My favorite moment in comedy television history happens in the “Smokers Allowed” episode of “Nathan for You.” If you haven’t seen the show, the general premise is a spoof on reality TV shows like “The Bachelor” and “Undercover Boss.” Comedian Nathan Fielder contacts small-business owners to be on the show under the guise of a serious business consultant but instead proposes ridiculous business plans. In this particular episode, Fielder helps a bar owner exploit a loophole about indoor smoking by turning her bar into an experimental theater performance.
During a rehearsal with local actors and actresses he hired, the recently-divorced Fielder pulls an actress aside and claims her performance as a romantic interest isn’t convincing enough. “You see, I’m not believing you at this point,” he says. He asks to try an exercise. He asks her to look into his eyes and tell him she loves him. He asks again. Then, he asks again and again. Again. Again. Again. His voice gets softer each time until it is barely a whisper. He swallows hard in the pauses. He melts a little into his chair. You get the sense that Fielder could keep asking the actress to say “I love you” until the words entirely lose their meaning. The joke certainly goes on for longer than it has to. She only stops to tell Fielder he has tears in his eyes. “That felt real to me,” he says. Notice how he says real. Notice how he doesn’t say he believes it.
I like this scene precisely because it isn’t funny. Watching Fielder at this moment is like viciously and savagely pointing a finger at my own reflection. The “I love you” loop plays over and over in my head in class, late at night as I stare up at the ceiling in the dark, during supper hour as I gruelingly gnaw at whatever meal that’s served up to me in the dining hall. In short, it hit a nerve, and I’m still unsure of how to write about it.
Fielder is often lovingly referred to as “the wizard of loneliness” by fans, based on a mean-spirited joke made by the show’s private investigator. “You remind me of the wizard of loneliness because you’re your own self — your own wizard,” the investigator says. “Look at you…You have no friends.” Although I have friends and I’m sure Fielder does as well, I can’t help but feel like the wizard of loneliness. I can count on my fingers the number of people I feel like I can really talk to. Most of them are on the other side of the globe, studying abroad. My father and I don’t call anymore. Part of me sometimes wonders if there is some fundamental aspect of my personality that drives people away, but I don’t entirely mind being alone. I spent last summer white-water rafting, raving at music festivals, riding my bike to Trader Joe’s and making friends on the CTA trains all by myself. So, I ask: What makes being “your own self” so incompatible with being with “having friends”?
I feel like a lot of us feel that love is conditional. We believe we must be more successful, more outgoing, more intelligent, etc. for us to matter. We must perform in certain ways to fit in. Part of us cringes at Fielder’s awkwardness, but can we really blame the wizard of loneliness for asking for love? It’s such an incredibly universal human impulse.
Everybody knows the actress’s answer is a performance, even Fielder. In a way, it makes us more comfortable. But Fielder isn’t performing anymore. He’s genuinely being himself for a moment. In fact, his authenticity punctures through the show’s layers of artifice. He asks the question that we all secretly want to ask. It’s raw and unsettling. He doesn’t believe her, but he doesn’t care. It feels real enough to him.
Maybe that’s what matters: having the authenticity of asking instead of receiving, having the courage to be the wizard of loneliness instead of anybody else.
You can contact Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.