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"Nathan for You" and vulnerability

Jordan 2018-09-18

In the 2015 season 3 premier of “Nathan for You” on Comedy Central, Alen Harikian, the trusting but lonely owner of Speers TV, agrees to work with Nathan on a plan to exploit the local Best Buy’s price match policy to obtain an endless supply of cheap TVs. They put up advertisements for a $1 TV sale at Speers and hire actors through Craigslist to go to Best Buy with the ad and purchase a bunch of sets and bring them back to be resold for thousands of dollars. Nathan Fielder, who “graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades” pitches this idea in complete deadpan, and is met with a sideways glance and a hesitant “um… it’s a great idea.”

In order to discourage customers from taking advantage of the deal at Speers, he implements a dress code in the store, and hides the TVs behind a wall with a tiny door.

He then convinces Alen to let him bring in a live alligator and leave it behind the door to guard the TVs. On the day of the sale, Best Buy does not decide to uphold their price match policy, so Nathan hatches a plan to file a class action lawsuit against Best Buy, which involves having Alen diagnosed as criminally insane, and covertly gathering evidence against Best Buy from their employees by creating a fake reality show where retail workers go on blind dates.

“Nathan for You” is that kind of show; excessive, imaginative, and sensible in the same way a kindergartner is – the logic is there, but it’s unapologetically impractical.

One of the long-running arcs follows Nathan’s struggle with social anxiety, based in part on his real life. In one episode he instructs an actor he has hired to tell him she loves him over and over as an acting exercise. In another, he creates a fake “The Bachelor”-esque show to get practice talking to women. Through all of this, there’s no winking at the audience; the viewer is continually wondering if the Nathan Fielder of the show is just a character, and perhaps when the cameras turn off, the real Nathan Fielder breaks into laughter and reveals that he’s actually just adept at pretending to be awkward – but he never falters.

This commitment to his character – or perhaps it’s just the truth of his self portrayal – is an essential part of what makes the show work. Cringe humor is hard to do well and a lot of viewers are turned off by the second-hand embarrassment. A show which laughs at people who are doing their best but coming up short is only a short hop away from becoming a show like “tosh.0″ which, while funny in its wit and sarcasm, is also often devoid of heart in a way that makes it feel less than genuine.

The secret sauce of “Nathan for You,” then, is Nathan Fielder. His gift for walking the line between manipulation and self-deprecation keeps the audience on his side. In one episode we watch him trying to connect with other men by talking about beer and sex, a conversation which reveals his own shortcomings and embarrassing idea of masculinity, in a clothing store’s back room which has been redecorated and labeled “The Man Zone.” In another, he throws a party to test a product he hired a programmer to create which sends party invites that will be filtered as spam so you can exclude people with plausible deniability, but nobody ends up comes to his party except him and his client, and a professional Bill Gates impersonator who he has hired as entertainment (the two sit on the couch uncomfortably while the impersonator delivers a monologue about Microsoft before Nathan snaps some photos and the client has to go, leaving only Nathan and the impersonator). In all of these episodes, he makes his clients uncomfortable for the sake of comedy, it’s true, but what’s even more true is that he does it by putting himself out there. The pattern that actually ends up emerging is one where Nathan’s actions unintentionally betray his own vulnerability – going for a hug at the wrong time, telling a joke that doesn’t quite land, or getting a little bit too into a dance – and his “victims” response is to make him feel reciprocated.

We like it when people are vulnerable, and we hate seeing them fail when we know they’re trying. Cringe humor relies on the conflict between discomfort, and this inherent support we have for each other, which is why it’s so often mean. The lesson can quickly become: “don’t try anything that might not be funny or cool.” The commentator’s position can quickly become: “I am funny and cool, and you can tell because I’m able to make fun of this buffoon who isn’t.”

In “Nathan for You,” the trick is that Nathan himself plays the part of the buffoon. We feel the same discomfort because he exposes himself so completely, but we root for him because he still means well. We squirm in our seats as the unwitting participants in his show bend over backwards to support his absurd ideas, but we also note that we would probably do the same, and that’s not a bad thing. At its core, the show teaches us that it’s okay to put yourself out there even if you’re afraid you might fail, by showing over and over exactly how bad you can fail and yet still have everything turn out okay.

Nathan ends up giving up on the Best Buy lawsuit, and even though Alen assures him that it’s okay, as he explains in V.O., he still feels like he has failed him. But after he reviews some footage of a conversation they had on the day of the sale, Nathan realizes that he might be able to redefine what success means. The episode ends as he sets Alen up on a date with one of the Best Buy employees who applied to his fake dating show. They’re seen hitting it off, she gives him her phone number, and he replies with the widest grin on his face that he will definitely call. And Nathan drives off into the sunset to go help another struggling small business in the next episode. Because it turns out that if you’re brave enough to try every crazy nugget that pops into your head like Nathan Fielder, you’ll probably end up with gold.