Making it in business can be hard. At least that's the premise of any number of reality shows in the Restaurant Makeover mold - a savvy fixer is brought in to jumpstart a struggling mom-and-pop. But on Nathan For You, the new show from Toronto-by-way-of-Vancouver comedian Nathan Fielder, that model is pushed to the point of absurdity.
In the show's first episode, Fielder offers to "help" a frozen yogurt store by synthesizing a "crazy new flavour" that will get people talking. His flavour? Poo. In another episode, he assists a gas station by introducing a cash-back rebate that can only be redeemed after dropping the form off at the top of a mountain, after answering a series of riddles.
The show, which premiered on Comedy Central in the States last month and makes the jump to the Comedy Network in Canada this Friday, continues the tradition of comedy Fielder indulged in with his own YouTube videos - like a Top Chef parody that also has Fielder unblinkingly talking about "poo" - and his fake consumer reports on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The show's as much indebted to Fielder's comedic persona (dry to the point of seeming surreal) as it is the reactions of the real people who find themselves snookered by his bizarre proposals, creating a space for deeply strange human reactions that would be impossible on scripted TV.
In advance of Nathan For You's Canadian premiere, we spoke with Fielder over the phone about the show, his business credentials, and his advice for helping an alt-weekly like NOW.
Nathan For You feels a bit like an outgrowth of the Nathan On Your Side segments you used to do for This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Is this where the idea came from?
Yeah, totally. Initially the show was pitched as me being a consumer advocate. But in the development, the concept changed to me actually going in to help the businesses. I think that opened it up to allowing us to do a lot more with it. I actually used some segments from This Hour Has 22 Minutes to show Comedy Central the tone and the stuff I do with real people, to help sell the show
But Nathan For You is different from Nathan On Your Side. This Hour Has 22 Minutes filmed in Halifax, and I got really got into watching Live At 5, which is the local news there. Something about the tone of that news program, where it was geared towards the ultimate laggards, in terms of news and technology. When I started Nathan On Your Side, I liked this idea of being run-of-the-mill: not some hard-hitting advocate who's into exposing criminal activities. It's more, "What should you look for when you're buying an MP3 player?" ten years after the technology came out. The superficial joke there is emulating the tone of those pleasant consumerist pieces, but then we'd get into these moments that were the real meat, bringing someone's personality out-seeing someone struggle in a social situation.
And you have an actual business degree?
I went to University of Victoria. I did my undergraduate in business. I have a Bachelor's of Commerce degree, majoring in entrepreneurship and marketing.
Did you always find something funny about the whole world of business?
I always thought that the persona you have to put on to make it in the business world was kind of funny. There were just a lot of times where I'd get the sense that people were concerned with...their focus isn't, "How is this thing I do making the world a better place?" but "This'll get customers, this'll get sales." I always thought this mentality was funny. It's sometimes surprising, even for me, seeing what people might respond to.
When you're finding businesses to feature on Nathan For You, do you try to look for owners or managers who might have a certain personality? How do you make sure they're able to take a joke?
We usually start by devising an idea that will work for a certain type of business. So, we did a rebate for a gas station so they could advertise the lowest prices in the country. Then we go look for a business that can be on the show. It's less about going for a certain type of a personality, and more about doing not just one kind of personality. We were conscious about finding different kinds of people so nothing would be repetitive, and see how different people would handle an idea. We didn't want to make anyone upset. If anyone seemed like they were very conservative, or easily upset, we tried to avoid it.
Have you had instances filming where your ideas were too outlandish, or you couldn't get anyone on board?
Well, there were a lot of ideas that are interesting in concept, but would never really work. Even if they were funny, we wouldn't pursue those. Business owners are smart people: they're savvy, they're intelligent. And if I can't logically convince them that something would help them, they wouldn't put their business at stake. Some ideas take more discussion than others to win the people over. But all the ideas we do work in some capacity. We try to make sure that it would bring customers in.
To that end, it's perfect that you open the series on the poo flavoured frozen yogurt idea. It's ludicrous on paper, but you rationalize it in the most compelling but self-serving way where the owner goes from not buying it to being totally on board.
Yeah, and I feel like the audience goes through that same emotional arc. At first they think the ideas are stupid, but as I go on to execute them and you see them working you - as the audience - think, "Well maybe this isn't such a bad idea." Then you're almost laughing at yourself because you're being convinced by the most outlandish premise.
Does this tie in to what you said about business school? The idea itself can totally irrelevant. It's all about making it palatable or knowing what keywords to use to string someone along.
These days a lot of mom-and-pop business owners are intimidated by everything that's going on technology-wise. There are all these things now: you have to market your business with social media, and all these crazy things that are hard for even me to wrap my head around. There's so much to keep up with that when I come in with an outlandish idea, it doesn't really seem that crazy, because so much is foreign these days. People accept these things a bit more because everything is so crazy.
The show comes at an interesting time, with America on its way out of a recession. So it's believable that all these business would be feeling a certain pinch and looking for a way to bolster the bottom line.
At the end of the day, we're not doing any damage to the businesses, and we make sure they're taken care of. We look out for them. Also, these businesses aren't necessarily struggling. A lot of reality shows go to businesses that are on the verge of bankruptcy and turn them around. But a lot of the businesses on our show are doing well, and we say, "Well this is how you can make more money." It's mostly not desperation necessarily. It's maybe greed, or just wanting to be on TV.
You also seem to play a dopier version of yourself on the show, and always try to turn actually helping the business into something self-serving: like learning a lesson about friendship in the gas station rebate episode.
I love it when the viewer watching is seeing it in a certain way, then it becomes this sweet thing-but wait, then it's really weird to take this angle. It's like how reality shows always try to do these wrap-ups. On our show, when I try to force it the joke is how artificial it is.
At the risk of getting too gimmicky, do you have any advice to offer NOW?
My favourite thing about NOW is the N-rating system. I love that if a tourist came to town and read your paper, they'd have no idea what those mean. How would you do half an N?
We don't do half Ns. They're verboten.
You don't do half Ns?
They're just not done.
That's my advice then. Do 3½ or 4½ Ns, and that'll turn your paper around. You can have 3 Ns and an L or 3Ns and I.
Nathan For You premieres in Canada on the Comedy Network on Friday, April 5 at 12:30 am.