CANADA’S OWN NATHAN FIELDER RECENTLY HIT Comedy Central by storm with the premiere of his series, “Nathan for You.” Labeled a docu-reality series, the show follows the comedian as he helps struggling companies with his off-kilter strategies that would traditionally fall way by the wayside. However, given that he holds a business degree, it all seems somehow viable.
The show has been a great success for the network, with Fielder quickly becoming a fan favorite for his unique approach to comedy. The crew even unexpectedly put together a hoax that broke the seemingly impenetrable “Nightly News” top-stories a few months ago.
Fielder recently sat down with TSJ to discuss the series, the absurdity in marketing and how he really felt during the “hero pig” story.
The Smoking Jacket: “Nathan for You” is really interesting and different from the other shows on Comedy Central. Where did the idea come from?
Nathan Fielder: Thanks! I used to do a show in Canada called “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” and I would do these three-minute segments with real people. The tone was very similar to this show. Those were stand-alone scenes in the middle of that show and I kind of got framed as this consumer advocate person to go in and find out basic what should you look for stuff, local news level consumer advocacy. So when I pitched this show to Comedy Central, it was kind of a way to expand on that and not just have stand alone scenes, but to turn things into a story with these people.
I did my undergraduate in business so I’ve always found marketing and business interesting; I was going to go into it. I find that there’s a lot of funny things in the world of marketing. And a lot of those elements come together to make this show what it is.
TSJ: I read that you think there’s an absurdity to marketing and that you’ve always wanted to mix that with comedy. Can you explain that?
NF: I’ve seen that sometimes when people are in the zone and trying to market something they don’t think about the larger issues of what they’re doing. Like, how does this really benefit society in general? Are you really trying to get just one more customer in or is there a larger picture or promotion? And sometimes that seems to be missing and people then use shock or extreme marketing. People get so caught up in the idea of this will get attention that they don’t think about anything else. It’s something I’d like to explore more; the conflict that people get into when they’re representing a business, like not being able to separate themselves from that. I always found that really funny.
The funny thing is when people would say “we” when talking about a business. I’d be like do you like this product? And they’d always say, “Yes, we’re very excited about it.” I’d just be standing there with one person asking a personal question and I’d hear we. They’re giving me a stock corporate answer and I just always found that so funny. I’d love to find a way to incorporate that into the show.
TSJ: I guess some people are just afraid of talking out against the product their company is promoting. It’s an interesting point.
NF: It’s just a funny world, to put yourself in a mindset of this will help you because it will bring people in and not think about a negative or outside of what you’re doing; I think that’s a common thing we see in the business world.
TSJ: The businesses that you approach for “Nathan For You,” are they aware that it’s for a comedy show?
NF: We don’t really play out the comedy element, but they do sign a release that says Comedy Central, I think. But the cool thing with this show is that we have a certain level of honesty with the people who run the businesses, more than I think other shows would. It doesn’t really matter if the show is on Comedy Central or not because we go to them with this idea that might seem ridiculous, and they might laugh at first, but then when they’re done I’m still there sincerely saying we want to do this. And even with full disclosure we’re able to overcome their internal conflict.
I tend to find too that when people think of comedy they think of really goofy, over the top types of characters. And even with the stuff I did in Canada, the people I interviewed knew it was for a comedy show, but I played against their instincts of what a comedian might be. I think if I play out the natural comfortableness that I have with them it makes them empathize with me, like they just don’t think I’m good at what I do, you know?
When we’re there it’s surprising how much it doesn’t feel funny. When you see it on TV it is funny, thankfully. But when you’re there on the day it seems kind of dry.
TSJ: Do you tend to think you didn’t get anything then? Or are you aware that there is funny in there?
NF: I know we got something. What the audience is seeing is a minute long scene but each person’s experience is like a half an hour or something with boring questions and such. And in that time they might not see it as a comedy bit. The tone is the most important thing for me in this show. My goal is to set up situations where these people don’t want to hurt my feelings and believe who I am. And the truth is that I’m me. Not many know my experience. If they ask what I do for a living I tell them I work in television and do comedy, then they just think I’m not funny and feel bad for me. [laughs] But I can tell them I did go to business school. So really I’m not lying to any of these people. I’m totally honest with them about who I am.
TSJ: I wanted to ask you if the interviews in the show were real. One that sticks out is the LA PR guy for the frozen yogurt company. He seemed to get very irritated. Was that real?
NF: Yeah, that was the only time we’ve ever been kicked out of a place. That was the pilot episode, and 100% real. He got very annoyed and kicked us out. I think he had a meeting. But we had to go back like six months later and get a released signed by him when the show got picked up. We showed him the final cut though and he signed it. I guess he was fine with it.
TSJ: It turned out to be a great part of the episode. And you stayed with it the entire time.
NF: It’s funny; some people probably watch that thinking oh, that guy’s an asshole. But he watched it and signed the release so I don’t know. But with the actual businesses, because I’m a comedian some people think I’m doing the show with real people to show that they are stupid, and I hate when people categorize it that way. It’s not at all what I feel like I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to put people in real situations where their real personalities will come out. People have a “professional mode” that they go into when they’re at a business, and my goal is to get them out of that and throw a curveball. The people in the show are endearing and that’s why people laugh. It’s funny to see nice people.
TSJ: Is it hard to get people out of that professional mindset?
NF: It’s funny, I was thinking about this the other day. When I was a kid my mother was a social worker and she was very polite and professional, always. And I would always try to make her crack; I would just do everything I could to make her break in some way. Sometimes I’d get her to laugh and you could tell that she was mad she was laughing at such an inappropriate joke. I feel like I got a lot of practice that way because I always found it more endearing when she was out of that mode and into her laughing mode. So with the show, I feel it’s the same thing. People are always much more interesting to watch or are more endearing when they’re not putting on that professional, polite tone.
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TSJ: That’s so true. So how did you get from business to comedy? Stand up?
NF: Near the end of business school I knew I didn’t want to really do it. In high school, I did improv and theater, so after school I moved to Toronto and did stand up and made short films. I taught myself how to edit and stuff, and wasn’t making any money. I was living off my savings. After a year or so I started getting work in TV. My first job in TV was working for “Canadian Idol.” I just wrote for the host. It was funny; I did a lot of interviews with the contestants. That was the first step into that type of interview style.
TSJ: Can you tell me about this “Hero Pig” story? It’s really interesting.
NF: Yeah! One idea we had for the show was to help a petting zoo diversify itself from the other zoos in the area, giving them a “hero” animal, like Shamu. So the idea was to stage a scenario where a baby goat is drowning and a pig comes to save it. But even trained pigs can’t rescue anything so we had to have scuba divers underneath and a transparent underwater track. We shot it on a little camera and put it on YouTube, and literally within 24 hours it was on the “Nightly News” with Brian Williams, “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” it was everywhere. It was the big video of that week.
Everyone thought it was real. All we did was put it on YouTube with a description. It was a really cool experience; you always hear about things going viral but you never get to experience it and see it spread. It was amazing how quickly it gets out of your hands and gets passed around so rapidly. It’s so fast.
TSJ: And you had to keep it under wraps.
NF: Exactly. We were hoping it would spread online but we didn’t think that would happen. We didn’t have time to think about it because we were in the middle of shooting our show. We had conversations with the network about how we should play it but ultimately decided that what happened organically was funny and probably the best thing. So we thought to see how far we could push it and put it in the first episode. I think it’s hard if you try to trick people. This happening the way it did, with people pulling it themselves, it was better.
TSJ: Were you nervous at all? I mean, hearing Brian Williams talk about it is pretty nuts. It’s the “Nightly News,” you know?
NF: As much as I was laughing I was very nervous. But it didn’t change my perspective about the way the world works. When I heard Brian Williams talking about our little video it was crazy. It feels like a big place like the “Nightly News” should be a big fortress, almost like you just can’t crack that. I never thought it would be so easy. [laughs] It made me think oh, that’s how it works. People get caught up and air it. But we couldn’t believe it.
TSJ: I know you wrote for “Important Thing with Demetri Martin” and “Jon Benjamin Has A Van.” How do you like the writing as opposed to performing?
NF: Well, I had come off working for “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” where I had acted and directed my own things. That was a very stressful experience because I was risking embarrassment. I’m not the type of person who just loves being on camera. I’m most comfortable when I’ve thought something out.
When I worked on Demetri Martin’s show it was a beak from that. I learned how to be in a room with pro writers. That’s where I met Michael Koman, who I’m doing this show with. It’s great working with other people because you don’t have to focus on everything, you can just focus on the writing. I don’t have to worry about how I look in the morning [laughs] And being on Jon’s show was so much fun. That guy is so funny. I guess I just love doing a lot of different things.
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