It's easy to understand why Comedy Central's Nathan For You struggled to attract much attention when it debuted in April of 2013. A show about Nathan Fielder, a largely unknown Canadian comedian, trying to improve small businesses doesn't sound all that exciting on paper, and ratings were dismal all through the initial eight-episode run. "Before the show began Comedy Central set up a conference call with a bunch of college newspapers," says Fielder. "They told me there would be 50 or so colleges, everyone would ask a question, and it would take an hour. Turned out there was just one guy on the phone, from the University of Texas. I wound up talking to him for an hour."
Things are very different these days. The show picked up a bit of steam through word of mouth, and then this past February the media learned about a new Los Angeles coffee house called "Dumb Starbucks." Its origins were initially mysterious, but word soon got out it was from an in-progress episode of Nathan For You. Fielder realized that parody laws would allow him to open up a near perfect replicate of a Starbucks just as long as he put the word "dumb" before everything in the store, down to CDs labeled "Dumb Norah Jones Duets." The stunt - which was shut down by health inspectors after 72 hours - generated a tidal wave of press, and brought tons of new viewers to the show.
The "Dumb Starbucks" episode of Nathan For You finally airs next Tuesday. We spoke to Fielder about his show, how he mastered the art of the awkward conversation, how he differs from his onscreen character and the time he googled "old naked man."
The Nathan Fielder we see on the show is so unaware of social cues that he seems borderline autistic. What are the main differences between him and the real you?
I'm a bit more oblivious to social cues [on the show] than I am in real life. Normally, I can tell if someone isn't interested in doing something from the tone in their voice and the expression on their face. I would take that, understand that, and not continue down the road of thinking that this person is interested in whatever I'm talking about.
On the show, I try to only get my cues from what people are saying rather than those grey areas of communication. Maybe it's more of a childlike understanding of…No, children are actually pretty smart when it comes to facial expressions and stuff.
You present yourself as a supremely lonely guy on the show, but you're actually married in real life.
I try to play a version of myself from my early 20s and late teens; I just revisit that mindset. All my comedy, especially how I relate to women on the show, comes from my early struggles with connecting to other people. I just don't have this magnetic personality that everyone is drawn to. I don't make friends easily...I'm just not one of those people. For a long time, I was trying to come to terms with that and trying to find workarounds. Now that I'm a little removed from those experiences, I can see what's funny about them. At the time, I could not.
Part of what I love about the show is just watching the awkwardness build and build, but you never flinch.
That's good. There's this grey area in communication that many people don't even think about. I was always interested when friends would get into relationships with other people. I'd want them to tell me how the first kiss happened. They would say, "Well, we went to a movie and I walked her home and at her door we kissed." I'd be like, "Slow down. You walk right to her door? Who moves in?" I'd want to hear every single detail since I didn't know how to move towards someone's face without them being repulsed.
Nothing is better than when you ask some virtual stranger to hang out with you over the weekend. They know it's all on camera and you can feel the tension.
It's probably the only kind of thing I faced early on that was tragic. I had a fairly fine upbringing. I was raised in a middle class family and my parents were always very loving and supportive, so this was the closest thing to trauma I ever experienced. I used to ask people to hang out with me and I'd see the same expressions I see in these small business owners.
Do you ever film bits that you have to scrap since they just don't work out?
We try to plan ahead in so much of what we do. We think about how people are likely to react. But when you're dealing with real world elements, things don't usually go as planned. We have had stuff that didn't work for one reason or another. Maybe we didn't have the right personalities, or we just took a gamble. Some things we do depend on a real coin toss. The entire few days of shooting might depend on something that has a 50% chance of happening. If it does work, it'll be great television. If it doesn't, we end up with nothing.
What's been the biggest failure so far?
Do you know what Reiki is?
It's like a massage, but you don't touch the person. You just use energy. You hover your hands over their body and kind of draw out negative energy blocks, without touching them. It's strange. My idea was after the person would remove the energy from people, she could charge people a fee to dispose of it. Maybe she could convince them it was bad for the environment. She did it. She was able to put the energy into a yogurt container. The thing did work, but it was just difficult to convey on tape.
Did Dumb Starbucks become a much bigger thing than you ever intended?
Yes. Early on I remember saying, "Let's not try to do anything that's going to go viral." We did that last year [with a staged video of a goat rescuing a pig in a pond]. I'm not into things that feel like a sequel. There's just something magical about when something happens for the first time.
We thought that Dumb Starbucks might be a local food story. We never thought it would strike a chord with the mainstream media. I didn't realize this mystery angle would be such a big hook. The fun thing is, we embraced that element of it on the show.
The fun thing about Nathan for You is that the success of a segment doesn't depend on the idea going viral or even being popular. We make our story about what happens. But with Dumb Starbucks, it was funny to go in there and see so many people having a good time. It was cool to provide a weekend of entertainment for people even though the episode wasn't going to air until much later.
A month or so ago, you posted a series of photos on Instagram with hidden images of an old, naked man. How did that come about?
Someone with an Instagram account was imitating me when the show was on last year. They'd write things like, "Yeah, that episode was tough to make." I didn't care much, but eventually Instagram found out and killed the account. Then I realized I should have my own name, but they wouldn't give it to me. I had to eventually get someone to help me.
But then I didn't know what to post. Photos of my own breakfast? So I posted one photo like that and then it became a challenge to escalate it. It became this thing. It wasn't even about this old man.
How did you even get that photo?
I just googled "old naked man"; it was the photo that came up. It looks like an accident and I don't know it's on the screen. But then the reflection became so outlandish it was obvious that it wasn't a prank anymore. Then Instagram took them all down except one, and sent me an e-mail saying something like: "We took it down and you can't post this stuff." So then I posted their e-mail with the reflection of the picture in it. They took that down, and stopped even sending me e-mails. It's very immature, but I think its funny. I would have probably thought it was great when I was seven. I don't know why I'm doing it now.
What kind of work do you want to do in the future? Do you aspire to make movies?
It's weird. I don't really have goals. I just try to make sure I'm enjoying what I'm doing. Once I start to get sick of it, the next thing becomes obvious. The genesis of me wanting to even pitch a TV show was that I'd done these three minute segments on this show in Canada. I had done so many in that format that I wanted to try and make a full 20 or 30 minutes funny. That was my challenge. Now that I've done 16 episodes of this show I do wonder if I could make an hour and a half funny. I do have a desire to do that, but at the end of the day I just want to be funny and feel excited about whatever I'm working on.