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'Nathan For You': Inside Comedy Central's Absurdist Prank Factory

'We ride the line legally,' says star Nathan Fielder. 'We never really want to make people upset.'

Nathan Fielder in Comedy Central's 'Nathan For You'
Danny Feld
April 11, 2013 10:00 AM ET

Nathan Fielder is still getting used to being interviewed. Every Thursday night on his Comedy Central series Nathan For You – whose first season ends next week – the 29-year-old comedian convinces small business owners to implement absurd marketing ideas, like "poo-flavored yogurt" or an 8-minute pizza delivery guarantee. But the docu-reality series is Fielder's first real moment in the spotlight, and he's still critical of himself.

"I'm very bad at ending sentences," he explains, calling Rolling Stone from vacation in San Francisco. "A lot times I just want to say, 'That's the end of my sentence. I have nothing more to say.'"

The Vancouver native started his comedy career in Toronto in the mid-2000s after graduating college. He found a group of like-minded comedians willing to participate in his homemade videos, which he showed at comedy clubs around the city. Over 40 videos, including sketches, TV appearances and rap songs, can still be viewed on his YouTube channel.

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Not long after entering the comedy scene, he became a regular on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, often seen as Canada's answer to The Daily Show. Appearing as a consumer advocate in a weekly segment called Nathan On Your Side, it was there that Fielder found his niche, eliciting unexpected reactions from business owners and experts in subjects as diverse as ghosts and real estate.

He expanded the idea and got the green light from Comedy Central after Jon Benjamin Has a Van, which he wrote and starred in, was cancelled last spring. Though Nathan For You is billed as a series of zany marketing stunts, Fielder's main focus is to highlight moments of sincere emotion – which range from empathy to bewilderment and occasionally, sheer rage. These unpredictable reactions from customers and business owners are what make the show one of a kind. 

"I don't like getting people upset, so that's not my goal," Fielder says. "But I like putting people in situations where how they respond says a lot about them." In one episode, restaurant patrons are filmed in the restroom and then asked to sign a release for the footage to be used on TV. One customer is furious, another just seems uncomfortable and the last person is shockingly polite.

The legal team at Comedy Central hasn't been quite as receptive to Fielder's jokes. He recalls encountering an uncomfortable silence on a conference call one day, after discussing the legal hurdles of one segment and sarcastically suggesting that the network might be sued, but not him. In another instance, he says the legal team quickly shot down a segment that involved nominating a strip club for a business ethics award.

"We do ride the line legally in terms of how you can portray things," he notes. "We never really want to make people upset. When you're actually with the person and they're upset, it's not as funny."

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Fielder's monotone voice lends itself perfectly to his deadpan delivery and legitimizes his role on the show as a marketing guru. He acknowledges that his business degree from the University of Victoria also bolsters his authenticity. (Fielder settled on business after bouncing around through several majors, in order to satisfy his interest in the inner workings of marketing.) But in recent episodes, he's actually expanded the boundaries of the show to address some more personal issues, like his fear of heights and nervousness around women.

His favorite segment and a clear highlight from the first season is "Gas Station Rebate," where he ends up camping out overnight with three people who have agreed to hike to the top of a mountain for a discount on gasoline. Fielder recalls, "I just remember the morning after, it felt so weird and it was almost surreal that we were still making the show."

It's often hard to believe that people are willing to buy in to the ridiculous ideas on Nathan For You. Fielder once rebranded a caricature artist as the "King of Sting," but it seems that the title could just as easily apply to him. With such a novel and well-executed show, he'd better get used to interviews.

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