How do I even begin to describe Nathan For You? It’s one of the best shows on TV, that much is certain. But is it a prank show? An elaborate piece of performance art? A sketch show? I couldn’t rightly say. But this much is clear: it’s nothing like anything else on TV.
At this point, Nathan Fielder is well known enough that people in the industry are “in” on the joke. His awkward interview with the stars of The Night Before (Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Anthony Mackie) is as awkward as advertised – but it’s also got a sheen of artificiality – clearly these are famous actors who wouldn’t put themselves in an interview situation with Nathan Fielder if they weren’t in on the joke:
However, outside the industry, Nathan Fielder is still able to get away with some pretty miraculous things. This season of Nathan For You, its third, has featured some of the most audacious stunts so far. One episode featured Nathan attempting to start a fitness craze in order to provide a moving company with free labor. Last night’s episode, the most recent, entitled “Smokers Allowed”, started out with a simple, but ingenious, premise: It’s illegal to smoke in bars in California. But what if there were a legal loophole that would allow smokers to enjoy their drinks indoors?
What ensues is an elaborate piece of performance art culminating in Nathan Fielder directing a play to meticulously re-enact an evening at the bar. It’s surreal, at times spectacular, and constantly hilarious. The details that Fielder injects into his character – at one point he is rehearsing with an actor and makes her repeat the line “I love you” to himself about ten times – are so spectacularly realized, and Fielder’s deadpan ability to never break, to never admit that he’s in on the joke, is unbelievable. That the play then culminates in an anti-smoking PSA? The perfect icing to an already delicious cake.
In thinking about how to categorize Nathan Fielder’s performance work, I realized there’s another performer who he has a lot in common with: Andy Kaufman. Just like Andy Kaufman, it’s never clear where the joke ends and the real person begins. Just like Andy Kaufman, everything he does is hilarious, but borders on the brink of being serious performance art. The play that Fielder puts on in “Smokers Allowed” isn’t all that different from some of the stunts that Andy Kaufman would pull – one that comes to mind is his memorable Saturday Night Live performance of Mighty Mouse:
A key part of what makes this “shtick” work is the two performers’ abilities to walk the fine line between comedy and drama. Putting on the damaged personas that they do, and making themselves the butt of the joke as much as they do, puts them in a precarious situation.
In the case of Nathan For You, overdoing the “cringe” factor risks putting off audiences to the whole show, making them too uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, without the human connection that Nathan Fielder is able to provide, it’s just another prank show, a Punk’d for small businesses. Fielder is able to inject just enough personality to carry the show without ever overdoing it – it’s never quite clear if you were meant to be laughing with him or at him. All said, it’s not far removed from the “foreign man” character that Andy Kaufman would do, or the “Tony Clifton” character that Kaufman would put on..
Like his predecessor Andy Kaufman, Nathan Fielder blurs the lines between comedy and performance art on Nathan For You. And like Andy Kaufman, it’s simply joyous to watch.
If you’re interested in learning more about Andy Kaufman, I highly recommend the biopic Man on the Moon, by the indelible Miloš Forman, and starring Jim Carrey. It’s a great entry point into the life of one of the strangest people in recent history.