Over the course of its three season run (it was just renewed for a fourth), the Comedy Central show Nathan For You has established itself as not just one of the most interesting shows on television, but also as a singular piece of cultural critique whose concerns often run concurrently, and sometimes lap, those from the world of contemporary art.
The basic premise of Nathan For You is that Nathan Fielder—a deadpan performer of rich Canadian comedic stock who cut his teeth on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, his homeland’s sort of version of The Daily Show—helps rehabilitate struggling businesses, like Gordon Ramsay on Kitchen Nightmares, among many other programs (this kind of show is pretty much its own genre of reality television at this point). The difference between Fielder and his contemporaries, however, is that he gives the businesses absurd and often self-defeating ideas, ones that have the tendency to become more convoluted and insane as the program progresses.
If that concept were the extent of the show’s scope, it would still stand as a funny and much-needed parody of business revitalization programs on TV. Over the program’s run, however, it has become much more than that—Fielder weaves elements of performance, conceptual art, and what the artist and writer David Robbins has dubbed “Concrete Comedy” into the framework and peripheries of his show. (The series is produced by Abso Lutely, the production company created by the comedy duo Tim & Eric, themselves no strangers to pushing the limits of comedy that dovetails with the aesthetics of contemporary art.)
Nathan For You is probably best known for its second season episode “Dumb Starbucks,” in which Fielder, as a way to help out an ailing local coffee shop, opens up a replica of the famous chain with one major difference: every menu item has “dumb” in front of it: dumb latte; dumb espresso; dumb frappuccino. For this stunt to be grounded in any sort of legality, Fielder first sets a precedent for himself as a parody artist, staging an art show that in itself is a meta-parody of street artists like Bansky or the magazine Adbusters.
Before the episode even aired, “Dumb Starbucks” went viral on its own accord, receiving national media attention and even prompting rumors that it was actually the work of Bansky himself. In one episode, Fielder manages to make fun of both commercialism and the kind of art that mocks commercialism, all the while creating a viral media stir in earnest. At one point, the Los Angeles conceptual artist Marc Horowitz even tried to take credit for the project.
Fielder’s brand of pop-situationism fits nicely in a tradition with innovators like Malcolm McLaren, Andy Kaufman and The KLF. All three figures cribbed ideas from contemporary art and theory and pushed them, realpolitik style, into the world of pop culture. Nathan is the newest dryly Canadian link in this chain. Take, for example, “The Movement,” an episode from Nathan For You’s most recent season. In an attempt to get free labor for a struggling moving company, Nathan reframes the moving process as a form of voluntary exercise and a substitute for the gym. This idea is pretty funny on its own, but it’s Fielder’s conceptual extrapolations that push the episode into truly brilliant territory.
Nathan hires bodybuilder Jack Garborino to play the part of a physically fit man who “has never set foot in a gym” (a lie) and owes all of his fitness success to “The Movement,” which is what Fielder calls this moving-centric workout plan he’s devised (he additionally hires an out-of-shape lookalike to play the “before” in a classic “before and after” picture with Garborino). From there, Nathan hits Craigslist and finds a somewhat dubious ghostwriter to pen the adjoining inspirational book, which fleshes out the actor’s narrative. It is also filled with mostly outright lies: the book claims that Garborino was childhood friends with Steve Jobs. This then leads to a real-life PR blitz, putting the actor behind “The Movement” on morning talk shows nationwide with a straight face. The book itself comes out and even becomes an Amazon bestseller.
In his book Concrete Comedy, Robbins defines a new kind of comedy that is “of doing rather than saying” and based partly in prop-like conceptual objects. The Movement (the book) falls squarely into this category, an object that exists as the result of a very conceptual, process-based performance. It is worth noting that there is not a single mention of Nathan For You in the book. Like Immigrant Movement International, Tania Bruguera’s so-called “full-time performance piece” that offers public services to immigrants in Queens, The Movement exists in different contexts simultaneously, and is both practical and contrived. The book is of course hilarious if one has knowledge of the show, but it would also be funny in a different way if found in the thrift store ether ten years from now.
There is a lot to talk about with Nathan For You (I haven’t even gotten into the development of the character of Nathan, which some on the Internet have theorized is going through a bit of a Breaking Bad-style metamorphosis), but I will say this: most of the pranks I have seen happen within the context of contemporary art are so inside baseball that their power is deeply limited in scope. Nathan For You pulls off the rare feat of being both conceptual and populist. At its best, it beats artists at their own game.