Nathan For You and Honest Artifice

Nathan For You is a comedy series on Comedy Central, produced by Abso Lutely Productions (the production company behind Tim & Eric, Review, and a lot of others). Starring Nathan Fielder as Nathan Fielder, it’s ostensibly a show about helping struggling small businesses with outlandish ideas. More often than not, it becomes an investigation in what people will agree to when they have a television camera pointed in front of them.

For four seasons, Nathan has veered close to some monstrously insane acts. There’s the Sex Box episode, where Nathan wanted to prove that a sound-proof box could allow parents to have sex without interruption (which involved hiring porn stars to act out graphic scenes of intercourse with a child inside a prototype box right next to the bed). But you could just as easily be thinking of when he sent an Anonymous-esque video to Uber, before secretly marrying his business partner (without his knowledge) to avoid the legal repercussions. Or when he had to escape handcuffs or risk exposing himself to actual children on set in a bizarre parody of early-2000s reality competitions.

The point is, Nathan Fielder’s done some pretty outlandish things in the making of the show, but it’s generally anchored by the curiosity Fielder seems to have for his subjects. The blankness on Fielder’s face allows viewers to put their own feelings onto him. It’s a deft piece of acting, to become so passive that the other person fills the room with their own vulnerabilities and dreams.

From childhood friend, Seth Rogen:

Nathan is willing to let things get more excruciatingly awkward than most people have a tolerance for,” says Seth Rogen, who has known him since first grade. “More than almost any performer I’ve ever seen, he is willing to just sit there and do nothing for a long time, to the point that the people he’s interacting with are forced to reveal themselves, because the silence is excruciating. I think it’s not something everyone has the stomach for.”

Nathan Fielder is and isn’t the character that viewers see on-screen (I’ll be referring to Nathan Fielder the actor as “Fielder” and Nathan Fielder the character as “Nathan” for the rest of the article). The opening of each episode has Nathan announce in voice-over that he graduated “from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades” while the image of an average report card flashes by.

“Nathan’s” report card

It’s funny, sure, but it also pulls the viewer out of the narrative: Is that Nathan Fielder’s actual report card? He’s visiting actual business owners in Los Angeles, do they know what kind of show they’re on? How much of the show is real, and how much is fake?

That last question can be a common one when you’re dealing with reality television. UnREAL made a splash when it premiered just by acknowledging the manipulation inherent in programs like The Bachelor by someone who had first-hand experience creating those types of shows. But there’s not many programs that build that inherent unreality into a narrative of its own. Nathan For You’s season 4 finale, “Finding Frances” is meta-text as text, narrative fiction as human truth, a work of pure pop art that could only have come from the mind of Nathan Fielder.

The plot is about Nathan helping Bill, a Bill Gates impersonator who’s been on the show a few times before, reconnect with a long-lost love from over fifty years ago. In classic Nathan For You fashion, it gets surreal very quickly. Bill only knows her maiden name and that she’s been married at least once, along with maybe a high school that she went to. When he tells Nathan that the relationship fell apart because of his Hollywood aspirations, Nathan narrates that, “As someone else who left a lot behind to pursue a career in Hollywood, I couldn’t help but feel an odd kinship with him.”

I should mention here that “Finding Frances” is an hour and a half long, a pretty abrupt departure from the usual 30-minute run time of the average Nathan For You episode. The idea that Nathan was so enamored by this old Bill Gates impersonator’s quest for lost love that he’s willing to spend too much time and too much money helping him makes sense on the surface. But there’s a meta-narrative aspect too. Fielder keeps his personal life to himself mostly, but this interview at The AV Club with Bonney Teti has this exchange:

[Bonney Teti]: No, I agree with you. I agree the show is the show, but then when I tried to find out anything about you, I couldn’t find anything about you.
[Nathan Fielder]: Well —
BT: You’re very private!
NF: Okay, what do you want to know?
BT: Are you married?
NF: Okay. [Pause.] I was married for a brief time, but I’m no longer married.
BT: Well, you know, that’s not a big deal, but you seemed uncomfortable to say that.
NF: I guess my instinct is not to talk about personal things with places like The A.V. Club, maybe. [Laughs.] I’ll save these conversations for people in my personal life.

Fielder’s spent the past four seasons with an explicit loneliness attached to his character, presenting someone who’s so desperate for genuine, human connection that he’s created an entire show (multiple times if we’re counting “The Hunk”) just for the purpose of understanding and helping people. How that relates to Fielder’s own personal life and feelings of loneliness can’t (and considering his desire for privacy, probably shouldn’t) be answered, but since the show is one of the major ways in which Fielder interacts with the world at large, it’s fair to say that the confusion is purposeful. Fielder plays Nathan with just enough truth and honesty that it can be hard for an audience to really know how different the two are.

But the idea of Fielder playing a character who’s like him in many ways, but different in others, helping a Bill Gates impersonator named Bill reconnect with someone that he wasn’t able to truly connect with because of his Hollywood dreams… There’s something almost existentially terrifying about it, as if Nathan is trying to save himself in 50 years from his own heartbreak.

But it’s the moments following that conversation that really open up what a departure from the average Nathan For You this episode is. When Nathan and Bill are in their hotel room together, they make small talk before turning the lights off. The camera zooms into Bill as unsettling music plays, leading the audience to wonder what Bill’s hiding about his memories with Frances (a plot point audience members would’ve been primed to look out for from the marketing of this episode). But the inherent weirdness of the scene—Bill talking about sex while Nathan is uncomfortable, Bill sleeping over the covers with the lights off— is all refocused by the camera’s presence in the room.

Other episodes of Nathan For You present the cameras as part and parcel of the episode. Of course the crew is filming moments of small talk and weirdness, they’re on a show about those things. But Nathan isn’t giving Bill business advice, he’s supposedly helping him track down Frances. What happens to the camera operator that zoomed in on Bill when the lights went off? Does he sneak out of the room after that shot? Sleep on the floor while keeping the camera in case something else happens that they don’t want to miss? Maybe. Or maybe the producer calls cut, Fielder and Bill laugh, and they actually go to sleep normally once the crew files out of the room.

Regardless, the zoom and music cue reminds the audience that we’re watching a television show, one edited and scored to elicit an emotional response. We’re meant to think Bill has some sinister designs or secrets that he’s keeping, but we’re also meant to notice that we think this. It’s a blatant acknowledgement of the episode’s central themes of emotional honesty, performance, and media presentation of reality.

After this, it switches to a “normal” Nathan For You episode: an insane solution to a simple problem, in this case pretending to film a sequel to the movie Mud in order to convince a local high school to let two adult men look through an old yearbook, and enlisting the aid of a “professional” age progression specialist to see what Frances looks like now. There’s another beat where Nathan finds out that Bill lied to him years ago about being a professional Bill Gates impersonator.

This is Nathan at his most detective-like, fully aware of the disconnect with the narrative, gently asking his subject why they lied to him. There’s a larger reason for this plot point, though. It’s re-focusing the audience’s attention on the larger issue of performance and narrative. The audience has known Bill primarily through his role as a Bill Gates impersonator, and they’re finding out he fundamentally lied about his identity on the show, casting doubt not only on his continued presence on the show, but on Nathan’s interactions with him. If we can’t trust the narrative delivered by the show, who are we to trust?

Continuing the classic Nathan For You escalation, Nathan’s next move is to fake a High School Reunion of Frances’ class, install Bill as a fake graduate of the class (along with a memorized performance to assuage doubts about Bill’s high school bonafides), all in order to gain further clues about Frances. When Nathan finds some old love letters from Frances to Bill, they seem to point to some uncomfortable truths about Bill’s actions 50 years ago, so Nathan hires a local escort to talk to Bill to see if he acts differently around women. This is classic Nathan For You, taking a solution that makes sense on the surface (escorts are paid to be around clients, so why not see if Bill acts differently around a woman paid for her time, rather than just use a random person who wouldn’t be reimbursed) to fix a problem no one thought needed fixing.

When Bill turns it down, calling it “a Sodom and Gomorrah sin” in the first of a few different moments where his personality turns ugly, Nathan ends up talking to Maci, the escort, just so that the production’s money isn’t wasted. Stuck for things to talk about, Nathan ends up showing her a couple episodes of his show.

Maci asks if those are actually Nathan’s grades in the opening credits, calling direct attention to the artificiality of the show. Nathan just gives a tight smile and nods. Later, she tells him it’s funny, but “kind of mean.” If there’s a single criticism of Nathan For You that people have, it’s that the show encourages audiences to laugh at the people Nathan “helps.” Fielder pushes against that narrative in the few interviews he does, talking about the interest he has in people’s lives, but it’s a through-line nonetheless.

When Maci delivers this criticism to Nathan, it’s the first time the audience has seen his on-camera reaction. It leaps out at the viewers, especially if they’ve ever tried to show Nathan For You to anyone else. Here then is the criticism of the show writ large, delivered by a performer (and she is a performer even if she isn’t necessarily acting in this scene) to the client she’s currently obliging. How much was Maci prepared before the interview? Was she at all? These kinds of questions yank the viewer out, breaking the fourth wall and forcing fans to confront their base assumptions about the show.

Maci is an escort; Bill is a Bill Gates impersonator; Nathan is a television host. That’s their occupations, but not their identity. But in Nathan For You, occupation is the Trojan Horse of identity. Viewers meet a cab driver, a realtor, a private investigator, but if the show was just about making fun of them, it would’ve been cancelled ages ago. The true joy of Nathan For You is watching real people you’ve never met, and probably will never meet, surprise you with their stories. Sure there’s the outlandish marketing schemes, but the best moments of the show come from a confused, human place. Nathan bonds with Maci the same way he bonds with everyone who appears on the show: awkward, halting, and interested in why they do what they do. That she’s voicing common complaints of the show to his face is the cherry on top for the viewers.

From a Vanity Fair article:

“Part of the design of the show was to have these bigger silly ideas that anchor things and would be a hook, but really what it’s about is the small moments,” he says. “Nobody’s just going to watch a quiet show with these quiet moments as much as if you put a viral thing next to it.”

Nathan continues to see Maci (explicitly by booking time with her), and it’s a strange, liminal relationship. They’re both performers paid to present themselves to the world in certain ways, and both are being paid for their time to act out this strange, budding relationship, that’s purposefully extended on camera in the hopes of providing usable footage for Nathan For You. In many ways, it’s the logical conclusion of a character who paid an actress to say “I love you” over and over to him to the point of surreal excess.

On a date with Maci, Nathan narrates that, “The more we kept shooting things, the harder it was to tell where the show ended and life began” while performing a magic trick for her.

Maci tells Nathan that if he wants to switch to a more “intimate” setting for their date next time, and the following scene is one of the most hilarious, awkward interactions in Nathan For You. Nathan dances for Maci, and they kiss awkwardly a few times.

It’s a purposeful blurring of the audience’s understanding. Where did this subplot about a lonely man befriending an escort come from? How much of this are we meant to take at face value, and how much is the show trading on its classic surreal tone?

Back to Bill, a chance encounter with a family grave site leads to the obituary of Frances’ dad, and then her new last name, and then her Facebook profile, where she’s still happily married. Bill talks about stealing her away from her husband, and Nathan hires an actress to set the scene for how the interaction might go. It goes badly, obviously, but the point isn’t that Bill can’t stop being a creep to her, or that he keeps complimenting the actress on her teeth like a Dentist Hannibal Lecter. The point is that we’re watching yet another performer talking to another performer while on the stage of a theater while being filmed for a quasi-reality show. Even the way that Bill keeps entering the “house” is straight out of a low-budget ’90s sitcom. There’s something deeply confusing and unsettling about watching this many levels of performative interactions. What even are watching anymore?

Later, Bill and Nathan watch a presidential debate, and Bill talks about how Trump is “the man, the man for the presidency.” It’s rare for a Nathan For You episode to take place in a specific time—there’s a strange sense of timelessness to most episodes, as if they could’ve been filmed at any time, divorced from current events or pop culture or politics. But “Finding Frances” is different, it’s placing itself squarely in a specific time, in a specific place, with a specific person. It’s an episode about Bill, the Bill Gates impersonator, trying to recover 50 years of lost time with his love, or maybe it’s about a lonely man helping an older lonely man connect in a way he never could, or maybe it’s about a comedian with an uncannily straight face putting an old man through an obstacle course of reality show edits designed to bring out his worst qualities for maximum humor potential. It all depends on what you want to be sold.

Speaking of being sold, do you know what Kayfabe is? It’s a term used in professional wrestling to refer to the act of never letting on that wrestling is fake, that the wrestlers are performers, and that the outcomes are predetermined. It’s usually used as an explaining force for why professional wrestlers are so weird in public, but there’s a larger meaning behind it.

That’s Kayfabe. You’re selling the finish.

The entire previous hour has built up to this moment, the moment when Bill finally meets Frances for the first time in 50 years. And he doesn’t, not really. Nathan pushes him to at least call her on the phone first, if only to clear her permission to have cameras filming suddenly:

Bill: Hello, Frances? How are you?
Frances: Fine, who’s calling?
Bill: Well, I want you to guess.
Frances: Well, I can’t. I don’t know.
Bill: Well, you think hard. Doesn’t my voice sound familiar to you?
Frances: No.
Bill: No?
Frances: No.

Bill calls her, and she barely remembers him. She treats him the way anyone would treat a high school friend from 50 years ago; polite, surprised, and foggy on the details of their past. It crushes Bill, and the audience sees Nathan at his least Nathan-like. Instead of waiting patiently for an interesting moment, Nathan seems genuinely concerned about intruding too much into Frances’ life, concerned about Bill’s interaction with her, and concerned about Bill’s feelings after.

A little bit later, Bill asks Nathan for the phone number of the woman who acted as Frances in the rehearsals. His conversation with her almost perfectly mirrors the way he began the phone call with Frances. It’s sad and a bit creepy to see this old man refocus his affections on a woman he only knows through playing a version of his ex-girlfriend. There’s footage of their date, Bill asks her about her teeth again, and that’s the end of Bill’s story as we see it.

The episode ends with Nathan meeting back up with Maci for another date. She mentions that it’s a bit weird having cameras around, and Nathan offers to turn them off.

Maci: I feel like that— does that defeat the purpose maybe?
Nathan: Of what?
Maci: I don’t know.
Nathan: What’s the purpose?
Maci: You’re filming something. It’s kind of the purpose, right?

Nathan looks around for a bit, and then mentions that they have a drone camera, and it would be nice to get a shot from that. It flies up in a slow pan, and we see the camera crew around Nathan and Maci, the figures that have been just outside every shot this episode.

Because we’re not watching two real people find each other, anymore than we’re watching two real people find each other when we watch a romantic-comedy. They’re actors, being filmed, on a set.

But when you acknowledge that artifice of the cameras and the film crew, does that make it less real or more real?

What do you want to be real?

What finish do you want to be sold?