In ‘The Rehearsal,’ Nathan Fielder’s surreal comic genius takes a metaphysical turn

A few years ago, I went with some friends to see Nathan Fielder perform at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall.

The purpose of the event was to preview footage from the fourth season of “Nathan for You,” the brilliant (sur)reality show on Comedy Central that turned the Vancouver native into a comedy icon. In it, a Good Samaritan uses his business school education (via McGill, with good grades) to buoy small-business owners in a monolithically corporatized marketplace, typically to strange effect. The episode we watched, “Andy vs. Uber,” featured a “sleeper cell” of disenfranchised cab drivers trying to sabotage the eponymous ride-hailing app — an insurrection that, like most of Nathan’s ploys, tragically backfires in his face.

As a warm-up, Fielder, who appeared before and after the airing, tried to contextualize his presence at the Music Hall by noting other acts appearing on the bill that week. These included the Quebecois pop-punkers A Simple Plan. For 10 bewildering minutes Fielder then scrolled through his phone and read aloud the lyrics to the band’s self-pitying 2004 hit “Welcome to My Life.”

“Do you ever feel out of place?” he asked, in his signature cast-iron deadpan. “Like you somehow just don’t belong?” It was a miniature eternity, punctuated by nervous bursts of laughter in the sold-out crowd and, like all of Fielder’s finest gestures, the moment was somehow utterly random and carefully calculated. Themes of loneliness and isolation lurk in his work, and these questions seemed something more than rhetorical.

“A Simple Plan” would actually work quite nicely as an alternate title for Fielder’s new series “The Rehearsal,” which premieres in Canada on Crave on July 15.

Plans — always of the best-laid variety, paved with the best of intentions — are Fielder’s specialty. The recurring joke of “Nathan for You” was that its host’s flow-charted form of consumerist guerrilla warfare was too intricate for its own good. Typically, his schemes either collapsed under their own weight or spiralled off-topic into absurdist megalomania. In one instalment, a ploy to bring down the price of plasma-screen televisions at an independent electronics store results in customers coming face to face with a live alligator.

At its best, “Nathan for You” was a vertiginous balancing act between spontaneity and manipulation, with Fielder himself (at one point literally) walking the tightrope as a tricky mix of auteur, star and existential stuntman. Eventually, though, the laughs started sticking in the throat. By the last few episodes — including the magnificent feature-length finale “Finding Frances,” hailed by the Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris in the New Yorker as a classic — it was hard to ignore the grim, tragicomic subtext: that Nathan is energetically interjecting himself into other people’s lives to make up for the emptiness of his own.

The formula has made Fielder the (poker) face of a certain brand of hyper self-reflexive comedy. In 2014, he staged a stunt performance, “Dumb Starbucks,” that went viral. He opened an actual coffee shop in L.A., serving bad coffee and playing “Dumb” versions of Starbucks playlist favourites before getting shut down three days later. He called it a spoof of a spoof of a spoof.

Last week, Fielder, 39, appeared shirtless on the cover of New York magazine for a profile that gamely attempted to probe his inscrutable persona. “The king of cringe bares all,” the cover promised. He didn’t; with a few exceptions — including the revelation of his divorce after a three-year marriage — Fielder kept his cards close to his unclothed chest.

In the five years since “Nathan for You” ended, his reach has broadened. In addition to the success of his own show, Fielder is the executive producer of HBO’s acclaimed “How to With John Wilson,” a sort of spiritual sibling in his penchant for conjoining observational comedy with urban ethnography; in it, Wilson offers eccentric “how-to” tips on subjects that end up taking him off topic and out of his comfort zone. Both Fielder’s and Wilson’s self-deprecation is calculated, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s phoney; in a moment defined by endlessly mediated personal and professional interactions, the anxious sociability on display in “How to With John Wilson” and “Nathan for You” feels plugged into a larger zeitgeist.

That sense also extends to these shows’ putative cruelty: Fielder seems taken aback by criticisms that his comedy style could be construed as mean-spirited, whether by critics or his civilian collaborators. “I definitely feel I’m the most pathetic person in everything I do,” he said in the New York magazine article, deflecting suggestions of power-tripping or exploitation without quite addressing the elephant in the room: the question of whether the onscreen character of “Nathan Fielder” is the genuine article or an awkwardly stylized doppelganger.

“The Rehearsal” features the same protagonist — Nathan — with our hero at loose ends and clinging to the improvisatory role-playing exercises he developed to create his signature hit.

Nathan’s new venture is to help a group of internet-sourced volunteers prepare for difficult personal situations by coaching them through “rehearsals” — meticulously artificial encounters designed to produce optimum IRL results. As on “Nathan for You,” the implication is that Fielder is working through his own issues on other people’s time; the humour lies in the outsize incongruity between the modesty of the situations being experienced by his collaborators and the Olympian difficulties built into the process dubbed “The Fielder Method.”

In the pilot, entitled “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” a man’s anxiety about deceiving his longtime bar-trivia teammates about his master’s degree (he doesn’t really have one) necessitates, among other things, the literal construction of a bar identical to the one he frequents in Brooklyn, housed in a warehouse in Oregon and populated by background actors who’ve been directed by Nathan to agonize over their own motivations.

This is all very funny in the same calamitously po-faced way as “Nathan for You,” and if all Fielder had done with “The Rehearsal” was replicate his previous triumph, it would be reason enough for celebration. But beginning in the second episode, “Scion” — which centres on a woman in her early 40s who wants to prepare herself for the possibility of parenthood, probably through adopting a baby — “The Rehearsal” begins drifting in more beguilingly metaphysical (and personal) directions, a shift that’s at once predictable given Fielder’s penchant for inappropriate participation in his own enterprises and completely, jaw-droppingly shocking.

For once, a network’s admonitions to critics to avoid spoilers feels justified, but one moment in “Scion” stands out as a kind of definitive meta-commentary on Fielder’s shtick, and can be cited without violating those directives or wrecking it for the audience. Sitting alone in a living room that’s been outfitted (like the rest of her HBO-subsidized model home) with surveillance cameras, Fielder’s subject, who considers herself a religious woman, prays for the members of the production (including Nathan) to experience good fortune; her appeal to a higher power becomes unsettling in the context of a show that indulges — and comically fetishizes — its own Creator’s control-freak tendencies.

Suffice it to say that the sheer scale and complexity of Fielder’s machinations in “The Rehearsal” have to be seen to be believed.

The closest analogues for what he’s attempting here are Charlie Kaufman’s film “Synecdoche, New York” — a fantasy about an artist who turns his entire life into a sprawling conceptual art piece until he loses track of what he’s invented — and Tom McCarthy’s eerie novel “Remainder,” whose wealthy, possibly brain-damaged narrator becomes obsessed with recreating and re-enacting moments from his life in a quest for “authenticity.” The difference, of course, is that these are works of fiction, while Fielder is — ostensibly — filtering his micromanagerial obsessions through the lens of documentary.

One of the underrated aspects of “Nathan for You” was how, in addition to its implicit critique of a capitalist ecosystem in which not all businesses are created equal, it functioned as a satire of a certain brand of packaged, ersatz “reality.” “The Rehearsal” doubles down on this idea by suggesting that, ultimately, Fielder’s methods alienate him — and his audience — from anything resembling the truth and that, besides being the mastermind of his own impossibly spacious, HBO-subsidized alternate universe, he’s also a prisoner: an inmate running his own asylum.

As an attempt to help people navigate the endless contingencies of human relationships, “The Fielder Method” is a failure. As a meditation on the futility of methodology itself, “The Rehearsal” may be a masterpiece. The glorious paradox is that the more Fielder feels out of place, the closer his comedy gets to its sweet spot. Welcome to his life.

Adam Nayman is a critic, lecturer and author based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @brofromanother

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