By Darren Springer
An awkward yet friendly man, approaching thirty but looking years younger, stands in front of a crowd of children, hoping desperately that he won’t expose himself to them...
This might sound like fodder for a sleazy Dateline report, but it’s actually from the Comedy Central series Nathan For You, starring Humber comedy program alumnus Nathan Fielder. Fielder has given himself the task of escaping from a set of handcuffs before a robotic arm can finish undressing him and exposing him to a crowd of kids, at which point police officers standing by will immediately arrest him. Fielder may not have invented this kind of stunt television, but the fact that he is willing to risk a criminal record for the sake of a single segment shows what distinguishes his comedy from other comedians who incorporate real people into their work: a willingness to make himself, not the subjects of his comedy, into the main source of ridicule.
The premise of Nathan For You is a loose parody of business-makeover shows as Bar Rescue and Kitchen Nightmares, as Fielder pitches a series of outlandish and woefully ill-advised marketing ideas to real small businesses. These stories are interspersed with other filmed bits that don’t follow the show’s main conceit but seemingly exist to fulfill his comedic whims. Far from being a simple marriage of Sacha Baron Cohen-style prank humor and reality-TV satire, the show distinguishes itself by drawing on his subjects’ sense of generosity and kindness for comedic fuel. Whether he’s suggesting that a frozen-yogurt store try hawking poo-flavored yogurt, or faking a video of a pig saving a goat in order to promote a petting zoo and then neglecting to mention the zoo itself after the clip goes viral, the show is focused on watching sensible people react with politeness to a man whose placid demeanor is offset by his absurd ideas.
Fielder gained a taste for gentle comic prankishness early in his career. He graduated from Humber’s one-year post-graduate comedy program in 2006, regularly performed standup at the weekly alternative comedy show “Laugh Sabbath,” and began making web videos. This led to a job as a correspondent for the CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, for which he hosted a segment called “Nathan On Your Side”. The segment featured Fielder asking strange questions to interview subjects in a matter-of-fact monotone that belied their weirdness. As Fielder told the Humber Etc. in 2008, “I’m working with real people and I try to get them to react (…) Real people in real moments. That’s what’s funny to me.” As with Nathan For You, the laughs come from the bemusement and confusion with which those profiled react to Fielder’s eccentricity. As Fielder told The Globe and Mail, “I learned that when you put people in situations they aren’t used to, you see more of their real personality.”
Fielder’s commitment to putting others in unfamiliar scenarios for comedic gain extends beyond his show. Fielder has proven equally adept at using social media to raise his comedic profile. Recently, he asked his younger Twitter followers to text their parents the message “Got 2 grams for $40,” then follow that up with “Sorry ignore that text. Not for you,” then tweet their parents’ responses. The flood of followers who carried out the experiment garnered Fielder media attention from such prominent sources as the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, and Britain’s The Daily Mail, exposure that will hopefully prove useful once Nathan For You returns for a second season. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that Fielder, in a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, expressed a desire to resurrect the kind of 70’s-style “event” specials that were crammed with gratuitous celebrity cameos and grandiose stunts, since it further suggests his eagerness to bring as many people into his comedic world as possible, not just as spectators, but as people who feel included in the spectacle.
Meanwhile, the crowd of children watching Fielder risking deviancy are presumably feeling very included in this particular attraction. The clock begins, as Fielder fumbles with his handcuffs while the robotic arm slowly strips him of his pants and makes its way to his underwear. With about a second to spare, however, Fielder manages to free himself, as a barrier springs up and keeps his lower region safely hidden. Fielder has managed to both escape disaster and illustrate something fundamental to his comedy. Rather than simply directing mockery or snark outwards, he is more than happy to cast himself as the biggest of all the fools in his comic circus. And if it means a permanent blight on his criminal record, then that’s apparently a price he’s willing to pay to bring people comedy that is in equal measure strange, generous and real.
Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/nathanfielder