Nathan for You: A Tribute

While it’s difficult for me to say that I have any one particular favorite television show, I can easily say that Nathan for You is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. There are a lot of reasons for this primarily relating to the show itself, but on top of that, I also discovered NfY when I was going through a bit of a difficult time in my life. It was a show that helped me through some things. I’ll get into the specifics of that later.

I can’t remember the exact circumstances surrounding my discovery of Nathan for You, but I do know that I first started watching the series at some time in 2015. It was probably in the spring or the summer. There were two events that coaxed me to get into the show. I think they happened in the following order, but I’m not positive: I saw a commercial on Comedy Central for the show — a promotion for the upcoming season (season 3). It was a clip from the episode “Nail Salon/Fun” where Brendan discovers that Nathan had stolen his urine for the purposes of a neurotransmitter test. I don’t remember the exact quote either, but it was something to the effect of “I’ve never had someone steal my urine for testing before.” This made me very interested in the show.

My second exposure to the show was seeing a clip on reddit. I don’t remember any other context, but here is the clip:

Actually, that’s not true.

My very first discovery of Nathan Fielder was in an article about Dumb Starbucks — a stunt from one of the episodes of season 2. There were a lot of articles written about this, and I can’t remember the exact one I read. I don’t really remember what I thought of it either … I think I thought it was strange but also something like “meh, parody law.” I don’t know if the article mentioned Nathan’s name, but it wouldn’t have meant anything to me if it did. I wouldn’t make the connection between Nathan for You and Dumb Starbucks until I started watching the series. I went through it in order on Hulu.

My Personal Love for Nathan for You

It’s rare for me to write down my thoughts about television shows or particular episodes. My main purpose for this article is to review the final episode of Nathan for You season 4. I’ll get to that, but I feel that I need to mention what it is about the show that would prompt me to write an article about it.

I was dumped in early 2015. I won’t get into the details of the relationship, but I can say that I was pretty devastated when it happened. I didn’t handle it very well. It was a big blow to my self esteem, and I was really wallowing in self pity and depression. I didn’t really feel like doing anything new, and that included watching new TV shows. Part of the reason was that I felt like the girl who had broken up with me was a lot more media savvy than I was, and I didn’t want to watch something that she might have watched or enjoyed. That may sound very stupid, but I’m sure some people who have gone through a tough breakup will at least understand what I mean.

Nathan for You was different. As the show began to unfold in front of me, I saw it as something that was very uniquely designed for me. I understood the humor perfectly in a way I think many others would not appreciate. I had discovered something new that I felt belonged to me. It was also one of the funniest shows I had ever seen before.

I finished the first two seasons relatively quickly. I also evangelized the show to my friends and other people I knew. I’m the locus of origin for everyone that I know who watches the show. Without a doubt, Nathan for You has improved my life. I’ll be forever grateful to the show and to Nathan Fielder. I even have a sporty soft shell Summit Ice jacket to keep me warm in the winter even though I’ve almost lost it a couple of times.

A Brief Analysis of the Seasons

While I don’t consider myself qualified to analyze any TV show much less NfY, I do want to discuss my thoughts on everything leading up to the season 4 finale. I really don’t know anything about the show outside of the episodes and a few articles and awkward Nathan Fielder interviews here and there. I also know that Nathan Fielder has been involved in tv-like productions for a long time even before NfY, and I think his YouTube channel shows a bit about where he’s coming from. The Nathan Fielder on NfY is definitely a character, but it’s also based on the real Nathan. I see it as if Nathan took all of his most awkward parts and turned them up to the maximum and then inserted himself into the real world and decided to make a TV show.

I can’t say where the helping-struggling-businesses-with-ridiculous-ideas idea came from, but the concept is hilarious in and of itself. It could work with a wide array of characters as a host. Nathan’s character is no exception. He creates awkward situations that are as painful to watch as they are fun. Nobody seems to know or perhaps care that the entire thing is a big joke… even after his show becomes relatively famous in the later seasons.

What I really appreciate about Nathan’s character is that he runs the full gamut of emotions. He’s not just awkward for the sake of being awkward. He does get embarrassed. Sometimes he’s sad. He even gets angry and accuses others of betraying him. He likes to have fun too. He even has a strict code of ethics. However, I don’t really think this is the point. I think Nathan could have been all kinds of different characters in this role and while it would have changed the show’s tone, I don’t think it would have changed my interpretation of the main theme:

Everything can be a joke.

I don’t think that the ideas that “anything can be the topic of a joke” or “everything’s a joke” are new, but NfY really takes it to the next level. The show isn’t just saying that you can joke about forbidden topics or make uncomfortable things into jokes. It’s saying that everything is a joke. The mundane is a joke. The existence of the show itself is a joke. It’s been four long years and thousands of man hours of work that have gone into constructing one giant joke.

As an example, Nathan’s character not only interacts with the cavalcade of interesting and sometimes untoward proprietors, but with the media, the public, and his own parents. They’re all part of the joke whether or not they want to be and whether or not they’re even aware. That in and of itself is a joke. There are layers and layers of jokes that build on top of each other in new ways that I don’t think Nathan Fielder was even prepared for, and I think that maybe at times he’s been swallowed up in the joke… and even that is part of the joke. The jokester’s the one who ends up becoming the butt of the joke he was trying to create in the first place.

The whole Summit Ice situation exemplifies this too. Nathan creates a new brand of soft shell jacket because, by his character’s logic, there’s no way for him to know whether a soft shell jacket company he buys from has connections to Holocaust denial. Or something. In a way this does delve into the realm of joking about forbidden topics: making a joke about the Holocaust. While Nathan’s message is Holocaust awareness, it’s still just a joke.

My guess is that Nathan didn’t expect Summit Ice to be successful in any way. I don’t know why he followed through on creating it other than to give legitimacy to the events of the show which is important for the comedy. I’m also not sure why Summit Ice itself was successful. I bought my jacket because I like the show. I imagine that the number of people who purchased Summit Ice products did so for the same reason. I can’t imagine that supporting Holocaust awareness was the key reason for success.

Once that happened, I imagined Nathan Fielder having a bit of an “oh shit” moment. He has to do something with the Summit Ice profits relating to Holocaust awareness — a cause I never really thought about until the show brought it up. In a season 4 episode, he ends up donating something like 50% of the profits to a Holocaust museum in Canada. It’s very funny. It’s all a joke.

You can see the layers of jokes that overlay and intertwine with each other in rather large ways and in ways that neither you nor I nor even Nathan ever knew would happen. Nathan gets put in a very real awkward position because of his actions. I do think that the charity and the benefits to the museum are great for their own reasons, but the whole thing is really just a joke.

Nathan clearly donated to the museum as his NfY character. This calls into question: who is more Nathan? Nathan Fielder the original person, or his character from the show? How difficult is it for him to stay in character? Does it become easier as he’s becoming more like his character? Or is his character perhaps his true self? Working so hard at staying in character that it impacts your psyche and warps reality around you is a great joke.

Finding Frances

I actually held off on watching this episode for a while. A friend of mine watched it right away and really wanted to talk about it, but I thought I had to get in the right mindset before I watched it. Part of me was putting it off because I didn’t want the season to be over. I knew that once I watched the episode that would be it. One thing about Nathan for You is that I don’t really like to watch episodes over again unless I’m watching with someone who has never seen it before.

I was finally forced to watch the episode because my girlfriend who I live with was going to return our DVR cable box. She had a couple of days to do it, and she was going to do it early. Realizing that the Nathan for You finale was still on the box, she actually brought it back after making it all the way to the Cox store. She would have to return it the next day, though, so I was stuck watching it that night. Fortunately, I felt like I was finally ready.

The episode took a while for me to parse. I still don’t think I’ve fully internalized it yet. It was very funny, and there were a lot of laugh out loud moments for me. It was also a fascinating character study of Bill Heath. Part of me was focused on trying to figure out what the purpose of the episode really was. I was thinking that Nathan had decided to go on this adventure and was really just seeing what was happening. He didn’t necessarily have a plan.

The lines between the real world and the Nathan for You world, and the lines between Nathan Fielder the person and the character on the show certainly became more blurred in this episode than ever before. There have been quite a few events in season 4 that I’ve questioned. They looked possibly staged for the benefit of the episode. You could say this even going back to earlier seasons. Maybe that’s the case — it is Hollywood after all. However, I think that we can take the events of the show at face value. I think that Nathan has thrown so many more crazy ideas out there than what we’ve seen and the majority of them are probably not successful. Even those that appear successful have hours and hours of footage surrounding them that are either not interesting or don’t create the story that he wanted to create. As far as I’m concerned, everything on the show happened unscripted.

I think that the whole “is it real or not” analysis we apply to the show is also a part of the show. I get the idea that Nathan Fielder doesn’t necessarily want us to think everything is real. I think he’d be happy with us questioning the reality or even forging our own reality from what happens in the show — much like we’ve forged the reality of our own lives.

I could do further analysis of the episode. I could talk about the parts that were funny and the ones that seemed to be intentionally not funny. I could get into the characters and what I thought of Bill as a person and the parallels between his experience with love and Nathan’s own experience in the episode. I think that all of that has been done elsewhere, and it’s probably been done a lot better.

Instead, I just want to remind you of the theme of this article:

The episode is a joke.

The series is a joke. The characters are all jokes. The events surrounding the show that don’t actually take place within the show are all jokes. Articles that analyze the minutiae of the show and its merits as a piece of media and culture… those are all jokes too.

Again, I don’t know whether people realize or even care about this. I see an 8.8 imdb rating for the show and 8.3 from, whatever that is. Those are jokes. The intense articles that I read about the finale that included both criticism and praise of the particulars of the show — those are jokes too. The more legitimate they might try to be, the more they become jokes too. Really… people writing articles about this episode analyzing it including me — it’s just a dumb TV episode that a crazy genius threw together and we’re spending all this time and energy writing about it. What a joke!

In the end I don’t think it matters too much what we think of Bill or even what happened to him in the episode. Did we learn anything? Do we feel differently about ourselves or the world after watching the episode? Maybe. If we did that would be even funnier. There’s not much that’s funnier than a several years long ridiculous joke that can make us ask existential questions.

I don’t think that Nathan Fielder’s big joke is fully meant as a prank. I don’t think he’s laughing at us…at least not all of us. Some of us are willing participants in the joke. Some of us don’t realize we’re part of the joke, or we just don’t mind. Maci comes to mind. Some of us may even resent being part of the joke, but that’s just another layer. Nathan Fielder has, through his genius, managed to architect a cultural phenomenon built on layers upon layers of jokes that everyone is participating in. There’s been a lot of talk about how we might all be in a computer simulation, but I don’t think anyone’s posited that we might really just all be participating in a joke … an episode of Nathan for You perhaps … and that’s just what life is.

Not all of these meta jokes are ha ha funny. They don’t need to be, and maybe they’re not even trying to be. Is it funny that Nathan Fielder took a year out of his life to live in Little Rock, Arkansas to get footage for a single episode of his show even though it started to impact his mental state? Of course it is, but it’s not the kind of thing you’ll laugh out loud about. You might even think it’s sad in a way. This was a very long struggle for a person, and maybe you didn’t even like the episode that much. But I don’t think the content of the episode is the point. Of course it has its hilarious moments like Bill getting Nathan a plate for some reason apparently just to get in contact with a woman, but I think its more important to look at the big picture of the episode and the series as a whole. That’s where the real joke is, and it might be too big for us to see it all or even to laugh at it.

I’m not sure whether there will be a fifth season of Nathan for You. I thought that season four was transcendent. It was so far beyond what had been done in the previous seasons with layers upon layers of interlocking complexity making the simplest idea into a byzantine comedy mess that I never could have anticipated. It also really stepped outside of the bounds of helping struggling small businesses. This theme was still at the core of some episodes, but I think it became less important than it had been in previous seasons. That said, I don’t think Nathan can do it anymore. It’s not that he’s too famous to pull it off now, but I don’t think the plans to help struggling small businesses will work as a show anymore. He’ll have to do something new — something that goes even beyond “Finding Frances” if he wants a successful fifth season. I’m not sure if he can do it, and if he can it will be a hard and long labor. I just don’t want a fifth season to come that fizzles out.

I really accept “Finding Frances” as a series finale too. The whole series has been a joke, and it’s a great punchline. “You watched this entire series to see an episode about a kind of weird old guy essentially stalk a woman he knew 50 years ago.” It was also unique and different than anything else Nathan and, in my opinion anyone, has ever done on a TV show. And the idea is totally ridiculous. That’s a great joke.

Overall I’m not really sure how to conclude here. I still don’t quite know what I think or what to say about the episode and Nathan for You. I love it very much, and I hope that people understand what I’m getting at about the whole thing being a joke. I’d like to thank Nathan Fielder for his hard work on the show and for helping me in a bit of a difficult time even though he didn’t know it. If he decides to move forward with a fifth season, I trust him if he thinks he’s able to do it. Otherwise, it’s been a great four years, and I can’t wait to see his next project.