Nathan Fielder is messing with me. Or at least I think he is. It’s pretty much impossible to tell, but this ambiguity is on-brand for someone whose screen persona seems designed to elicit the response, “Is this guy for real?”
I’ve just asked Fielder about unrealized ideas for Nathan For You, the TV series in which the comedian posits himself as a marketing messiah, shepherding small businesses to the publicity promised land. Considering some of the unorthodox tactics deployed in the show’s first season, including poo-flavored fro-yo and a clothing boutique that allows attractive patrons to shoplift, surely any idea that didn’t make it on air would have to be extra outrageous. Or perhaps not. The example Fielder offers is as tame as it is silly. But since he knows I’m looking for a hook to help this story circulate, Fielder might be approaching the question like he did the problem of low foot-traffic in a frozen yogurt shop. If that’s the case, I’m duty-bound to do just what the business owners on Nathan For You do when receiving the star’s counsel: take him at face value and see what happens.
“Basically all raisins are the same, you know,” Fielder says in his mournful monotone. “I thought it could be a really interesting high-end grocery item if you could make a raisin that was perfectly smooth, rather than being wrinkly, and had more raisin inside. I thought it could be one of those products where you create a divide in the raisin market so that there’s now a low-end raisin and a high-end raisin. If you want a raisin that’s aesthetically pleasing, that’s perfectly smooth but also tastes better because it has more raisin on the inside, now there would be one.”
He keeps saying the word "raisin," and every time he does it sounds funnier, especially considering that he’s talking about this doomed, ridiculous idea as though it were The One That Got Away. He mentions trying to inject raisins with the insides sucked out of other raisins and it almost sounds like an experiment on his show, whose second season begins July 1 on Comedy Central. It’s only when he describes this raisin quest as “a two-to-three year obsession” that my skepticism wins out. It just doesn’t add up that a guy who created a robot that could pull his--Fielder's--pants down would devote that much time to this lemon of a fruit-based idea. Of course, given the power dynamic at hand, I’m supposed to accept what Fielder says, whether it adds up or not. Just like the people on his show.
“I don’t know if it happens to everybody, but I will get into situations where I’m thinking, ‘What this person’s saying to me is very dumb and not something I’m comfortable with, but I don’t want to say that to them,’” Fielder said earlier in our conversation, an idea that mirrors my sentiments at the moment. “And sometimes you’ll get in too deep. I get into situations where I kind of say yes at first and it gets worse and worse for me and then I have to keep saying yes to be polite.”
I have said "yes" nearly as often as Fielder has said "raisin," just like the business owners on Nathan For You. Ideally, this downward spiral of agreeability leads to a hilarious, unexpected development involving the business at hand. The team behind the show tries hard to avoid business owners who seem like typical fame-seeking reality-show dwellers. Instead, they look for average folks who won’t say yes to something crazy just to be on TV, but who are legitimately excited for the opportunity to promote their business. So excited, in fact, that they find themselves agreeing with Fielder’s almost uniformly terrible ideas, despite the doubt clearly written all over their faces. Once the owner agrees to this unassuming television person’s ideas, there’s no guessing where an episode might go. Although by that point, Fielder and his writers have definitely tried guessing.
“The idea has to be executed in a way that’s organic so I’m not just doing weird crazy things,” he says. “There’s a lot of discussion about how a reasonable person would react to certain situations. So the goal is to try to come up with a general trajectory for our story to go in that we hope will get sidetracked by something more amusing or interesting coming up in the moment.”
Although a certain amount of prediction is involved, there’s no reverse-engineering an outcome since the unexpected detours can make for the most interesting parts of the show. Consider the episode where Fielder talks a gas station proprietor into offering a rebate on gas--to customers who hand-deliver a request letter to the top of a local mountain. Fielder’s team could neither predict how many people would be willing to actually hike to the top of a mountain to save a bit of money, nor what would happen once they got there. This volatile creation process means the narrative of each episode is constantly evolving.
“The show is kind of written three different times,” Fielder says. “We have the outline of what we’re thinking will happen, then we’re shooting and obviously there’s a level of uncertainty when we’re dealing with real people and real locations. Things are being constantly re-thought out and rewritten in new directions depending on what happens. You’ll try a few different things and then when you go in to edit, you have to rewrite it all again around the best footage.” He adds, “I think a lot of time is spent just chasing the most difficult joke, which is not the most efficient way to make TV or comedy.”
One thing that Fielder definitely cannot plan for is what will catch on with audiences. The aforementioned "Claw of Shame" episode from the first season, in which the star had to undo a set of handcuffs before a robot pulled his pants down in front of a group of children, thus rendering him culpable for exposing himself to minors--this spectacle was something Fielder prepped over a period of months and months. It came and went like any other episode, though, despite all the effort put into it. Meanwhile, the video of a pig saving a goat that Fielder faked in an effort to promote a petting zoo went viral in a big way--over 8 million views and counting--even though it wasn’t actually supposed to.
“In the story, the intent was for it to go viral, but the way we had planned it was that it wouldn’t,” Fielder says. “I mean, we were trying to make it go viral, but the story was initially one of those outlines where we were like, ‘Well, it won’t get any views, and then that’ll be that.’ We were supposed to have put in all this effort and there’d be nothing.”
Instead, the opposite happened, and it changed not only the conclusion of the episode, but the perception of Fielder's marketing acumen. Now, even the marketing department at Comedy Central is convinced that a natural svengali is in their midst. Although part of the point of Fielder’s character seems to be taking the air out of consultant culture, some of his efforts make it look as though he really does have some sort of media Midas touch. In addition to the pig video, Fielder has generated national headlines for his participatory Twitter experiments, explorations into Instagram’s nudity policy, and copyright-baiting construction of a working coffee shop called Dumb Starbucks for an upcoming episode, which you read about here, or heard about when Fielder went on Kimmel to talk about it. Although he clearly has a knack for making some ideas catch on, the comedian insists these instances are flukes and shies away from taking credit.
“I could probably make a ton of money if I went around saying, ‘Look at what I’ve done! I can make stuff go viral! Pay me!’ I bet I could make a lot of money from marketing companies. But I know that’s bullshit. Like I know how these things happen and I know it’s kind of totally random. The one thing that’s consistent is it usually just comes from an idea that’s not trying to market anything or get popular. It’s just trying to make me laugh.”
Of course, if Fielder really does possess the secret knowledge to embed his ideas deep within the popular imagination, expect to be eating smooth, plump raisins at some point in the near future.