to remind ourselves, are real things he did, even if we’re putting quotes around his name while he’s doing them.)

In the episode’s most meme-worthy moment, “Fielder” hijacks a romantic scene between two of his performers so that he can do an “exercise,” in which the actor (Victoria Hogan) is directed to look into his eyes and tell him “I love you.” And then to do it again. And again. And again. As the repetitions build, the discomfort is palpable, but so is a sort of potent, if manufactured, emotional intensity. Later, in a moment that wouldn’t be out of place in one of The Rehearsal’s frequent real person/actor swaps, Fielder brings in the performer playing Ellen (Amy Goddard) to repeat the bit—but this time, she seemingly breaks character to tell him that she truly, genuinely loved his play. It’s a beautiful moment. It feels real. It looks real. We have no way of ever knowing if it was real. Which is, of course, the point.

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Season 3, Episode 8: “The Hero” 

Season 3, Episode 8: “The Hero” 

Nathan Fielder wearing facial prosthetics
Screenshot: HBO Max

For those looking to litigate the morality of Fielder’s stunts—which, as his own work frequently notes, are predicated almost entirely on him lying to and manipulating people he’s ostensibly offered to help—few pieces of ammo are as potent as “The Hero,” maybe the most ethically iffy episode of Nathan For You’s entire run. (And we’re counting in that tally the episode where Fielder threatened to expose himself to children if a magic trick went awry.) As with some of his other “special” episodes, “The Hero” sees “Fielder” edge out of business consultant mode and into something more akin to a freeform agent of chaos. In this case, that means finding an affable but unhappy nerd named Corey Calderwood and promising to make him a hero—if he hands over control of his life to “Fielder” for undisclosed alterations over the course of several weeks.

If Fielder’s plan—which includes an isolated trailer in the desert, sophisticated prosthetics, and a tightrope walk for charity—roped in only volunteer Calderwood, the discomforts of “The Hero” would still be deliberately rough. (Part of the point of the episode seems to be to point out how hollow such “heroism” can be.) But Fielder also brings in Calderwood’s grandparents and a young woman he goes on a date with “as” Calderwood (elaborate facial mask and all) before bringing the real Corey back out into the spotlight. In a follow-up special (and on his social media, which still acknowledges that he is, yes, the “cool beans” guy), Calderwood seems mostly okay with his strange brush with celebrity. But he also notes that he didn’t pursue a relationship with the “girlfriend” he was set up with because, well, “I wasn’t comfortable trying to start dating someone on, essentially, lying to them the whole time about what was going on.” “Nathan,” of course, professes to have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

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Season 4, Episode 8: “Finding Frances”

Season 4, Episode 8: “Finding Frances”

The final shot of Nathan for You "Finding Frances"
Screenshot: HBO Max

“Finding Frances” is the final episode of Nathan For You. But it’s not hard to see the 80-minute special—which sees Fielder throw himself into helping Bill Heath, a guy he’d previously hired on multiple occasions to impersonate Bill Gates (despite, as we learn over the course of the special, not actually being a Bill Gates impersonator)—as the first real installment of The Rehearsal, too.

Some of the parallels are obvious: Worried that the emotionally erratic Bill might blow his chance to reconnect with the lost love they spend the special hunting for, Fielder at one point hires an actor so that his friend(?) can repeatedly rehearse their reunion beforehand. After a series of cringe-y moments, the rehearsal process seems to actually, shockingly, do exactly what it’s supposed to do—helping Heath have what seems like a genuine breakthrough about his feelings toward Frances, and what he’s searching for on this long, bizarre road trip.

But “Finding Frances” also sees Fielder shed the last of the artifice that normally kept Nathan For You planted strictly in comedy territory. While on the road with Bill, Fielder drops the broken robot affectations of the “Nathan Fielder” character, getting genuinely psyched for his companion when they finally track Frances down, and projecting real anxiety during the 15-minute phone call between Heath and his quarry that serves as the special’s climax. “Finding Frances” is about real human feelings in a way Nathan For You often flinched away from being, and the sight of Heath achieving something like closure on 50 years of regrets and recriminations, in real-time, is genuinely moving. And Fielder is right there, as emotionally invested as the viewer.

Probably. Because despite that catharsis, there are other, more uncomfortable parallels between “Finding Frances” and The Rehearsal, too.

During the penultimate episode of The Rehearsal’s first season, the actor playing Fielder’s subject, Angela, hits an extreme moment. In the midst of a simulated argument, she knocks over a lamp, then strides over to the show’s creator and demands of him the fundamental question of that series and the most painful portions of this one: “Do you want to feel something real?” It’s a shocking moment. It’s also an echo, deliberate or not, of the last scene of “Finding Frances,” when Nathan—quest complete—returns to Arkansas to bid the special’s other main character a farewell.

We’re speaking, of course, of Maci, a charming and cheerful escort whom Fielder hires to keep him company while he’s tooling around Arkansas hunting down 50-year-old high school yearbooks with a very odd old man. Fielder drops the curtain further yet in these scenes, even inviting Maci to watch episodes of Nathan For You itself. (Her verdict, not inaccurate: “You’re a little funny … kinda mean.”) A little awkward, a little flirtatious, the pair seem to get something genuine out of their limited relationship—which only serves to remind the viewer that both participants have a vested interest in creating the exact impression that that’s the case: Maci because it’s her job, and Fielder because he’s trying to make good TV.

Which brings us back to that last meeting. “It’s kind of weird having cameras around,” Maci says, after a little light banter. “We could turn them off, if you want,” Fielder responds, which garners a laugh. “Could we? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?” “What’s the purpose?” And then, for a moment, the easy cordiality freezes, and a little bit of hurt leaks into her voice. “You’re filming something. That’s kind of the purpose, right?” Fielder, silent, looks off into the distance. (“Is this silly? Or is this something I should take seriously?”) Looks down. (“Are you really trying to help me? Or am I the silly part that you’re talking about?”) Looks directly into the camera, for one brief moment. (“Do you want to feel something real?”) Looks away.

And then: “We do have this drone. It’d be cool to get a drone shot, maybe.” And so the camera pans out, showing the film crew that’s surrounding them, showing the park they’re sitting in, flying away until there’s nothing left for us to see at all. (“That’s sad. You never will. No matter how hard you try, you never will.”) And, let’s be clear: Nathan Fielder created the feelings that moment evokes, deliberately constructed his show to generate them—just as he generates the moments of pain or silliness that The Rehearsal chooses to broadcast. If the joke’s on him, it’s because he wanted to tell it that way. He wants us to ask that central question, whether it was improvised or scripted, “real” or “fake,” Nathan or “Nathan.” But that doesn’t guarantee that he actually knows the answers, either.

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