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'Nathan For You' Is So Dumb It’s Actually Brilliant

The Comedy Central reality series returns with more harebrain ideas

Comedy Central

Every time I try to sell someone on Comedy Central’s reality series Nathan For You, I end up sounding like an asshole. To be fair, the show, which stars the eponymous Nathan Fielder as a business consultant to small Los Angeles companies, is an unlikely vehicle for humor—but what is even more unlikely are the marketing strategies Fielder pulls in the process. I am aware of this; the show is even more so. The show’s title sequence promotes Fielder’s credentials as someone who graduated from a business school in Canada with “really good grades,” but even here, the joke lies in the gap between what Fielder says and what we see on screen: a transcript showing Bs and Cs.

My insistence on the genius of Nathan For You, then, simultaneously comes with a few warnings. For first time viewers, I caution that the season one pilot opens with Fielder trying to drum up business at a frozen yogurt company in Eagle Rock with a novelty poo-flavored yogurt. The second episode involves a mall Santa with a criminal record, whom Fielder helps by arranging flash discount holiday photo shoots in the middle of summer. “I know it sounds kind of dumb,” I usually find myself admitting, “but just keep watching.” It’s an advertisement that comes with a rushed disclaimer at the end: this product might not be for everyone. But also: I’m still pretty sure it’s for you.

The second season of Nathan For You—yes, it got a second season, and a third, which premieres on October 15—quite literally trafficked in the logic of stupidity. Its fifth episode, simply titled “Dumb Starbucks,” describes how a struggling coffee shop in East Hollywood tries to rebrand itself by parodying the most recognizable chain of coffee shops in the world. (You might have already heard of Dumb Starbucks: it was one of the show’s marketing tricks that actually went viral.) The gimmick is fairly straightforward: turn your coffee shop into a bizarro Starbucks by adding “Dumb” in front of everything: Dumb Starbucks Coffee, Dumb Iced Caramel Macchiato, Dumb Chai Tea Latte, Dumb Tall, Dumb Venti, Dumb Norah Jones Duets. As Molly Lambert has already observed, the whole premise sits somewhere between an elaborate punch line and absurdist concept art. Or, as I would describe basically every episode of Nathan For You: it’s so dumb it’s actually brilliant.

The third season has never been more aware that the heart of Nathan For You lies in exactly its balance of dumb gimmicks and surprisingly real emotions. This season pilot begins fairly typically: Speers TV, an electronics store in South Pasadena, is threatening to be run out of business by the new neighborhood Best Buy, whose deals Speers and its one-man owner Allan simply can’t match. It quietly incorporates elements of the show’s best episodes: wrapped inside a deeply humanizing and personal scenario is a running critique of capitalist obsolescence, of small business owners, of class and race in the less glamorous pockets of Los Angeles suburban strip malls, of rooting for the underdog.

Fielder’s solution? Have Speers drop the price of its TVs to $1 and then have Best Buy price match them. After this, buy out all of Best Buy’s TVs and resell them from Speers at market price. Shenanigans—involving a live alligator and two-foot tall door—ensue. But more interesting than these hijinks is how Fielder and Allan go about interacting on this plan:

Nathan: “It might take a little bit of work and time to do. Do you have a lot going on right now?”

Allan: “No, honestly no.”

Nathan: “So you don’t have commitments at home or anything right now, relationship stuff?

Allan: “No, no relationship, no.”

Nathan: “I’m not in a relationship either. We can both work on this, y’know, full time.”

When their elaborate plan fails—that is, when Best Buy refuses to match the $1 TV sale—Fielder moves to the next logical step: suing Best Buy. This involves cooperation from an “insider” at Best Buy who can testify that the stores does have a price match policy. Even better is the way Fielder finds her: by placing a Craigslist ad for a new reality dating show, which he calls “Retail Dating,” wherein retail workers go on blind dates. (Craigslist ads for fake reality dating shows have now become perhaps the most frequent trope in Nathan For You.) 

Manufacturing a fake reality dating show is in line with the extravagant scheming that constitutes the series, but it’s also a way to introduce the “human element” to a show purportedly about anonymous advertising and lonely people. The date, expectedly, does not go well. When Fielder asks the girl if she’ll testify in court against Best Buy, he gets a hard pass: “For all I know, you’re crazy.” She’s not necessarily wrong, but while that’s her exit from the show, we’re left with the fallout of this comment. Fielder reflects upon this moment later in voiceover:

I just couldn’t get the words out of my head. […] And in that moment I realized that I had become no better than the corporation I was trying to defeat. That in my efforts to take down Best Buy, I became the Worst Guy.

In a show that is explicitly about labor—economic as well as emotional—the person bearing the highest costs might finally be Nathan himself. Fielder takes this quiet revelation, however, and ends the episode on a touchingly generous note.

You’ll just have to watch it to see what it is.

What makes Nathan For You ultimately compelling is not so easily summarized. Part of this lies in the comedic pacing inherent in Fielder’s elaborate rebranding projects. The joke of Dumb Starbucks took, for instance, about six months to set up and pay off. The construction of the viral “pig saves baby goat” video involved the cooperation of everyone from professional scuba divers to animal rights activists. But more crucially, what makes Nathan For You immensely watchable is just how awkwardly unwatchable Fielder himself can be.

Here are some words one might not necessarily associate with a Comedy Central docu-reality TV spoof: melancholy, compassion, tenderness, poignancy. An intensely awkward Canadian man, Fielder has been uncannily described by Jonah Weiner as looking like a “Jewish Anthony Perkins.” And similar to Perkins’s most famous performance, Fielder’s delivery can be startlingly deadpan as well. (Personally, my response to Fielder’s affect is probably best described as the boy in middle school you had a crush on because he was always kind of mean to you.) In the face of visibly uncomfortable business owners and puzzled customers, Fielder maintains a relentlessly straight face. The pleasure and absurdity of watching Nathan For You largely lies in Fielder’s refusal to adjust his demeanor to the comfort level of his interlocutor.

As viewers, we see how most of Fielder’s outrageous ideas are executed largely because no one really wants to hurt his feelings. As Lambert puts it beautifully, Nathan For You is “a filmed meditation on the limits of politeness.” Very few on the show have actually come out and verbalized their frustration with Fielder—though it’s interesting whenever this happens as well. When a private detective calls Fielder “the wizard of loneliness,” the effect is only to make us care about Fielder more. As such, its funniest moments are often also its most painful.

Come for the lulz; stay for the pathos. There is certainly a kind of seriality to Nathan For You, insofar as one grows endeared to Fielder’s specific eccentricities and neuroses over the course of the seasons. But if you’re impatient, the season three pilot would be as fine as any place to begin the series. For television that tests the line between what is fake and what is real, the clearest truth viewers often glean is not necessarily the most obvious: dumbness often leads to vulnerability, and vulnerability often leads to that human connection we so desire from our television.