Comedy Central’s Nathan For You is one of the best series on TV, but articulating that to the uninitiated is tough. On its surface, the show, which finds lonely “business consultant” Nathan Fielder conjuring up elaborate marketing stunts for small businesses, can feel callous and cruel, as if he’s punking them or exploiting their politeness. But, in so many ways, it’s the complete opposite; by weaving himself so deeply into the narratives, he works to expose his own vulnerability to the point where those around him can’t help but reveal something deeply human about themselves. The result, then, is not mocking laughter, but a laughter of surprise and, often, recognition.
Fans of the show often cite the moments where Nathan drops character, when he’s genuinely caught off guard, as their favorites. In one episode, a gas station owner willingly discusses drinking his grandson’s urine; in another, a real estate agent reveals an erotic encounter with a ghost; and, later, a 50-something man is more than happy to climb, naked, into a giant hot dog. Nathan is astounded by each, as none of these moments were coaxed from him, but simply emerged naturally within the scenario.
The show’s unique ability to capture such moments of naked humanity amidst so much jaw-dropping absurdity is the subject of Nerdwriter’s latest video essay, which finds YouTube’s preeminent pop-culture scholar navigating a labyrinth of words in trying to break down Fielder’s process.
When speaking of an episode wherein Nathan exploits a legal loophole in an effort to allow patrons to smoke inside a bar, Nerdwriter says:
“Everybody involved in this setup knows that they’re being filmed. They just don’t know what they’re being filmed for. Or, rather, what they think they’re being filmed for is wrong. And the dramatic irony opened up by the difference between what they think and what we know lets a realness in their character slip through, a realness they don’t even know they’re offering.”
There are so many layers of artifice at work in Nathan For You that it becomes a bizarre kind of comedic puzzle box. Season four’s epic, 90-minute finale was heralded for many reasons, not the least of which being the ways in which it acknowledged that puzzle box, and the questions of just what happens to humanity when you know you’re being filmed.
Watch the full essay above.