The Real Butt of Nathan Fielder’s Joke

The Real Butt of Nathan Fielder’s Joke

The Real Butt of Nathan Fielder’s Joke

His awkward social comedies always leave you wondering: Whom should you be laughing at?

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Nathan Fielder bothers people. Or at least the character he plays makes them very uncomfortable. His lack of affect, monotone delivery, and blank demeanor alienate or captivate viewers depending on their charitability toward his enterprise. A persistent, somewhat integral question comes up again and again in his work: What is the line between the real-life Fielder and his character? (We’ll refer to the character as “Nathan.”) Fielder’s creative motivations have been the subject of some predictable debate in light of his latest HBO series, The Rehearsal. The metafictional documentary follows Nathan as he assists ordinary people paralyzed by everyday challenges (difficult conversations; learning how to parent) by having them rehearse the situation in a meticulously designed facsimile. Nathan commissions elaborate sets and well-prepared actors to practice seemingly every iteration of an awkward confession or a difficult interaction. The results impact both Nathan and the participants in unexpected ways.

The inherent artificiality of the show’s scheme predictably blurs the line between fiction and reality. The lengths to which Nathan goes to re-create a person’s unique circumstances, including covert information-gathering and mimicry, only enhance the rehearsal’s surreal and synthetic nature. Yet, within the simulation, real emotions and unforeseen actions frequently pierce the facade, either through sheer commitment to the bit or, more often, transcendence of its limitations.

In the show’s third episode, Nathan’s rehearsal induces an intense emotional reaction in Patrick, a man preparing to confront his brother, who is the executor of their late grandfather’s will, which bars Patrick from inheriting money if he’s “dating a gold digger.” After a few unsuccessful attempts, Nathan stages a scene outside the boundaries of the rehearsal in which Patrick and Isaac, the actor playing his brother, go to meet Isaac’s own grandfather. Patrick helps the grandfather (who is also played by an actor) dig up some gold he buried on his property. When the old man suddenly “dies” the next day, Isaac reveals that his grandfather had wanted to give Patrick some of the gold they’d dug up, but he raises the same concerns as Patrick’s brother. Once they begin the rehearsal in earnest, Patrick, clearly worked up, tearfully admits to Isaac—now playing his brother again—that he’s been unable to grieve properly because of the financial dispute.

The purpose of the show’s experiment is to prepare someone like Patrick for exactly this kind of unexpected development. Yet, within the context of The Rehearsal, Patrick’s sudden response feels like an uncomfortable disruption. The rehearsal space is where such behavior should be allowed to flourish safely, but instead it feels destabilizing. Our knowledge of Nathan’s furtive involvement in the genesis of Patrick’s cathartic admission infuses it with productive tension. It also raises reasonable questions about Nathan’s tactics and whether his manipulations reach the point of cruelty.

These charges have inevitably been laid against the show, though it is unclear, if not downright unlikely, that The Rehearsal presents a straightforward picture of these events. Much like the rehearsals themselves, Fielder, who cowrote and directed the series, carefully crafts The Rehearsal to ensure that the reality we see is filtered through his eyes, which means that he deliberately paints a damning portrait of his own work. If all comedy requires some sort of victim, then this show spotlights the consequences of our need for a punch line. But Nathan’s targets are never left to twist in the wind—they are in on a joke at Nathan’s expense, even if they don’t quite know it.

In The Rehearsal’s purposefully low-stakes first episode, Nathan helps Kor, a bar trivia fanatic, confess to telling a lie to a trivia-night partner. To ensure that Kor won’t be too distracted by the game, Nathan prepares the questions in advance and then hires actors to play strangers who “casually” mention random facts—i.e., the answers—to Kor during the course of his day in the hope that he absorbs the information. When Nathan confesses this deception to the actor who played Kor during Fielder’s own personal rehearsal, the fake Kor feels betrayed and admonishes Nathan for his behavior.

Fielder thus foregrounds the questionable ethics of his behavior as The Rehearsal’s central issue. The series ostensibly examines how much of life, rehearsed or not, is subject to the rules of performance and how gaming out relationships or human interactions precludes vulnerability and self-awareness. But more than those heady philosophical concepts, it’s about Nathan Fielder—both the character and the man—trying and failing to fit in with the world around him.

Fielder initially developed his comedic persona on the CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, a Canadian satirical news show in which he played a business reporter whose demeanor and delivery represented the first gasp of his persona. He then gained a bigger platform on Comedy Central’s Nathan for You, a pseudo-reality show in which Nathan helps struggling companies and business owners market their brands with ridiculous strategies. In the series’ most famous episode, Nathan helps a struggling coffeeshop by rebranding it as “Dumb Starbucks” (an exact parody of Starbucks), which in turn forces him to rebrand himself as a parody artist to provide himself with legal protection against the inevitable lawsuits. In an episode that explicitly presages The Rehearsal, Nathan learns that a bar can permit smoking indoors if it’s presented as a performance piece, so he stages a “play” titled Smokers Allowed, which consists of two seats behind a curtain where people can watch the patrons drink and smoke. Nathan eventually workshops the performance over and over again for his own satisfaction.

The running dramatic thread of Nathan for You concerns Nathan’s tendency to put his own needs or ideas ahead of his clients’ as a byproduct of his social anxiety. Yet the comedic brilliance of the series involves Nathan’s improvised interactions with strangers; their genuine reactions to his antics and their willingness to continue being involved with him, as well as grant their consent to be filmed, made the series inimitable.

While Nathan for You’s comedic juice is frequently wrung from Nathan himself, it also comes at the expense of his real-life clients. Fielder follows Errol Morris’s tactic of giving people enough rope to hang themselves, and sure enough, many of the people on Nathan for You gleefully take that rope. A lawyer signs an appearance release that personally implicates him in any potential lawsuit; a security guard openly admits that his lust for beautiful women distracts him from his job; a gas station attendant delightedly talks about drinking his grandson’s urine.

There’s undoubtedly a punitive element at play here—Nathan for You asked, “What are you willing to do or put up with just to be on television?” The quest for fame and notoriety among the Los Angeles set remains a central theme, and Nathan implicates himself in that desire as well. Sometimes the ethics of this method are cut-and-dried, especially when it involves transparently unpleasant people; but at other times, seemingly normal small business owners get caught in Nathan’s web. To counterbalance this, Fielder often puts himself at the center of unflattering situations in which he appears as bad as, or worse than, his subjects. Though he’s not quite an equal opportunity offender, Nathan never comes across as anything less than a desperate, anxious person struggling to impress strangers. If misery loves company, so does discomfort.

The Rehearsal takes its cues from a number of previous films, all of which interrogate the effect of a camera, or an artificial construct like a play or a documentary, on a group of people. These include Albert Brooks’s Real Life, which follows a fictional version of the director embedding himself with an American family in order to capture their lives with unvarnished realism, only to quickly alter the results in favor of drama; Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, in which an ailing, misanthropic theater director constructs a mimetic reproduction of the real world inside a large warehouse; and William Greaves’s metadocumentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Take One, where multiple nesting documentary crews film each other filming a single scene to deconstruct the creation of fiction. The Rehearsal also falls in line with the last half-century of avant-garde documentaries that formally catechize the construction of reality. What unites The Rehearsal’s many influences is a simple truth: As soon as someone steps behind a camera and another person steps in front of it, objectivity ceases to exist.

If The Rehearsal is something of a spiritual sequel to Nathan for You (they both feature the Nathan character offering a service to help clients with aspects of their professional or personal lives), then it’s possible to consider the former an interrogation of the latter’s practices. The ethical questions of Nathan for You were mitigated by its formal trick: flipping the shady practices and drama of reality television into self-deprecating comedy. The twist with The Rehearsal is that, despite the preponderance of Fielder’s deadpan jokes, it resembles a psychological drama more than it does a comedy. Within such a framework, both Fielder’s tactics and Nathan’s demeanor read much differently, which the show openly acknowledges and embraces.

The main plot line in The Rehearsal involves Angela, a devout Christian who wants to prepare for the prospect of motherhood. Nathan sets her up in an Oregon farmhouse with a roving cast of child actors to play her fake son, Adam. After a prospective coparent for Angela falls through, Nathan steps in to play the role himself, directly implicating himself in the fake scenario. Eventually, Nathan’s own interests in fatherhood take over Angela’s rehearsal. While the initial plan was for Adam to go through multiple ages played by different actors, Nathan’s guilt regarding his absence from “home” to conduct other rehearsals leads him to self-flagellate by directing the actor playing the teenage Adam to develop a resentful attitude and a drug problem. But Nathan eventually disrupts the plan and reverts Adam back to a child. Similarly, his anxiety regarding Adam’s lack of Jewish faith pushes him to send the child to a rabbi behind Angela’s back, culminating in an ugly confrontation between a Zionist rabbi and a fundamentalist Christian.

Nathan for You was only partially about Nathan’s foibles and selfishness, but The Rehearsal makes his emotional impotence the centerpiece of the drama at hand. His inability to develop intimacy or truth from each simulated scenario he crafts, combined with the sheer impossibility of mapping out every iteration of a given situation, only serves to amplify his shame and alienation. Nathan connects well with Adam in the confines of the rehearsal, but only because the child actors he hires are instructed to bond with him. Meanwhile, his interactions with Angela are more fraught because of her religious zealotry and her wavering commitment to the reality of the rehearsal. Once Nathan decides to confront her about her dedication, he rehearses the situation with an actress who rebukes the baneful premise of The Rehearsal and suggests the real issue lies in Nathan’s emotional detachment.

This culminates in the season finale, when it’s revealed that Remi, one of the 6-year-old actors who played Adam, has grown attached to Nathan as a father figure—which is compounded by the absence of a father in Remi’s life—and seems confused by the difference between real life and the TV show. Nathan’s overwhelming guilt in having potentially traumatized Remi compels him to dismantle The Rehearsal’s thin fourth wall and attempt to delineate the difference between fiction and reality for the small child. Though Remi eventually seems to understand the difference (he finally calls Nathan his “TV friend” instead of “Daddy”), the scenes featuring Remi reacting to the truth of the situation, as well as Nathan’s frantic attempts to right his wrong, are disquieting and uncomfortable.

It’s tempting to view The Rehearsal’s self-interrogating style as a blanket cover for Fielder’s tactics, because he makes it impossible to take anything that happens on the show at face value. However, such a reading ignores the explicit critiques of Nathan’s behavior from the series’ participants as well as Fielder’s own negative judgment of his character’s passivity. Rather than a cruel experiment, the show is a sincere examination of, among other things, the problematic nature of directorial authority and the porous border between performance and life. The Rehearsal doesn’t have an overt takeaway; instead, it simply offers questions—about the project’s purpose and whether the emotional, financial, and personal expense was worth it. When The Rehearsal comes to a close, Fielder leaves every interpretive door open until it feels like the series never ended at all.

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