In a sense, all reality shows — from cooking-show competitions like Chopped to celebrity peepholes like Keeping Up With the Kardashians — are about the same thing: television. You’re not so much watching an amateur chef spin a meal out of a grab bag of ingredients or a comely family leisurely grooming themselves as you are witnessing the handiwork of a team of production assistants, directors, editors, and, yes, writers — the people tasked with spit-shining reality into episodic #content.
Nathan for You is one of several recent series, like Review and Burning Love, that mine this rich terrain for laughs. The Comedy Central reality-TV parody was created by its star, Nathan Fielder, a Canadian comic and real-life business school graduate who offers absurd solutions to flailing local businesses. If you’re one of those viewers who cringes in horror at socially awkward comedy — Michael Scott’s cool-boss shtick on The Office, or Larry David’s eternal nitpicking on Curb Your Enthusiasm — Nathan for You is, well, not for you. But if you can manage to peek between your fingers while you’re covering your face in secondhand shame, you might find deeper meaning in Nathan for You, a surprisingly illuminating look at the intersection of television and real life.
The show returns for a fourth season on September 28, but tonight, Comedy Central will air Nathan for You: A Celebration, an hour-long “where are they now” special that checks in on previous participants. These include an underage customer who took part in a gambit from season two — a liquor store that sold to minors — and was given a “claim check” to pick up his 40-ounce of Miller High Life upon turning 21; and Sue Stanford, a struggling real estate agent from the first season who, amazingly, agrees to market her expertise in selling homes that are “100 percent ghost and demon free!”
A Celebration takes the familiar format of the aftershow, in which a panel of former/current contestants sits down for a postmortem with the host. In this case, the host is Anthony Napoli, an actor with a handful of credits on IMDB (“Business Man #2” on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) who appears in a season one Nathan for You episode as the host of a reality show called The Hunk that Fielder initiates in order to overcome his fear of the opposite sex. (On the show, Fielder plays a caricature of himself, or at least the man people might perceive him to be — buttoned-up and friendless.)
There are more than a few awkward silences when Napoli and Fielder sit down on two beige armchairs placed on an elevated, round stage, against a black background studded with twinkle lights. The setup brings to mind a couple of recent shows that lie somewhere between parody and sincere effort: Documentary Now!, IFC’s pitch-perfect documentary spoof series, hosted by Helen Mirren, and Between Two Ferns, a talk show in which Zach Galifianakis interviews celebrities between two potted plants on a set that resembles that of a cheap cable-access show.
That lo-fi aesthetic is a hallmark of Nathan for You’s production company, Abso Lutely, helmed by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim — the kings of late-night, bizarro-world comedy that riffs on the visual language of cheap TV, their crown jewel being the Adult Swim series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which ran from 2007 to 2010. Like that show, the dry-as-toast Nathan for You takes aim at the plastic shininess of Hollywood by drawing attention to the artificiality and absurdity of reality television. The show’s participants look and talk like real people; they don’t sound coached, and if you were to assemble them all in one place, you might think you’d stumbled upon the reject room of an open casting call.
That sounds mean, I know (Nathan for You can be pretty mean, although the joke is usually on its socially inept host). But while most reality shows exist to funnel their subjects into a series of recognizable types — and, through the manipulative magic of producers and editors, tell the audience who we’re meant to root for — Nathan for You displays a genuine curiosity about people. Rather than flatten its participants into caricatures, the show follows the contours of their personalities, letting them dictate where the story goes.
In the “Ghost Realtor” episode, Stanford lets slip that she was once visited by a ghost while on vacation; this leads to a truly strange scene in which a psychic attempts to exorcize the spirit. A vinegary private investigator named Brian Wolfe who pops up in several episodes offhandedly mentions that he used to do nude modeling in the Eighties; for A Celebration, Fielder and his producers track down some of these magazines and present their findings to Wolfe. (Wolfe now has his own reality show, Cry Wolfe, on the ID channel; in tonight’s special, Stanford reveals she’s pursuing her own series as well, proving that Hollywood doesn’t give a shit if you’re sincere or cynical as long as you’re successful.)
My favorite segment is from a season one episode titled “Gas Station/Caricature Artist,” because, like so much low-budget TV, it’s an accidentally transcendent experience. In the first part of the episode (most feature two different bits), Fielder introduces a rebate program to boost sales at a local gas station. But this is no ordinary rebate: Customers have to hike to the top of a mountain and solve a series of riddles to find the drop box. Incredibly, three people agree to these conditions, and the challenge turns into an overnight camping trip. Huddled over a crackling fire, Fielder serenades them with an acoustic guitar; the gathering becomes an amateur therapy session as the weepy contestants open up about their failed relationships. The whole segment is a wicked joke with a left-field punchline: humanity’s craving for connection in an increasingly insulating world. LOL!