The fun of Nathan For You lies in the unpredictability of its format. A Nathan episode doesn’t follow predictable beats like the reality shows it’s modeled after, it takes a totally different shape each week based on the needs of the story. An installment of, say, Kitchen Nightmares follows a story structure you can set your watch by. Gordon Ramsay meets and hits it off with a seemingly lovely, typically elderly entrepreneur who you’d only know is a roach-abetting, health-code flouting culinary degenerate if you caught the intro teaser. That meeting is then followed by an series of alternating pulling-it-together and fucking-everything-up montages that builds to a successful intervention. There’s no such thing as an NFY episode that goes where you think it’s going to go.
“The Richards Tip” isn’t a typically atypical episode of Nathan. The episode goes pretty much where Nathan says it’s going, though he takes some pretty goofy back roads. And oddly enough, part of what makes “Richards” slightly disappointing is how successful the final result is. This plan might be Nathan’s first unqualified success, at least if you look at the clients the way Nathan looks at them, as beleaguered business owners whose financial woes are only outpaced by their desire for deep, human connections. Usually, Nathan either succeeds at his goal but fails to earn the respect of the client or vice-versa. Here, the client goes so far as to call Nathan an angel, using language on par with the sort of thing Shark Tank dealmakers say about Lori Greiner. He’s totally sincere. I’m not sure Steve Mullin would totally understand, even upon watching the final product, why Comedy Central wound up broadcasting the story of how that weird Canadian kid helped put his restaurant back on the map.
Mullin runs Joe K’s Deli Restaurant, a quaint diner in Vernon, California, a southern suburb of Los Angeles. It’s both a diner and a dive, so it’s perfectly reasonable for Mullin to mention Guy Fieri’s pastrami pub crawl as a show he enjoys, and his ideal vision of how this whole thing would go. Nathan stresses, in his awkward way, that this is a different show, but one just as interested in letting a large audience know that Joe K’s is indeed “just a little bit better.” Nathan’s clarification might be the closest thing any of his clients have ever gotten to a warning about what’s about to come. Not that Mullin needs it, considering he’s easily top three among Nathan’s most chill entrepreneurs. He’s on board with Nathan’s plan to fabricate a generous celebrity tip from the jump. And once you’ve come around to the idea, choosing which impersonator to cast seems like a pretty logical next step, right?
As a general rule, the more amenable the client is to Nathan’s idea from the outset, the lower the odds that a classic Nathan episode is coming. Because as Nathan’s schemes go, this one is cute and a bit mischievous, but that’s about it. There’s certainly no potential here to disrupt an industry or to skate perilously close to legal jeopardy. This plan is a softer, cuddlier version of prior schemes like the pig-saves-goat viral video for the petting zoo, or that time Nathan had to invent a film festival to shield himself after selling Hollywood memorabilia under false pretenses. In the petting zoo job, Nathan had to figure out how to produce a credible looking animal rescue, then get the local news to bite. When he sold Academy Award keychains with “Johnny Depp,” Nathan had to develop a second insane idea to insulate himself from the risk he created with the first.
In “The Richards Tip,” there’s neither an ecstatic media embrace, nor is the plan full of hilarious pitfalls. In the end, one local news affiliate picks up the story of how “Michael Richards” left a $10,000 tip for a local waiter. And there aren’t really any pitfalls, though in fairness, that’s because Nathan thought of everything that could go wrong ahead of time and planned accordingly. (Apparently Nathan has learned to contact his friend Judge Anthony Filosa before he hatches his plans rather than after, and that’s an important step forward.) But the meticulous, ridiculous planning and effort is all in service of an idea that isn’t all that interesting to begin with, and there’s only so impressed I can be by a plan I could have come up with myself.
Would I go to the insane lengths Nathan went to, or construct absurd comedy scenes along the way? I certainly would not. But Nathan’s best stunts are the ones that pair a ridiculous concept with an equally ridiculous execution. “Richards” is all execution, much of which feels like overkill. As funny as a lot of it is, I couldn’t help but think some of the footage could have been replaced with some kind of interstitial gag at least, if not an entire parallel storyline. That said, the scheme is built in such a way that every bullet point relies on the bullet point that preceded it. (At least if you’re willing to accept the premise that a local investigative team would be dispatched to dig up the ugly truth behind this alleged feel-good story.) It’s hard to imagine leaving one of Nathan’s co-conspirators on the cutting room floor.
In addition to the “celebrity,” played in this case by Michael Richards impersonator Steve Ostrow, Nathan is convinced he needs an actual receipt with Richards’ name printed on it. An imitation won’t do, Nathan says. It has to be an honest-to-goodness receipt with the name “Michael Richards” on it. But changing his own name to Michael Richards to obtain the new bank card would be too simple for Nathan, so instead drafts Robert Paul Holmes with a Craig’s List ad offering to pay someone to change their name. Following a quick consultation with Judge Filosa, Nathan decides to ensure Paul’s name change is legal by publishing the required legal notice is a well-circulated publication. This time, Nathan knows just who to reach out to. Austin Bowers, the ghostwriter behind The Movement, is brought aboard as the editor-in-chief of The Diarrhea Times. (Mission statement: To fulfill the minimum legal requirements for Michael Richards’ name change and alert the community to the cuteness of Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist.)
If customer satisfaction were the sole metric, “Richards” would be a runaway success. But if Mullin ever decides to check out Nathan’s body of work, he might be left wondering if Nathan really gave this one his all.
- Ostrow refers to the Comedy Store set that extinguished Richards’ career as “his little problem.” He does sort of look like Michael Richards, but the chocolate-on-orange Kramer costume is doing a lot of the work.
- Nathan’s go-to Bill Gates impersonator returns to audition, but Mullin is not at all impressed. Of the choices he was given, Mullin should be really happy with his selection.
- The stuff with “Michael Richards” (f.k.a. Paul) is pretty inspired, especially the ultra long handcuff chain used to ensure Nathan doesn’t fall victim to a grifter.
- The staff of Joe K’s really did nail their performances. The patrons were all like, “Based on your excited reaction, I really do believe something I wasn’t at all paying attention to happened the way you’re saying it did.”
- Apologies for the long delay, a stomach bug has been trying to destroy my life. Suffice it to say, the title of Austin’s periodical is hitting close to home these days.