Last week, Nathan Fielder’s “Nathan for You” returned for the fourth season of outlandish antics, kicking off with a characteristically elaborate plot to bring fame to a failing diner by hiring a mid-tier celebrity impersonator to leave a colossal tip.
For those who’ve never seen “Nathan for You,” the show is about a self-proclaimed business expert (Fielder) who finds faltering small businesses and attempts to revive them through absurd but often highly effective schemes. What many viewers don’t realize when they first watch the show is that Nathan works with real businesses and real people, many of whom find themselves befuddled when he pitches ideas like “make your real estate business niche by selling verified ghost-free homes” or “create soundproof play spaces within your hotel rooms so parents can bring their child but also have sex.”
What differentiates “Nathan for You” from other shows is its ability to initiate a plot on this genius comedic premise and then, unbeknownst to those involved, make strangers’ reality into an enormous bit. His stage is the town of Los Angeles, and he’s constantly doing improv—but none of the participants know they’re on stage with him.
But the show also diverges from its genre in that Nathan is just a lonely guy trying his best to help small businesses and make friends along the way. The jokes in the show aren’t predicated on the absurd drama of reality improvement shows, nor are they playing on the cringe-inducing “gotcha” moments from mockumentaries that seem to reveal how horrible people are. Nathan as a character is horribly awkward and wholly insensitive to other people’s emotions, and yet he comes to businesses equipped with ideas, a full production team, and seemingly endless resources to make his plans come to life. “Nathan for You” is funny because he’s trying his best, and no one he helps seems to know what to do.
And yet, the most unexpected and skillful facet of the show lies in Nathan’s success in getting people to carry out his bizarre visions by artfully leading them into situations that they couldn’t possibly respond to appropriately. By utterly confounding his clients on how to proceed, he gets them to agree to his plans if only to end the prolonged silence.
The season 4 premiere, entitled “The Richards Tip,” is devoted to the plan of getting Joe K’s Deli in Vernon, Calif. back on the map by having a famous person visit and leave an enormous tip. Though the premise of this episode is tame as far as the show goes, the execution quickly escalates into some of Nathan’s most ridiculous attempts to circumvent the law and garner publicity.
Nathan’s initial meetings with store owners never cease to be one of the most painful parts of each episode. Unlike most reality shows that carefully edit dialogue to paint a picture of a failing business and its room for growth, “Nathan for You” makes a point of including every off-putting comment an owner makes. There’s a minute or so in which they discuss how Nathan’s show is not in fact “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” even though the owner of Joe K’s really likes that show.
To find a celebrity to visit the store, Nathan has a bunch of mid-tier celebrity impersonators audition for the part, all of whom painfully overact. They decide to hire a Michael Richards impersonator who I’ll refer to as Fake Michael Richards. This is only the beginning, however, because according to Nathan, the keystone of a celebrity tip story is a photo of a receipt with the celebrity’s name, credit card, and signature on it.
One of the funniest and most impractical parts of the show is that once Nathan runs into an obstacle, rather than backtracking and reevaluating, he simply throws more resources at the original idea until it works. After failing to convince any of the various “Michael Richards” in the L.A. Whitepages to use their credit card for the $10,000 purchase, Nathan puts out an ad offering compensation for someone to change his or her name. I’ll refer to the guy who agreed as New Michael Richards.
To complete a name change in California, you need to publish your name change in a paper of “general circulation” for four weeks. Rather than putting it in a standard newspaper and risk being discovered by the public, Nathan creates his own that he believes no one will buy, “The Diarrhea Times.” He gets an office, hires a writer, and sets up distribution so they can meet the legal minimum notification requirement, thus allowing New Michael Richards to get a credit card with his name on it.
Other obstacles are tackled equally elaborately. To keep New Michael Richards from running off with the $10,000 the show put in his account, Nathan stays handcuffed to him for 24 hours. A lightbox with real Michael Richards’ signature is installed within a restaurant check holder, so Fake Michael Richards—who’s using New Michael Richards’ credit card—can trace the signature for authenticity. The plan succeeds, and the fake act of benevolence makes it to local news. Nathan’s plan works, and the owner is genuinely grateful.
The rest of the season promises similarly ridiculous schemes: in one teaser, Nathan convinces a group of taxi drivers to try and destroy Uber from within and make masked, Anonymous-inspired videos to intimidate the corporation. It looks like viewers are in for yet another season of extended awkward silences, demonstrations of Nathan’s persuasive powers, and hilariously complex schemes.
“Nathan for You” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central.
Daniel Osofsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.