In ‘The Rehearsal,’ Nathan Fielder’s surreal comic genius takes a metaphysical twist

A few years ago I went with some friends to see Nathan Fielder perform at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto.

The purpose of the event was to preview footage from the fourth season of “Nathan for You,” the brilliant (sur)reality show on Comedy Central that turned the Vancouver native into a comedy icon. In it, a good Samaritan uses his business school education (via McGill, with good grades) to support small business owners in a monolithic corporate market, usually to strange effect. The episode we watched, “Andy vs. Uber,” featured a “sleeper cell” of disenfranchised taxi drivers trying to sabotage the eponymous ride-sharing app — an insurgency that, like most of Nathan’s schemes, tragically turns against him.

As a warm-up, Fielder, who appeared before and after the broadcast, attempted to contextualize his presence at the Music Hall by noting other acts appearing on the lineup that week. Among them, Quebec pop-punkers A Simple Plan. For 10 disconcerting minutes, Fielder then scrolled through his phone and read aloud the lyrics to the band’s 2004 self-pity hit “Welcome to My Life.”

“Do you ever feel out of place?” he asked, into his iron deadpan. “Like you just don’t belong?” It was a miniature eternity, punctuated by nervous peals of laughter from the sold-out crowd and, like all of Fielder’s finest gestures, the timing was somehow totally random and carefully calculated. Themes of loneliness and isolation lurk in his work, and these questions seemed more than rhetorical.

“A Simple Plan” would work pretty well as an alternate title for Fielder’s new series “The Rehearsal,” which premieres in Canada on Crave on July 15.

Blueprints – always of the best-laid variety, paved with the best intentions – are Fielder’s specialty. The running joke of “Nathan for You” was that its host’s schematic consumerist guerrilla form was too complex for its own good. As a rule, his schemes crumbled under their own weight or degenerated into senseless megalomania. In one episode, a scheme to lower the price of plasma TVs at an independent electronics store results in customers coming face-to-face with a living alligator.

At its best, “Nathan for You” was a dizzying balance between spontaneity and manipulation, with Fielder himself (at one point literally) walking a tightrope as a delicate mix of author, star, and existential stuntman. Eventually, however, the laughs started to stick in your throat. In the final episodes – including the gorgeous final feature “Finding Frances”, hailed by Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris in the New Yorker as a classic – it was hard to ignore the dark tragicomic subtext: that Nathan is energetically interfere in the lives of others to fill the void of his own.

The formula has made Fielder the (poker) face of a certain brand of hyper-reflexive comedy. In 2014, he staged a stunt, “Dumb Starbucks”, which went viral. He opened an actual cafe in Los Angeles, serving bad coffee and playing “dumb” versions of Starbucks Playlist favorites before getting shut down three days later. He called it a parody of a parody of a parody.

Last week, Fielder, 39, appeared shirtless on the cover of New York magazine for a profile that valiantly attempted to probe his inscrutable personality. “King of Cringe Bares All,” the cover promised. He did not do it. with few exceptions – including the revelation of her divorce after a three-year marriage – Fielder has kept her cards close to her bare chest.

In the five years since “Nathan for You” ended, its reach has grown. In addition to the success of his own show, Fielder is the executive producer of HBO’s acclaimed “How to With John Wilson,” a kind of spiritual brother in his penchant for combining observational comedy with urban ethnography; in it, Wilson offers eccentric advice on topics that ultimately take him out of the subject and his comfort zone. Fielder’s and Wilson’s self-mockery is calculated, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong; at a time defined by relentlessly publicized personal and professional interactions, the anxious sociability exhibited in “How to With John Wilson” and “Nathan for You” feels plugged into a larger zeitgeist.

This meaning also extends to the putative cruelty of these shows: Fielder seems taken aback by criticism that his style of comedy could be construed as mean-spirited, whether by critics or his civilian collaborators. “I truly feel like I’m the most pathetic person at anything I do,” he said in the New York magazine article, deflecting suggestions of power-triggering or exploitation without really getting into it. address the elephant in the room: the question of whether the on-screen character of “Nathan Fielder” is the genuine article or an awkwardly stylized doppelganger.

“The Rehearsal” features the same protagonist – Nathan – with our idle hero hooked on the improv role-playing drills he developed to create his signature hit.

Nathan’s new venture involves helping a group of internet volunteers prepare for tough personal situations by guiding them through “rehearsals” – meticulously contrived encounters designed to produce optimal IRL results. As on “Nathan for You”, the implication is that Fielder is working on his own issues on other people’s time; the humor lies in the disproportionate incongruity between the modesty of the situations experienced by his collaborators and the Olympian difficulties inherent in the process baptized “The Fielder Method”.

In the pilot, titled “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” a man’s anxiety about cheating on his longtime teammates about his master’s degree (he doesn’t really have one) requires, among other things, the literal construction of a bar identical to the one he frequents in Brooklyn, housed in a warehouse in Oregon and populated by background actors who were run by Nathan to agonize over their own motives.

It’s all very funny in the same calamitous way as “Nathan for You,” and if all Fielder had done with “The Rehearsal” was replicate his previous triumph, that would be reason enough to celebrate. But starting with the second episode, “Scion” — which centers on a woman in her early 40s who wants to prepare for the possibility of parenthood, likely by adopting a baby — “The Rehearsal” begins to drift into a metaphysical more seductive (and personal). ) directions, a shift both predictable given Fielder’s penchant for inappropriate participation in his own endeavors and completely shockingly jaw-dropping.

For once, a network’s warnings to reviewers to avoid spoilers seem warranted, but one moment in “Scion” stands out as sort of a definitive meta commentary on Fielder’s shtick, and can be quoted without violating those guidelines. or destroy it for the public. Sitting alone in a living room that has been outfitted (like the rest of her HBO-funded model home) with surveillance cameras, Fielder’s subject, who considers herself a religious woman, prays that production members (including Nathan ) experience good fortune; its appeal to a higher power becomes unsettling against the backdrop of a show that indulges – and comically fetishizes – the control-manic tendencies of its own creator.

Suffice it to say, the scale and complexity of Fielder’s machinations in “The Rehearsal” have to be seen to be believed.

The closest analogues to what he attempts here are Charlie Kaufman’s film “Synecdoche, New York” – a fantasy about an artist who turns his whole life into a sprawling work of conceptual art until he loses track of what he’s invented – and Tom McCarthy’s bizarre novel ‘Rest’, whose wealthy, possibly brain-damaged narrator becomes obsessed with recreating and piecing together moments of his life in a quest of ‘authenticity.’ The difference, of course, is that these are works of fiction, while Fielder filters – apparently – his micromanagerial obsessions through the lens of documentary.

One of the underrated aspects of “Nathan for You” was how, in addition to its implicit critique of a capitalist ecosystem in which all businesses are not created equal, it functioned as a satire of a certain brand of “reality” packaged and ersatz. “The Rehearsal” doubles down on this idea by suggesting that ultimately Fielder’s methods alienate him – and his audience – from anything resembling the truth and that, in addition to being the mastermind of his own universe An incredibly spacious, HBO-funded alternative, he’s also a prisoner: an inmate who runs his own asylum.

As an attempt to help people navigate the endless contingencies of human relationships, “The Fielder Method” fails. As a meditation on the futility of methodology itself, “The Rehearsal” may be a masterpiece. The glorious paradox is that the more out of place Fielder feels, the closer his comedy gets to its sweet spot. Welcome to his life.

Adam Nayman is a Toronto-based critic, speaker and author. Follow him on Twitter: @brofromanother


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Daniel K. Denny