Television

Nathan for Everyone

The comedic upstart behind Dumb Starbucks gets smart

Photograph courtesy of Comedy Central
Courtesy of Comedy Central Determined android Season three of Nathan for You premiered on October 15.

On a hot Los Angeles morning in August, Nathan Fielder strides into the modest V Boulevard Cafe. He’s wearing jeans, and a grey shirt that offsets his salt and pepper thatch of hair. He doesn’t know he’s being watched as he: goes to the counter; orders a coffee; calls the server by name with the familiarity of a regular; stands awkwardly nearby awaiting his order; blows his nose; and, finally, turns on his heel and shuffles to the bathroom. A closed-circuit camera screen shows Fielder fumble with the bathroom door before going in with a cartoon-like flourish.

None of this is inherently funny, but Fielder is funny when he does it. It’s something alchemical in a pace and timing and order sense, but that’s not all. The thirty-two-year-old is eccentric, stoically so. He gets a lot of comedic juice out of being resolutely neutral in behaviour and appearance. The result aligns him with other comedians whose funny is full body (think Andy Kaufman, Gilda Radner, Buster Keaton). You can explain the appeal only to a point. The rest is a little bit magic, and slow to burn. That same creeping accumulation of humour is built into his show, Nathan for You, entering its third season on Comedy Central.

When Fielder finally sees me, he zips over, pauses. I detect a slight bow. “Oh, hi! You’re here.” I ask him if he wants something to eat; the entire café smells of fresh toast. He sits. “No, thanks. I got a blender, so I’ve been making smoothies.”

The premise of Nathan for You is simple. If your (real-life) business needs a boost, Fielder will appear and try to make it happen. On the show, Fielder’s sole aim is to help businesses, even if they don’t want his particular brand of help, or any help at all. (Episodes frequently feature a scene in which the target of Fielder’s advice utters some form of, You’re not that good at this, are you?) The results are greater than the sum of their parts: Nathan for You is a character study of humanity, a loving look at the minutiae that propel our daily lives. This by-degrees approach is awkward, embarrassing, and revealing of our best and basest selves. Wherever possible, Fielder makes sure he’s the most debased.

In person, Fielder is warm, if a little stilted. He’s handsome. This is in stark contrast to his appearance on Nathan for You, wherein he manages to look like a Roswell alien that grew human skin and wandered into civilization. On the show, Fielder’s face is frequently set to what I’d describe as “determined android”: mask-like, emotionless, a blank canvas that accentuates the reactions of his subjects. His voice is deep and monotonous—not not authoritative, which is perfect for the task at hand.

Nathan for You is not a huge show, nor is its star a household name, but there have been headline-grabbing moments. The biggest of these was a season two episode entitled “Dumb Starbucks,” an intentionally subversive café created to help a small, independent owner cash in on his good coffee while piggybacking on Starbucks’ brand recognition. In this case, Dumb Starbucks opened as an actual business, serving real (dumb) coffee to the real people of LA.

What made Dumb Starbucks possible was parody law, which Nathan explains in the episode as what allows, say, Saturday Night Live or Weird Al to reference copyrighted material. He soft-sells the idea to the skeptical café owner and asserts its legality, in voice-over, as “based off what I read on Wikipedia.” In one scene, Fielder consults a lawyer, who says he could get sued, but it’s less likely if Starbucks recognizes him as a regular parody artist (meta!).

After Fielder and the café owner spend a brief segment establishing themselves as parody artists, Dumb Starbucks is born. But Fielder didn’t anticipate the scale of his handiwork’s success. The store—with its dumb coffee, dumb pastries, and even CDs (Dumb Norah Jones Duets)—was a colossal hit off-screen. The business, which opened months before the episode aired, was completely swamped. Four-hour lineups snaked the block. Journalists speculated it was the work of British artist Banksy, and Dumb Starbucks cups later sold for upward of $500 a pop on eBay. The New York Times even reported on Fielder’s unique genius in making it happen. In a statement, Starbucks said, “While we appreciate the humor, they cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark.” But it wasn’t until Fielder revealed he was behind Dumb Starbucks that the LA health department stepped in and shut it down. As of this writing, the @dumbstarbucks Twitter account lives; it still has more than 11,000 followers. Clips of the episode posted to YouTube top 4 million views.

With this dumb brilliance, Fielder is sitting on the seedlings of a rich comedy career. “When people find out I’m a comedian, they’re thrown off, almost disturbed,” he says. “I’m not—as you can tell from talking to me—very funny in person. I’m not witty. When I tell people I’m a comedian, you almost see concern in their eyes: I hope this guy lands on his feet okay, because he’s clearly delusional.” As he says this, Fielder looks out the window. He may be considering the lonely, Twin Peaks–ian clutch of balloons tied outside—seemingly put there in celebration, but with no other indication of a party, whether past, present, or future. He may not be looking at them at all. Then Fielder puts four creamers in his coffee. It shouldn’t be funny, but there’s something about the way he does it.

Fielder grew up in Vancouver’s Dunbar neighbourhood. His parents were social workers. As a teen, Fielder aced an advanced placement math test. After that, however, he struggled to keep up. “I had a choice to be struggling with the smart people, or thriving with the normal people,” he says. He chose the latter.

One of Fielder’s early entry points into comedy was Seinfeld; he used to record Jerry’s stand-up from the TV. “My parents had a Dictaphone, and I’d have all the routines together with that bomp bomp bomp bomp.” He also began a semi-professional career as a magician. “I would market myself within the community. I joined the magic circle, I did conventions,” he says. “I was minimally serviceable. I’m sure there was some novelty to me being a kid.”

High school improv helped him build comedy muscle. With pals Ryan W. Smith and David Groberman, Fielder wrote a play called Yellow Squash, about a scientist with an invisibility cloak whose creation is stolen by corrupt cops who use it to rob banks. Smith, now a TV writer in Vancouver, says Fielder’s brand of humour was always evident. “He just had an incredible knack for playing the oddness of a situation,” Smith says.

It would take another six years for comedy to evolve into a career. Fielder followed a girlfriend to the University of Victoria and got the business degree still referred to in the credits of Nathan for You. During that time, he also took a magic gig for Vancouver’s Chutzpah Festival. “They wanted me to do magic, but I asked if I could do stand-up instead.” And so, with pages of handwritten jokes, Fielder did his first set—twenty minutes long—in front of a packed house at the 400-seat Jewish community centre. “I had a really good bomb right away,” he laughs.

From there, Fielder went to Toronto, where he entered an active comedy scene that helped him hone his voice with the well-edited short films that would become his calling card. After seeing his videos, a TV producer cornered him and asked for pitches. Nothing stuck, but the producer used her influence to help Fielder land his first regular TV gig, as a segment producer on Canadian Idol. For a time, if you were, say, Carly Rae Jepsen (season five), your first audition might have been for Fielder. “I don’t know anything about singing,” he says. But he made himself essential, and the rhythms of competitive reality TV evident in Nathan for You can partly be ascribed to his time there.

After that, he was hired by This Hour Has 22 Minutes, where he was given free rein as, essentially, the least important person at an institutional comedy show. With a one-cameraman crew and a Haligonian named Alberta who would butter up local entrepreneurs, Fielder began making the kinds of videos now seen on Nathan for You: small businesses, trying to do their best, with the comedian’s guidance. The humour then, as now, came from watching the awkwardness ensue. “They basically said, Just make a segment, and we’ll put it in front of a live audience. If it gets laughs, we’ll air it. If not, we won’t.” Simple enough. “In a weird way, it helped me. All the stuff I’d made was for people my age. The 22 Minutes audience—I could just see a sea of grey hair. Uncomfortable moments with people seemed to be universal.”

As happens with most standout comedic voices in Canada, America came calling. This time it was Demetri Martin, a stand-up comic in the same weird, irreverent vein as Fielder, who hired him to write on his Comedy Central show Important Things. Fielder moved to LA, the land of studios and smoothies.

As I write this, the trailer for Nathan for You’s third season has just dropped. It teases what Fielder calls a “deeper, broader” show, with more time spent on a single business and its story. While he wouldn’t go into great detail in advance of the premiere, Fielder reveals that for one episode, he completed eight months of intense physical training; another segment took more than six months to shoot. But while the ideas may be bigger, Nathan for You is still about the weird stuff between humanity’s toes.

Because of the show’s reliance on “normals,” also known as regular people, entire segments are sometimes scrapped when the desired conclusion or reaction is thwarted. Over time, the team has adapted to that. “What makes the show fun is that you go in both knowing what you want and hoping to be surprised,” says show co-creator Michael Koman. “A lot of the best stuff comes from things we never could have seen coming.” Rewriting on set and in the edit room is hard-wired into the mechanics. Comedy Central gives Fielder and his team immense leeway. “They’re so hands off, it almost makes me uncomfortable,” Fielder says.

The network has another role, though. Habitually, it has teed up comedians for further success—think Jon Stewart, Amy Schumer, Stephen Colbert, Key and Peele, or the stars of Broad City. Like them, Fielder is a comedian’s comedian, or a “comedy-geek darling,” per the New York Times. But he’s yet to break into the mainstream. He has empathy and affection for people, which means he could become a great late-night host—his generation’s Conan or Colbert (the latter who, like Fielder, until recently played a parody of himself).

For now, Fielder trucks along. Ratings for his show are hard to pin down, but the audience is growing: according to Comedy Central, Nathan for You’s second season was up 50 percent in its demographic (adult males age eighteen to forty-nine) from season one, and it was the number one original cable series in its time slot (Tuesday, 10:30 p.m.) among men eighteen to thirty-four. And that’s all he needs for now.

Coffee finished, Fielder stands to leave. There’s editing to do and, as always, he sits in and guides the process. Unlike his entrance, Fielder’s exit is fast and nonchalant. There’s not much funny about it but, hey, dude has a show to make.

This appeared in the December 2015 issue.

Kaitlin Fontana (kaitlinfontana.com) is a comedian and a frequent contributor to The Walrus.

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