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‘Nathan for You:’ How Cringe Comedy Doesn’t Have to Offend to Make Us Laugh

'Nathan for You:' How Cringe Comedy Doesn't Have to Offend to Make Us Laugh

Nearing the wrap-up of its third season, Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You” continues to be some of the most original comedy currently on TV. Each episode, comedian-cum-financial advisor Nathan Fielder travels to various privately-owned businesses that are caught in a slump. Fielder provides advice that, if it weren’t for his loophole-finding comedic genius, would probably have him committed. (One of this season’s more elaborate endeavors includes turning an entire bar into a modern theater piece so that its patrons can legally smoke cigarettes indoors.)

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“Nathan for You” is an awkward show: This is cringe comedy at its extreme. Fielder has a monotone, deadpan voice and his impressive ability to never break makes every scene seem like a time bomb of uncomfortable tension waiting to go off. The unassuming entrepreneurs he advises are almost always on a similar plane of unease, and their willingness to passively go along with Fielder’s more convoluted plans makes the show all the more grueling (and hilarious) to watch.

Cringe comedy isn’t new. We’ve seen it before on “The Office,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Family Guy,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and many, many more. However, each of these shows causes the cringe at someone else’s expense. Often, but not always, the cringe on these shows comes from a character being humiliated on camera or making offensive comments. Not to say that this is bad – all of these shows continue to be wonderfully funny – but we cringe because we know what we’re hearing and seeing is wrong. “Nathan For You” takes this formula and tweaks it. “Nathan for You” produces the cringe from seeing someone who’s terrible at helping try his “best,” and seeing the bystanders kindly humor him. While the business owner’s expectations may be upset, no one is hurt and everyone leaves (relatively) happy.

Much of this can be credited to Fielder himself. At a recent event for New York Comedy Week, Fielder took the stage for what was planned to be your average Q&A. However, after a sneak peek at an upcoming episode, Fielder took the opportunity for audience interaction to interview his fans, wanting to “get to know them” before he heard their questions.

It was awkward. Fielder grilled audience members on whether they found their jobs fulfilling, if they had a history of mental illness, and, with the final interview subject, how his sex life had recently developed. By the time each audience member handed over the mike, they were bright red, but they were also smiling. Everyone was cringing, but no one was on the verge of tears. Fielder had struck a balance in which subject and viewer were both horribly embarrassed, but by offering genuine concern and offering whatever advice he had, it was clear that Nathan Fielder cared.

While some may compare “Nathan for You” to prank docu-comedies like “Jackass” or “Punk’d,” it’s nowhere near as crass. Fielder isn’t tricking his clients, he’s merely delivering the goods in a way they wouldn’t expect. There are no hidden camera or actors paid to mislead the innocent. What we see is real, even if it is unimaginably uncomfortable. There’s a moment in each episode of “Nathan for You” where we see this bar owner, real estate agent, private investigator, or what have you as they take a moment to process everything, and with a single look at their unorthodox advisor, they say, “What have I gotten myself into?” Despite this, nearly every episode ends with a smile and a confession that despite the awkwardness, it was all good fun. Arguably, “Nathan for You” provides more valuable publicity than a real financial advisor might.

Cringe comedy is something we love to hate and hate to love. With “Nathan for You,” we don’t do so at any particular person’s expense. We cringe due to pure, unadulterated human awkwardness. Not necessarily better, but certainly new and different, “Nathan for You” presents us with something we struggle to watch, but walk away from knowing that maybe, just maybe, the people involved are off for the better because of it.

“Nathan For You” airs Thursdays at 10pm on Comedy Central. 

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