For the past several weeks I’ve been catching up on old episodes of Nathan for You, the Comedy Central offering which aired from 2013-2017. (“Old” is a relative term.)
I’m sure I’m not the only person doing this, trying to find anything and everything Nathan Fielder has done over his career. This summer I had the pleasure of watching his latest, The Rehearsal, on HBO, not really knowing who Nathan Fielder was at all. With how much I enjoyed The Rehearsal I was intrigued. (Fielder’s also a producer on How To with John Wilson, another of my favorites this decade.) For better or worse he’s apparently done only this one other show, at least as major releases go, but I made it my mission to watch every episode of Nathan for You, all of which are available on HBO Max.
Unlike The Rehearsal, which is better seen without any introduction, one should be familiar with the premise of Nathan before going in. First rule? Don’t take it too seriously. It’s Comedy Central, and it is a comedy show, mockumentary I suppose being the most appropriate label. Most episodes involve Nathan giving business “advice” to a struggling concern. The suggestions always border on absurd, though Nathan not only keeps a straight face through the entire proposal he doubles down on his suggestions as the episode proceeds. It’s a reasonable question to ask, who’s in on the gag and who isn’t. The businessowners, the customers, the bystanders… maybe it’s all planned. But there are times the reactions are just too genuine to be scripted. Or maybe everyone’s just a better actor than I think they are. And, as I am fond of saying when it comes to “reality TV” (when it clearly isn’t)… who cares. Funny is funny.
Consider the following “advice” Nathan gives a businessowner selling horseback rides. Recognizing that the company’s policy of not allowing riders over 220 pounds is cutting into their sales, Nathan suggests having overweight riders lighten themselves by attaching giant weather balloons. Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Like, harness a weather balloon to yourself, then sit on the horse. It does make you about 20 pounds lighter. (Perhaps you’d need two or three.) As ridiculous as it sounds, Nathan proceeds straight-faced. A delicious moment occurs when Nathan points out the discrimination the company holds toward the weight-endowed. In an era of evolving attitudes towards fairness: “You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.”
That’s funny. It’s not about making sales; it’s about fairness. Hilarious.
Oh and it gets better.
Since a busted balloon not only inconveniences a rider but increases his weight, there is legitimate concern for the horse’s wellbeing. (There is a point to the weight limit after all.) So to prevent the balloons from popping against the route’s many trees, Nathan suggests hiring a team of paddle wavers. These guys walk alongside the horse with giant tennis rackets pushing back tree branches and/or protecting the balloons. Mm-hmm.
But what about potential damage from circling birds? After all, those wayward beaks are basically flying spikes. Nathan’s got a plan for ya. Simply attach a scarecrow to a flying drone and have it hover near the balloons. Easy.
Yeah, these things tend to take on a Rube Goldberg quality of invention.
The beauty is watching Nathan make each increasingly expensive proposal with the sincerity of a Buddhist monk. This is the path to enlightenment. Follow these rules and you will succeed in your work. And the more bizarre, the more he affirms. In lesser hands it would just look silly. (Another episode uses a rabbi whose suggestions just don’t have the same effect.)
At times it becomes a little–let’s borrow a 21st-century TV term here–cringeworthy. Agreed. But remember rule number one. Don’t take any of this too seriously. You’ll just want to, well, cringe a bit.
Whereas The Rehearsal offers the viewer some legitimate questions about life and philosophy and such, Nathan for You rarely does. And that’s just fine. Nathan is a comedy show while The Rehearsal is not. As the old ad goes, it’s not TV… it’s HBO. The Rehearsal is perfect for HBO. Nathan for You just happens to be on the platform. But for an interesting idea here and there, it’s not groundbreaking or thought-provoking.
The Rehearsal? That one’s a masterpiece. It’s Sgt. Pepper and Ziggy Stardust and Citizen Kane… whatever you’ve got. Saying that it bears no relation to Nathan for You isn’t exactly true, as there are kernels in Nathan that pop in The Rehearsal. The journey is an arc more than a straight line. The cringe factor is there, yes, but it’s never unwatchable, and the conclusion is as mind-blowing as its buildup. As I wrote in July, if you haven’t seen it yet it’s better to go in fresh. No spoilers here. Just do yourself a favor and watch every moment. It’s worth the investment.
Meanwhile I’m looking for more Fielder product wherever I can find it. For some reason his output is relatively small (easy for me to say, I know), a rather meager bestowing of his gifts. It’s a strategy. Quality over quantity. Kubrick directed only a dozen films and they’re all classics. Tom Wolfe wrote four novels and they’re all brilliant. Better to write a few good symphonies than a hundred bad ones I suppose.
According to that unreliable narrator known as the Internet Fielder has another comic series in the works (The Curse) and has begun work on Season Two of The Rehearsal.