So Bad, He’s Good

After three seasons, Nathan for You has more terrible business ideas.

Photographer: Danny Feld

Nathan Fielder, 32, a self-styled consultant and graduate of a “top Canadian business school, with really good grades,” is deeply invested in small businesses. His show, Nathan for You, finishing its third season on Comedy Central, depends on them.

The format of Nathan for You is similar to celebrity entrepreneur shows such as Bar Rescue or Kitchen Nightmares. Fielder meets each week with beleaguered business owners, bonds with them, and gives his prescription for turning things around. Unlike the hosts of those other shows, however, Fielder has no actual expertise to offer his subjects: He did graduate with a bachelor of commerce from the University of Victoria in 2005, but he’s been working in comedy ever since.

In this season’s second episode, he tells the owner of a stable that she can increase her business by attaching helium balloons to the backs of overweight riders who’d pose a health risk to her horses. In another installment, Fielder tells a television store owner that he can compete with a local Best Buy by lowering his flatscreen prices to $1 and exploiting the megachain’s price-match guarantee. The idea is engaging not only because it’s ludicrous, but because who hasn’t had the thought while looking through the appliance ads in the Sunday paper?

Source: Comedy Central

Each earlier season of Nathan for You has produced a viral hit. The first video shows a pig seemingly rescuing a goat from a pond; it got millions of views on YouTube in 2012 before being used on the show to promote a petting zoo. Last year’s was about a coffee shop that tested the limits of parody law by calling itself Dumb Starbucks. Both bits blew up online well before their season premieres aired, so they got no promotional help from the show. This season has been lower-profile but no less cheeky. In one episode, Fielder discovers his favorite windbreaker is made by a company that publicly praised a Holocaust denier. In retaliation, he decides to found a competitor, Summit Ice, “the first outdoor apparel company to openly promote the true story of the Holocaust.”

The types of small-business owners who appear on Nathan for You are a different breed from the sleek, vetted reality show contestants who kowtow before Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran on ABC’s Shark Tank, never mind the aspiring tycoons who appear on CNBC’s The Profit. Fielder’s business people are just regular folk—a coffee shop owner, a mechanic, a toy designer—trying to make it to the end of the month. All they know is they’ve signed a waiver to appear on a TV show, so if Fielder were to come off as condescending or dismissive, viewing would be excruciating. It’s his earnestness that makes for comedy instead of cruelty.

Where Fielder is particularly brilliant is in the implementation of his plans. In the case of the TV store, he dissuades potential purchasers of its $1 televisions by instituting a strict dress code—bow ties and tuxedos for men—within the store. In another episode this season, Fielder initiates a you-break-it-you-buy-it policy at an antique store, then changes the operating hours to late nights, narrows the aisles, and lures in drunk patrons. His ideas are more hilarious than they are effective, but cumulatively, they make a larger point about contemporary capitalism and the perils of the cult of innovation: Newer isn’t always better. But it can be funnier. 

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