Last September, Nathan Fielder uploaded a YouTube video of a baby pig rescuing a baby goat from drowning. All he wanted to do with the video was promote a petting zoo in Southern California. He had no intention turning it into a viral sensation and a marketing boon for his new Comedy Central show Nathan For You.
"We came up with the idea for this petting zoo to create a star animal, kind of like Shamu at Sea World but for a petting zoo, which is a good idea in a way because it diversifies that petting zoo from other petting zoos in the area," he says. "I don’t know why this was so appealing to me but seeing a baby pig rescue a baby goat in water just seemed so funny to me. I don’t know why. That’s all the idea we had."
When it got over seven million views, though, and made the "ya gotta look at this!" segment of every major news broadcast known to man—Brian Williams, for instance, wasn’t sure of the veracity of the clip but decided to show it anyway—the comedian and writer for shows like Jon Benjamin Has a Van got a little concerned.
"I mean, we had no idea it would catch on like that so fast. I mean to be honest, I was a bit scared. I didn’t know what it meant that this was out of control so fast, and we just kind of didn’t really say anything," he says. Last week, the truth was revealed, via a well-timed article in the New York Times: The video was a setup, with the pig walking along a Lucite track in order to nudge out a goat who didn’t seem to want to go anywhere (the goat’s cries were dubbed in later). The video formed the core of an episode of Nathan For You, in which Fielder acts as a sort of marketing consultant or agency devising decidedly nontraditional campaigns for game small businesses. With the reveal, Fielder wanted to make it clear that neither he, his co-executive producers Michael Koman and Dave Kneebone nor Comedy Central were trying to prank anyone. There was thought of having someone step up and be the guy who uploaded the video, but it was dismissed.
"The idea was maybe we could get someone on the news. We talked about that. But then it became, I felt, like a bit of a different story where…because I feel like if you do want to deceive the news it’s very easy to do that. I don’t think it’s necessarily too hard if you’re very tactical about that. But there was something really funny that this just happened organically and we didn’t really push it. I think we made a choice just to let it be. We had enough to make our story for the segment."
That segment will air on the show’s second episode, on March 7. Because the track needed to be built, and the video shoot involved all sorts of animal trainers (the pig wasn’t from the petting farm; it was a stunt pig) and Humane Society representatives, it’s the most complex of the marketing schemes Fielder and his writers came up for various small businesses. Most of the schemes are simpler but no less unusual in concept.
For instance, he presented the idea to a boutique clothing store that its most attractive customers should be allowed to shoplift one item, figuring they’d talk about their haul to their attractive friends. He convinced a gas station owner to knock the price of his gas down by three dollars a gallon, but for the customers to get the savings they would have to fill out a rebate form and drop it off at the top of a mountain. He told a caricaturist to make drawings of people that would make Don Rickles blush.
The reason why Fielder, who took business classes and received a bachelor of commerce degree at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, wanted to do a show that married marketing and comedy is that he feels there’s an inherent absurdity in marketing, where "the focus is bringing in business before [asking] 'Is this really smart or is it really good for the world?' So, I think that area is something I’ve always found funny. I think going through business school and just being in classes and stuff, you just see a different perspective on the world that’s not necessarily wrong but I just noticed a lot of funny things about it."
He also sees what he calls an inherent "hypocrisy" in the marketing game. "Let’s say you work at Subway restaurant and you’re the CEO of Subway or a marketing rep and I said, 'Is Subway your favorite restaurant?' That’s like a really tough question because odds are it’s not. I mean Subway—it’s okay for sandwiches. There are better sandwich shops. But if you’re on camera being asked that, you probably have to kind of say yes. The best people do it in kind of a tongue-in-cheek way, maybe. But I think it’s a hard zone to put yourself in where you have to be the brand, and you can’t talk badly about the company you work for. I think there’s a lot of convincing in your mind that this is what you believe in."
Fielder, Koman, and their writers needed to come up with marketing schemes that, while crazy in concept, had the possibility of actually working. It’s the only way Fielder felt that he could talk to these business owners—selected after he and his writers figured out what kinds of businesses they wanted to target—in a confident manner.
"The business owners we get and the businesses we do help on the show, they’re smart people. They’re not dopes or anything. So if I can’t argue why this would be good in an intelligent way and actually convince them, they won’t agree to do it," he said. "They don’t have to necessarily be the most sustainable ideas or something that someone would want to do forever. But that line of, 'Do I want to do this or do I not?' is a good line that I like to ride."
When he convinced the manager of a yogurt shop to sell a flavor called "Poo," that looked like its name and tasted about as foul, or sold a diner owner on advertising that anyone could use her bathrooms—then showing them video ads to convince them to stay after they did their business—Fielder wasn’t looking to make fun of these honest businesspeople. He was more interested in having the joke be on him, and seeing the reactions of the business owners—and their customers—to his ideas.
What surprised him is how nonchalant most of the customers were. "One of the weirdest phenomena about the show is that you don’t see too many people laughing when they hear the ideas. I don’t know if that says something about people’s idea of marketing now and what they’ve witnessed with these weird campaigns that people do. It’s weird that we don’t get more people saying, 'That’s crazy,' or just kind of laughing like it’s a joke. People do take these seriously as something that’s weird, but they don’t see it as that absurd."
Every so often he got a negative reaction. In a promotion where he had a pizzeria offer free tiny pizzas if they were late with their delivery, one customer who was expecting his big pizza to be free told Fielder to shove the pizza where the sun doesn’t shine. But most of the time, people gladly signed the release—even when that meant a video of them going to the bathroom at the diner, for instance, would be aired on national television.
"You would think normally a reasonable person would get mad but most people didn’t, really," he says. "One guy had no problem signing the release and was just like, 'Sure. Yeah. Whatever.' In a way, that is so much funnier because it’s so unexpected, but it’s so real and so honest."
[Images: Comedy Central]