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Nathan Fielder: A comedian of many complexities

| Friday, November 3, 2023

Maria Tobias | The Observer

Who is Nathan Fielder?

In his own words, “he graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades.” In his show “Nathan for You,” “he is using his knowledge to help struggling small-business owners make it in this competitive world.” That is how he describes himself. But why should we trust him? The answer is simple: We should not. 

Fielder has had a long career in comedy, starting in a middle school improv club where he acted alongside Seth Rogen. Despite these early beginnings, comedy was not always Fielder’s immediate calling. As he claims in the opening monologue of “Nathan For You,” he did graduate from the University of Victoria with a Bachelor of Commerce degree.

His television work has pushed the grounds of what can be considered “comedy.” After starring in a self-titled segment on the Canadian television program “This Hour Has 22 Minutes, his career took off. In 2013, Comedy Central introduced the world to Fielder in “Nathan For You. Arguably his most well known work, “NFY” demonstrated Fielder’s skills with odd business practices and grand marketing schemes.

What does he do?

To say he helped businesses would be inaccurate. Throughout the series, Fielder approaches businesses with ideas on how to draw the attention of customers. Note that I did not say “good” ideas. That is intentional. The show uses the outlandish nature of Fielder’s schemes for comedic effect. But the show’s premise is not “What if we came up with crazy ideas for businesses?” That implies a theoretical element to the show. Fielder takes it a step further. He does what every great comedian learns about, but few dare to do: Nathan Fielder commits to the bit. With how ridiculous the show can become, it can be very hard to remember this is all real. 

How far will he go?

Multiple of Fielder’s schemes went viral online, with his most notable being “Dumb Starbucks” and the second episode, “Petting Zoo.” Throughout the show, more and more focus is directed toward the people Fielder “helps” and the toll his actions take on others. A rather memorable scene is a confrontation between Nathan and the recurring guest Brian Wolfe. Originally a private investigator, Wolfe’s online presence is built up by Fielder, which led to him appear throughout the rest of the series. In the confrontation, Wolfe digs into Fielder, calling him a loser and “the wizard of loneliness.” As much as the show looks into those affected by Nathan and his antics, the man behind the schemes becomes as much of a focus as the show goes on. This all culminates in the series finale, the feature length “Finding Frances.” In this final episode, the audience is shown the most blunt analysis of Fielder’s actions: “You lied to every last one of them.”

Fielder’s 2022 follow-up, “The Rehearsal,” takes the unsettling elements of “NFY” and turns them up to an 11. The line between script and reality is blurred even further, and it only becomes more obscure as the show progresses. If it were a work of fiction, it would be a compelling look into the mind of a twisted and controlling character, but we are told to believe this is not a character. This leads to the biggest question of all …

Can this be considered acting?

While it is safe to assume some elements of his past shows have been scripted — at least Fielder’s pitches and punchlines are — there is still the feeling that Fielder is not acting, at least not fully. By surrounding himself with non-actors who react to his ideas, Fielder makes himself an improviser. But the world he interacts with is not a controlled stage, and he’s not with other comedians. If he and the audience are the only ones in on the joke, is it still a joke?

This is not to say Fielder only exists as his on-screen persona. The upcoming Showtime original series “The Curse” features Nathan Fielder as one of the main stars, playing a fictional character alongside Emma Stone. By acting as a true fictional character, Fielder will have the biggest change in his career: playing someone other than himself, or the persona he presents to the world. 

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