For five years, Nathan Fielder traversed Los Angeles County, pitching farcical money-making schemes with a straight face to bemused business owners on his Comedy Central show “Nathan for You.” Though his project has been widely celebrated for its sublime cringe comedy, it merits serious appraisal as a work of documentary filmmaking.
Fielder’s approach revived nonfiction techniques sorely lacking in contemporary documentary: subterfuge, spectacle, digression, and humor. He transformed reality television, with its long-discarded documentary pretext, into an uncomfortable idiom with murky ethics that require constant deciphering from viewer, subject, and director alike.
And his career is just getting started.
Fielder’s contributions to the documentary landscape didn’t stop with the end of “Nathan for You.” Shortly after the show completed its four-season run in 2017, Fielder connected with John Wilson, a documentarian with a distinct sense of humor who is uniquely attuned to the absurdities of contemporary America. Fielder now serves as executive producer of “How To with John Wilson,” a documentary series that digresses from its straightforward premise in unpredictable, hilarious, and transcendent ways. The second season of “How To with John Wilson” premieres this November on HBO.
Meanwhile, Fielder is currently collaborating with “Uncut Gems” co-director Benny Safdie on Showtime’s “The Curse.” The pair co-wrote the series, which revolves around a reality television show, and star alongside Emma Stone.
Despite his track record, it can be difficult to place Fielder’s role within the broader landscape of nonfiction cinema. But make no mistake: Fielder continues a long, vital tradition that positions the documentary director not as an observer but as an instigator. His work should be considered alongside that of William Greaves, who created his own chaos by playing the role of an incompetent director in “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One” (1968) or Marcel Łoziński, who planted an obstinate couple in the communist summer camp he documented in “How To Live” (1981) or Joe Gibbons, who spent years committing countless petty crimes en route to producing his “Confessions of a Sociopath” (2002).
Fielder’s instinct to engage with the world through elaborately constructed scenarios is hardly new, “The mixing of reality and fiction, and letting reality guide a story, is something that’s been done since the dawn of cinema,” said Kitao Sakurai, director of this year’s prank comedy standout “Bad Trip.” “But I think Nathan is doing it in a way that feels very fresh and different [through] his particular brand of comedy, that’s what makes it so singular.”
The notoriously press-shy Fielder declined to comment for this article, but he told Bill Simmons in a 2013 podcast that he draws from his experiences as a young man who struggled to read social cues.
“I couldn’t read subtlety that well, so if someone didn’t like me, or liked me, or thought I was nuts, it would be hard for me to tell. Unless they said it overtly I wouldn’t know,” he said at the time. “I’m almost making fun of that version of me, and I’m creating a world in which subtlety can’t exist for other people. So if someone doesn’t overtly tell me they don’t want to do something, then I’m not registering that.”
At their best, Fielder’s contrivances escalated to scenes so bewildering they couldn’t exist in any other context: a rabbi defending his Auschwitz-themed jacket display to an aghast store manager, a man requesting earwax and toenail clippings from his mom so he can “cremate” her, a realtor coming clean about an incubus purportedly dwelling in the home she’s selling.
“I think part of the reason that you laugh … is you’re laughing at the absurdity of something that’s real: Somebody in this completely heightened, insane situation, and they make this choice now,” Sakurai said. “That also clues you into, in a very deep way, who this person actually is. You feel like, ‘I know this person now really intimately.’ That’s a very specific kind of magic trick.”
In “Nathan for You,” both participant and viewer are caught between two people who inhabit the same body: Nathan Fielder, the host who wants to feel loved, and Nathan Fielder, the show’s director, who wants to generate laughs. Discerning this dynamic is sometimes tricky.
Watch “Bad Trip” and “The Eric Andre Show” writer/director Kitao Sakurai break down the magic of “Nathan for You” in the video below.
As host, Fielder is a self-appointed business consultant whose profound insecurities manifest as overconfidence and defensiveness. Although show participants have characterized his tactics as cruel, Safdie, a long-time Fielder champion and recent collaborator on “The Curse,” described him as “deep down … this guy who wants to make friends.”
As director, Fielder counterbalanced the host’s tactless behavior with a strong moral compass, steering the show’s humor toward empathy and ensuring that it never actually veered into exploitation. In “Burger Joint,” Nathan the host pushes the owner of “the best burger in LA” to back up his hyperbole with a $100 bill for any unsatisfied customer. When a high-profile promotion of this guarantee goes comically sour, the owner starts to look deeply worried, and Nathan the director steps in to cover the costs with Comedy Central cash.
“I know that Nathan has a lot of integrity, and you feel that from the show,” Sakurai said. As a writer-director of “The Eric Andre Show,” Sakurai also worked through Abso Lutely Productions, the company behind “Nathan for You,” and explained their ethos.
“They definitely do use ethical and moral guardrails to make sure that what’s happening isn’t unethical,” Sakurai said. “We always look into our hearts before a prank and we’re like, ‘Is this ethical or not?’” He added that there was a distinction between what happens during the shoot and how it plays to viewers. “On screen, we don’t care if some shit feels completely unethical and insane,” he said. “If you want to believe that, believe that. But in our hearts, we can sleep at night.”
Fielder’s on-camera skill involves a careful negotiation of his screen persona. “Even though I know for a fact that he did an enormous amount of work, the work that he did disappears” Safdie said. “That’s what makes it so effective.”
The subjects of Fielder’s work never come across as victims or pawns. (When his plan revolves around leaving a $10,000 tip for a struggling diner, it can feel like Fielder the director’s stealthy contribution to the perennial pay-your-subjects debate.)
In its fourth season, “Nathan for You” avoided any public airing of grievances from its participants. This distinguishes it from the exploits of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character, which drew ire not only from its targets but also from seeming accomplices, including the residents of Glod, Romania who felt like they had been reduced to stereotypical punchlines.
However, over the years, some “Nathan for You” viewers lodged complaints that the show treated its participants with cruelty and even put some in precarious situations. Writing for Grantland, writer Molly Lambert investigated these concerns by reaching out to business owners from early seasons. She reported that, unlike other “benevolent” reality shows such as “Kitchen Nightmare” and “Shark Tank,” “Nathan for You” has a spotless record: all of the participants felt the show had a net positive impact on their lives.
There’s also a “Nathan for You” subreddit populated by obsessive fans who seek out show contestants for their perspectives. While these accounts suggest the show occasionally misrepresented its methods, it hasn’t turned up any lingering animosity.
For viewers, litigating these ethical questions is a challenge because the show’s language can obfuscate reality. A fantasia of reality television, “Nathan for You” is primarily presented as a business makeover show but frequently shape-shifted into other modes, from dating competition to escape challenge to a teen lifestyle showcase.
Fielder even found ways for his projects to infiltrate and distort broadcast news. It’s easy to look at Fielder’s harnessing of reality vocabulary and simply call it good parody (it is), but by contorting the host’s twisted reality into these familiar shapes, “Nathan for You” also ingeniously wields the uneasy, hypnotic spell cast by all commercial documentary media.
“It has these vibes to it that put your mind in a certain place so that when the real comes in, and sneaks in, or breaks that model, it feels so much more impactful because you’re being trained to think it’s a certain thing,” Safdie said. “And then the whole genre has slipped from you.”
He added that realism is a major thread driving Fielder’s work, noting an “obsession with faking the real on [‘Nathan for You’] all the time, that something is more real when it’s faked, or how do you make something fake feel real and look real.”
The show’s 2017 finale, “Finding Frances,” explores the possibility that committing to a bit for years on end could turn the bit into reality — or at least something like it. In the episode, Fielder commits to helping one of his show’s recurring collaborators, a Bill Gates impersonator named Bill Heath, as he attempts to locate his high school sweetheart, Frances.
In the episode’s introduction, Fielder explains that Heath became good friends with the “Nathan for You” team following his initial appearance. Heath is shown hanging around the show’s office and delivering gifts to the production team, which raises a question: Is he friends with Nathan the director or Nathan the host?
This episode was a significant departure for the series in several respects. To start, it runs nearly 90 minutes and was shot in Arkansas and Michigan. It also marked the first time that Fielder’s project was not imposing on his subject but rather fulfilling their own request.
Because “Finding Frances” revolves around a sincere goal, it unfolds with the urgency, stakes, and language of documentary filmmaking. And yet Fielder the director retains his signature elements of mischief and diversion. En route to their final destination, Fielder and Heath plot a heist in order to steal a yearbook, then stage a fake reunion to locate more tips, before ultimately finding the information they’re looking for on the internet.
They learn that Frances now lives in Michigan and decide to travel to her house. A few thousand miles from his home, parked outside the house of an octogenarian stranger, Fielder finally breaks. Heath asks for the cameras to follow him as he approaches Frances’s door, and Fielder refuses, arguing that it’s creepy to use cameras during such a sensitive moment.
“The person who he’s pretending to be is also kind of going away, and you’re seeing somebody come out on both sides,” Safdie said. “You’re seeing a little bit of Nathan, you’re seeing the real part of Bill.” In the end, the jokes stop as host and director merge.
“Nathan really does follow the circuitous path through all these changes that happen and ideas,” Sakurai said. “Those are actually happening in real time, those aren’t preordained. Those really are guided by the people that are on the show. On a production level, that’s incredibly hard to do. But on top of that, the producers have to contend with the fact that they can’t really reveal the true nature of the show to the people who are on the show who they’re dealing with every day multiple times a day across weeks.”
Sakurai called this “a feat of stress management that is unapproachable.” In Sakurai’s own work, participants are kept in the dark for a day or less. “With Nathan, it’s not like that,” he said. “This person believes that Nathan is actually who he says he is, and to maintain that is really, really hard.” –Chris Boeckmann