In an early episode of the comic reality show Nathan For You, host Nathan Fielder – a Canadian business school graduate on a mission to aid small businesses – comes up with a typically unorthodox method to boost visitor numbers at a Californian petting zoo.
Totally deadpan, he suggests to the owners that they stage a fake viral video which makes it look like one of their piglets jumped into a pond to save a baby goat from drowning. Though they initially seem a little underwhelmed, they give him permission to go ahead with his plan anyway.
Upon realising that their cutest pig ‘Vince’ is “a total coward”, Nathan hires a Hollywood stunt pig and some scuba divers to guide the animal towards the goat through an underwater track made of PVC. By the time the stunt is ready to be filmed, humane society reps, animal trainers and stuntmen have all been called in – all likely taking a large chunk out of the show’s budget.
The premise is simple: each week, Fielder visits struggling local businesses who are keen to get their 15 minutes on national television, and pitches them an absurd idea to increase sales or garner publicity. Typically, out of camera-shyness or because they have been primed by their typical reality TV shows that people on TV tend to make things work, they agree to let him go ahead with his plans, no matter how silly they sound.
The scale can vary, from small, crude laughs like convincing an ice cream vendor to create a poo flavoured dessert, to months-long projects such as the one seen in the season 3 finale, in which he helps down-and-out 26 year-old slacker Corey achieve hero status by assuming his persona with the help of deep prosthetics and performing a high-wire walk between two buildings for charity. To perform the stunt, Fielder trained on a wire for nine months, and forced Corey out to exile in the desert in the weeks leading up to the walk. He even got him a girlfriend in the process.
Throughout four seasons (the latest is about to finish its run on Comedy Central in the US), Fielder has pushed absurdity to the absolute limits, uncannily managing to go above and beyond any reasonable expectations for a laugh.
The other great joy in this show comes through Fielder’s interactions with his guests. The host never publicly breaks character, encouraging the unlikely idea that his real life persona is in line with this awkward, lonely man, who often looks to the people that appear on his show for some form of companionship.
Throughout the show’s run, Fielder has regularly spoken about his difficulty in connecting with people, in deadpan narratives. He often shares awkward physical contact with nonplussed business owners; a high-five here, a cringe-inducing hug there. It has become a central cog in the show, and one that is at turns cringe-inducing, sad and heartwarming.
In a gut-twistingly funny episode in season 2, he gathers a group of fame-hungry women into a mansion, under the guise of a thinly-veiled rip-off of US reality show The Bachelor. Fielder tells the audience that he is using this as an opportunity to work through his social awkwardness issues, and if his comments in an interview in the LA Times are to be believed, he may not be joking. This thread runs throughout the show’s four-season run, adding some heart to the comedy, and preventing it from ever seeming as if the host is poking fun.
There is a deep cringe humour at work here: the camera lingers upon the show’s participants as Fielder leads them into innocuous social traps. Thankfully, few can endure an awkward silence as well as our host.
Nathan For You airs on Comedy Central UK on Wednesdays at 11:05pm