Nathan Fielder: How The Cult Comedian Rules the Outer Limits of Awkward

The 'Nathan For You' star tuned in to his teenage social dysfunction – and turned it into a show unlike anything else on TV

Inside Nathan Fielder: How the 'Nathan For You' star took his teenage social dysfunction and turned it into a show unlike anything else on TV. Credit: LeAnn Mueller for Rolling Stone

Comedy has taken Nathan Fielder to some pretty strange places, but nothing quite compares to the time he found himself walking a high wire between two seven-story buildings in downtown L.A. It was the finale of the third season of Nathan for You, the hit Comedy Central series in which Fielder offers preposterously elaborate assistance to small-business owners and other regular folks. For this episode, he took on his biggest project yet: transforming a deeply nerdy, semi-employed man who lives with his parents into a genuine hero. Fielder assumed the identity of Corey Calderwood, a 26-year-old from Ventura, California, complete with a movie-quality latex mask, a bodysuit and a flawless imitation of Calderwood's voice. Then he found Calderwood a girlfriend.

It all culminated in the high-wire walk, which Fielder completed as a crowd below went wild. Then the real Calderwood took Fielder's place, handed over a $5,000 check to a breast-cancer charity and walked off with a girlfriend he'd only just met. Besides being wildly successful – Fielder impersonated Calderwood so well that even his family had no idea anything was up – the stunt was evidence of the comedian's near-psychotic dedication to his craft. "We kept thinking, 'There has to be a way where I don't actually have to wire-walk,' " says Fielder, 34. "But we couldn't think of one. I had to train for nine months."

Television has never seen anything quite like Fielder, who grew up in Vancouver as a gawky kid who loved to perform magic tricks, then went on to get a business degree from the University of Victoria. Nathan for You manages to make use of both his love of magic and his business acumen, as well as his natural social awkwardness. On the show, he "helps" mom-and-pop shops with schemes that can border on offensive – like when he convinced haunted-house visitors that they'd contracted an autoimmune disease "a step below AIDS" in order to give them a real scare. Other bits are hilarious, sophisticated illusions: To promote a petting zoo, he made a video in which a pig appeared to rescue a goat from drowning. In reality, it was a scheme involving divers and other underwater props, but most of the big morning shows played the clip, believing it was real.

In his own quiet way, Fielder is a true comedy rebel. Where most comics get by on outsize personalities, his weapons are a blank stare and a seeming inability to respond to social cues. His TV personality is an awkward loner who generates one deeply uncomfortable moment after another. "Nathan is willing to let things get more excruciatingly awkward than most people have a tolerance for," says Seth Rogen, who has known him since first grade. "More than almost any performer I've ever seen, he is willing to just sit there and do nothing for a long time, to the point that the people he's interacting with are forced to reveal themselves, because the silence is excruciating. I think it's not something everyone has the stomach for."

Nathan for You regularly ranks number one among young men in its time slot. But when the show begins on September 28th, it will be the first new episodes in nearly two years. The long layoff caused the show's obsessive fans to grow panicked as so much time went by without a new season. It also put extreme pressure on Fielder to come up with ever-more-ambitious pranks.

One reason for the delay is that the show simply takes a long time to produce; upwards of 90 hours of footage go into one 22-minute episode. Another is that production was shut down after Fielder suffered an embarrassing injury. "I was walking and texting and stepped in a crack and my foot went to the side," he says. "The doctor said it's called a 'dancer's fracture.' He normally sees it on women who wear high heels." He pauses. "So that was good to know."


It's 11:00 a.m. on a Monday, and Fielder is sitting in the V Boulevard Cafe, a short drive from his production office in Glendale, California. Unlike on his show, conversation flows with relative ease, but that doesn't mean things don't sometimes get a little strange. When a server comes to take our order, he looks genuinely panicked when I ask for a turkey sandwich. "Will you be offended if I get a breakfast thing?" he asks with unblinking, stone-faced sincerity. "Should I match you?"

He eventually felt comfortable enough to go for oatmeal, but the question of just how weird this guy really is – and how much his TV persona matches his real self – lingers. "There's only about a 10 percent difference between the Nathan on the show and real-life Nathan," says Nathan for You co-creator Michael Koman. "The character is just an amplified version of him. He's awkward socially. Most people in comedy are awkward socially. But he's a guy with a very solid, wonderful group of friends, who is a loyal, ethical person. He's a very sweet man, and he's very concerned with your well-being."

"The scariest thing about the show is that [character] is Nathan," says Tim Gilbert, Fielder's college roommate and a fellow comedian. "It's not super-put-on." Gilbert is quick to qualify, though, that the real Fielder always had plenty of friends – and female admirers. "For as long as I've known him, women have loved him. I think it's because he [seems] hard to get."

Fielder researched Asperger's syndrome while fine-tuning his TV persona, but he rejects any suggestion his character is on the spectrum. "There's a lot of social disconnects that people experience all the time that have nothing to do with autism or anything," he says. When I ask if he's ever wondered whether he has a developmental disorder, he's genuinely horrified. "Please don't tell me this is the angle of your piece," he says.

While Fielder's TV self is chronically single, the real Fielder was married to a children's librarian he knew from Canada – until they divorced in 2014. It's a painful subject he refuses to discuss in detail. "Any breakup is hard," he says, clearly desperate to move on from the topic. "It was tough."

Fielder is with somebody, though attempts to find out more about her were fruitless. "I'm dating someone right now," he says. "I'm not going to talk more about it." Awkward tension fills the table, though it seems to energize him. "I can tell you're uncomfortable asking about this," he says. "Why?" Suddenly it's like a scene out of Nathan for You, where he's the one asking the questions, reveling in the squirming answers he elicits.

Fielder has long said his TV character is based on his teenage self. Back then, the harder he tried to be cool, the worse things seemed to get. "For a time, I tried to emulate more confident friends," he says, "even wearing a backward baseball cap."

In high school, he joined the improv team, where he grew closer to Rogen. "To the untrained eye, you would not understand he had a sense of humor," says Rogen. "You would maybe just think he was weird. I started to realize that it was partially deliberate, how weird he was. It's your classic case of taking ownership of the thing that could be your worst trait." Rogen recalls Fielder as a daring improv teammate. "He would take big swings," he says. "I remember thinking, 'Nathan's gonna do something. It's either gonna be really great or people are really gonna be confused by it.' "

Still, Fielder never considered a career in comedy until a college internship at a brokerage firm left him feeling empty. He scored a writing job at Canadian Idol, then another on the Daily Show-like Canadian series This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He also was performing stand-up around Toronto. By then, his deeply odd sense of humor was already in place – Gilbert recalls a particularly hilarious routine that culminates with Fielder talking about having sex with raisins – as was his work ethic. "When we were 22-year-old stand-up-comedian degenerates, wanting to do sets and then get drunk, Nathan would be home editing [his own] videos, learning Final Cut," Gilbert says.

Fielder conceived of Nathan for You as a comedic spin on business-makeover shows like Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares. The show's breakout moment came in its second season, when Fielder opened a coffee shop identical to a Starbucks, except the word "dumb" appeared in front of every product, allowing him to claim it was legal under parody law. "Dumb Starbucks" became international news; lines formed around the block, and some even assumed it was the work of Banksy. Fielder was delighted. "My business was not only a bona fide success," he said, in character, "but for the first time in my life, it felt like people actually wanted to be around me."

"Is there any way to make the alarm louder and more annoying?" asks Fielder. He's sitting in a darkened room at the production office, mixing the sound on a new episode. In this one, he tries to help an export-goods company get around the 17 percent tariff on smoke detectors they ship overseas by marketing them as musical instruments, on which generally no taxes are paid. He forms a rock band that features one member doing nothing but occasionally setting off a smoke detector, a gag that somehow gets funnier the more you see it. The grizzled sound mixer, Willy Levins, has watched the episode countless times, but still chuckles throughout. "You guys get mixed up in some crazy shit," he says. "I think it must be Craigslist."

Craigslist has indeed been a key resource for assembling the motley crew of weirdos, grumps, wanna-be reality starlets and elderly misanthropes at the center of the ever-expanding Nathan for You universe. They include a nearly octogenarian Bill Gates impersonator who knows virtually nothing about the Microsoft founder, a gun-toting mall Santa Claus, and a smartass private detective who used to star in pornographic photo shoots for Penthouse.

Unlike Tom Green and Sacha Baron Cohen, who take delight in mocking the real-life people they encounter, Fielder never sets out to humiliate anyone but himself. He says he truly wants to help those he encounters on the show. "A lot of these small-business owners have such a routine to their lives," he says. "If we can give people a unique experience that's different from their regular lives and it's also entertaining for America, that's a dream scenario."

Many Nathan for You moments are so perfectly imperfect that some viewers suspect the participants must be actors. "If these are actors," Fielder says, "we stumbled upon the hundred best unknown actors in the world." One of the most incredible bits came when a real estate agent he had convinced to sell "ghost-free homes" submitted to an exorcism, and wound up writhing in a chair. "That scene was magic," says Jimmy Kimmel, a longtime Nathan for You fan. "The silence is maybe the best part of the show. There are moments where he and the person he's interviewing are just kind of looking at each other. I love that."

Fielder is a big fan of David Blaine, with whom he shares a willingness to go to extremes to create a spectacle. "He really did stick [a giant needle] through his arm," says Fielder. "He commits. It's admirable and scary." Fielder also loves the spontaneity of a stunt that goes off course, like the Discovery Channel special where a guy planned to literally feed himself to a snake. "He had all this protective gear on," Fielder says. "But the moment the snake just started to bite his head, he was like, 'No! No! I quit!' "

The new season of Nathan for You promises to be bigger, weirder and more heartfelt. Fielder showed me the finale, a two-hour episode that makes even The Hero seem simple by comparison. I agreed to not divulge any details, but I can say it's the most hilarious, shocking and oddly endearing thing he's ever done.

Still, Fielder is hesitant to commit to a fifth season at this point. "I need to feel like there's a reason to do one," he says. "It needs to feel organic." Comedy Central, hungry to hold on to a hit after recent defections by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Key and Peele, wants him to keep going. "As long as Nathan wants to keep doing it, we'll keep doing it," says network president Kent Alterman.

After lunch, we wander down the street and wind up in the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, a store devoted to the obscure early 20th-century pulp writer. There's not a single customer in the place, and the proprietor pops an adaptation of a Lovecraft story into the DVD player. It's hard to imagine a store appealing to a narrower segment of the population, but later, Fielder admits he's still thinking about it. "I'd like to talk to the guy some more," he says. "I respect anybody that does something that makes them happy and taps into their own worldwide community. But how does he make any money?" Then he turns silent, as if another scheme is slowly coming together in his head.