Cringe Benefits: Nathan Fielder’s brand of gonzo comedy is surreal, squirm-inducing and surprisingly human

Cringe Benefits: Nathan Fielder’s brand of gonzo comedy is surreal, squirm-inducing and surprisingly human

Nathan Fielder of Comedy Central’s Nathan for You
Nathan Fielder, the adorkable star of Comedy Central’s Nathan for You. (Image: Courtesy of Comedy Central)

Nathan Fielder will do anything for a laugh. On his Comedy Central show, Nathan for You, whose third season debuts later this year, he travels around Los Angeles offering advice to struggling small businesses and presenting outlandish marketing schemes to entrepreneurs willing to try them out on camera. He suggests that a clothing store allow pretty people to shoplift, for instance, and tries to make a fledgling caricature artist famous by encouraging him to sketch racist images. The business owners think they’re part of a reality show that follows a legitimate marketing consultant, and Fielder plays the straight man with disarming exactitude, never breaking from his deadpan character despite the preposterous plots he pitches and executes. He’s a wiry, adorkable 32-year-old with a boyishly cropped haircut and a nasal voice, and he comes across as eminently reasonable. It’s that nebbish quality that his targets respond to: they want to make his ideas work for their own success, but they also want to help out this earnest, socially awkward person.

Fielder grew up in Vancouver, and in high school joined a student improv troupe that included his pal Seth Rogen. After university, he moved to Toronto and enrolled in Humber College’s comedy program, eventually writing scripts for Canadian Idol and hosting a consumer reports parody segment on This Hour Has 22 Minutes called “Nathan on Your Side.” Over the years, he’s executed various online stunts, most recently punking Instagram by posting prosaic photos of himself smiling in different locations and posing with food. On closer inspection, in the reflection of his sunglasses or his cutlery, you could make out a pornographic image of an old man. (Instagram quickly clued in and pulled the photos down.)

Fielder blossomed in the era of cringe comedy, where the giggles arise from exploiting awkward social situations. It’s humour for an age when everything we do is recorded and displayed for public consumption, when unscripted moments provide the most tempting opportunities for schadenfreude. Cringe has infiltrated sitcoms (The Larry Sanders Show, Louie, the underappreciated Hello Ladies) and film (Napoleon Dynamite, Bridesmaids, every Ben Stiller movie). It often centres around a character with a total lack of self-awareness or a monstrous ego—think of The Office’s oblivious Michael Scott or Curb Your Enthusiasm’s conniving Larry David.

Fielder’s work echoes that of fellow cringe comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. But where Baron Cohen’s Borat seeks to reveal the ugliest sides of people, rooting out racist, sexist or provincial views by prodding and humiliating his subjects, Fielder’s goal is subtler: he wants to see how far they’ll follow him down a rabbit hole. He lets moments get weird by being opaque; he suggests something unexpected and then milks the uncomfortable silence that follows. It goes to show what people will do to defuse the pressure of an awkward situation. As we watch, we empathize with the targets, who are desperately searching for a social lubricant. We also want to screech at them for following advice that will inevitably lead to embarrassment.

In the first episode of Nathan for You, Fielder sets out to help a frozen yogurt store. He suggests that the manager could get more foot traffic if he introduced an outrageous new flavour: poo. The cameras and crew give Fielder credibility—the subjects figure he must know what he’s doing, otherwise he wouldn’t have a show. Don’t we all want to believe in so-called experts? Astonishingly, no one has ever asked him to prove his qualifications. But he chooses his targets carefully and works with people who will take his proposals seriously. The genius of the episode, and the whole series, rides on that moment when the manager, clearly taken aback, pauses and eventually agrees to the scheme. You can almost see the wheels turning. The idea, however immature, would garner a lot of attention—and isn’t that what he’s after? Fielder is never weird or aggressive with his pitches; he exudes a quiet confidence, which translates into gentle but effective peer pressure. His nerdy charm wields influence.

Fielder’s most widely publicized stunt was Season Two’s “Dumb Starbucks” storyline. He proposed that an owner of an independent coffee shop renovate it to replicate a Starbucks, inserting the word “dumb” in front of everything (Dumb Venti Lattes, Dumb Jazz Standards CDs), and call it parody art—which the First Amendment protects as a form of free speech. The owner balked, so Fielder went ahead and built it himself.

The charade earned international media attention (for the first 72 hours, no one knew who was behind the shop). There was a rumour that the English graffiti artist and political activist Banksy was involved, and Dumb Starbucks cups were going for as much as $500 on eBay. The key moment in the episode, which aired five months later, was when the lawyer Fielder hired to advise him on how to pull off the stunt signed a release without reading it. Fielder had added a stipulation that if Starbucks were to sue, the lawyer would be liable. As he puts ink to paper, the lawyer jokes: “What kind of a lawyer am I that I sign shit I haven’t even read?!” Great question. Answer: the kind who’s willing to forgo his better judgment on an audacious act orchestrated by a guileless “expert”—just like the rest of the unsuspecting characters on the show.

Nathan for You trades in embarrassing situations and fallibility, but it also shows a sweet and positive side of human nature. The subjects are game to try schemes they know on some level are ludicrous, which gives us permission to laugh at (and sometimes with) them. One particularly memorable episode involved Fielder bringing traffic into an independent gas station by offering cheap fuel. To cash in, the customers had to hike up a mountain, solve a series of riddles and camp overnight, all to net 50 per cent off. Three people stuck it out, and around the campfire that night shared sad stories about their home lives, bad divorces and the like. For them, the trip wasn’t about saving a few bucks. It was about a chance to escape their day-to-day drudgery and to connect with other people. It was unexpectedly touching. And it’s what makes the show’s peek-through-your-fingers moments so watchable.