Remember Dumb Starbucks? That weird thing from February where someone in Los Angeles opened a near identical replica of Starbucks except everything had “dumb” in front of it? That was Nathan Fielder, star of Nathan For You, Comedy Central’s surprise hit from last year in which the “guy who graduated from business school with pretty good grades” tries to help small businesses by implementing outlandish and impractical—but in their own way king of genius—business ideas. Season one stunts included introducing a “poo” flavored yogurt at a yogurt shop to draw in curious customers, staging a classic pig-rescuing-a-drowning-goat viral YouTube video so that a petting zoo could have a “hero animal” and plenty more. Behind the strength of the first season and the intrigue surrounding Dumb Starbucks, Season 2 of Nathan For You might be Comedy Central’s most anticipated program of 2014. Which is saying something.
One of the reasons Nathan For You works is how Fielder’s earnestness in both pitching and executing his ridiculous business ideas combines with his almost crippling social awkwardness, which at times can be uncomfortable to watch. These two forces were in full effect in the second season’s opening segment, a brilliant bit that would have fit right in with the highlights of the first season. The premise is simple, ingenious and stupid all at the same time: What if a mechanic hooked himself up to a lie detector while giving estimates to ensure he was being honest? Like Fielder’s other more “successful” ventures, this actually sounds like a great idea before you consider how impractical it would be for an auto shop to employ an in-house polygraph administrator.
The show also shines when there are subplots centering around Fielder’s own insecurities. Harkening back to the first season when he refused to admit that he was scared to go skydiving despite how obvious it was to everyone involved, in “Mechanic” Fielder goes to similarly great lengths to convince everyone that no, he doesn’t watch porn, despite the fact that the lie detector went crazy when the administrator asked him if he did as he was testing out the equipment. Fielder gets defensive.
“Do you need to reboot the computer or something?”
“There’s nothing to reboot. It’s rolling.”
“Because I noticed your computer is a Dell, so…I don’t know.”
“The computer is a Toshiba.”
And, later in the same exchange…
“Is that Windows 95?”
“Jesus, dude, you’re grasping at straws. The operating system has nothing to do with what you’re shooting out. And it’s not Windows 95.”
“Still…It’s not the most recent operating system, I don’t think.”
This is pure gold, and it’s taken a step further when Fielder calls the machine’s accuracy into question again, this time in public, while the mechanic is hooked up and giving an estimate to a customer. But despite Fielder bringing up his masturbatory habits as a customer is receiving a quote on brake pads, all parties seem happy with the experiment, and the mechanic confirms as much as he gives his evaluation (...while hooked up to the lie detector, of course). Sadly for Fielder, though, he’s not interested in hanging out socially.
The premiere’s second ploy wasn’t nearly as fail safe as the give-a-mechanic-a-lie-detector scheme. Nathan For You’s first season had plenty of outlandish, over-the-top moments, but Fielder was always in control of the chaos, able to manage the awkwardness and how people reacted to it to suit his comedic purposes. In “Realtor,” however, the characters involved end up being too out-there for even Fielder to totally reign in.
The problems begin with the premise, which is for a realtor to brand themselves as the only “Ghost Realtor,” promising that all of their houses are ghost- and demon-free. Even though Fielder cites that 50% of Americans believe in ghosts, the logic is tenuous even by Nathan For You standards. Buying a house is something people take a lot more seriously than getting yogurt or shopping for clothes or even getting their car worked on, and most people look for some measure of stability in the person brokering the deal. Any realtor willing to hang their reputation on promising a ghost-free premises as the make-or-break point of sale probably has a screw loose, and it’s a safe bet that Fielder pitched the idea to several LA-area realtors before someone actually agreed. Right away we’ve deviated from the “normal” business owners Fielder usually deals with.
And while most of Fielder’s “clients” usually keep their distance from the idea throughout the proceedings, the Ghost Realtor embraces the premise, enthusiastically bringing up to a prospective buyer that the house she’s showing has an entity, or, more specifically, “...a spirit that rapes women and has sex with them until they die. I know it sounds awful, but we’re going to have it taken care of.”
Things go off the rails when they then bring in a YouTube exorcist (similar to the psychic they found on YouTube to detect the entity in the first place) to “clean” the house. By this point we’ve strayed so far from the initial idea that it’s hard to even remember how we got here. Digression and letting the situation go where it will is fine and has worked for Fielder before. In the first season a group of motorists surprisingly were down to hike a mountain and camp for a night in order to get a rebate on gas, but this was effective because Fielder was calling the shots and orchestrating the action, managing everyone’s loneliness the whole time. As the exorcist cleans the bedroom of this house and exercises the demons from Fielder and the realtor’s bodies, as well, Fielder is left to film the proceedings on his iPhone, mouth agape. He tries to make the exorcist feel uncomfortable by asking him to cast demons out of his small penis, and the exorcist does stammer here, but only before regaining his composure to perform a painfully long and drawn-out exorcism of the complicit realtor’s back pain, who is reduced to tears. After all’s said and done, Nathan presents the realtor with a painting he did of her, Leo in Titantic-style, putting a button on a truly bizarre segment.
The second season premiere of Nathan For You featured one classic bit and one that took some chances but ultimately wasn’t really that effective. This isn’t to say that under the right circumstances something similar couldn’t work in the future, and it’s a good thing that the show is willing to let scenarios play themselves out organically, but it just didn’t seem to work in this particular case. But the fact remains that Nathan For You is undoubtedly one of the funniest shows on television, and we should all be excited that we have a fresh season of awkwardness ahead of us.