Nathan For You’s Oddball Humor Hides a Serious Message

2 minute read

I’m one of the many viewers who, at the height of the Modern Family era, wanted TV comedy to get more class conscious–to develop characters who worried, or at least cared, about money. It’s fitting that Comedy Central’s M.B.A. fantasia Nathan for You, in its fourth season, fulfilled that wish in a twisted, monkey’s-paw manner. The show has made steady business of taking good intentions too far.

Host Nathan Fielder, a Canadian comedian, asks small-business owners what it would take to make their operation a success, and then oversteps in trying to hack a solution. (The situations and reactions, startlingly, are real.) He has the zealous, misguided confidence that it takes to attempt to compete in a post–financial collapse economy.

Fielder’s character (also named Nathan Fielder) meets with owners of nail salons and travel agencies in the less-photogenic parts of California and “helps” them carry out imaginative yet thuddingly literal ideas. A restaurant that was denied a license to sell food at a hockey game bypasses the rules with a sealed plastic suit that Fielder fills with hot chili and wears under his clothes. Concerned about the rapaciousness of Uber, Fielder attempts to set up a sleeper cell within the company, drivers who will turn passengers against the car service with bad odors and the song “Mambo No. 5.” (In a twist, the driver Fielder tries to help ends up joining Uber–there’s no better way to make money today.)

Fielder’s methods are ludicrous. But the point he makes is sharp: bizarre grasps, inflected with Silicon Valley loopiness and P.T. Barnum hucksterism, are the last resort of people who have been told that entrepreneurialism is the last virtue. The show is a dark, worthy companion piece to ABC’s relentlessly sunny Shark Tank, on which inventors smile their way through interrogation before being tossed a small slice of capital. Unflappable and earnest, Fielder convinces you of his certainty that any business can succeed. Compared with its idealistic lead, the show itself is wiser, more engaged and less sure.

Nathan for You airs on Comedy Central Thursdays at 10 p.m. E.T.

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