‘Nathan for You’ was decade’s most compelling satire, offered surprising insight into modern life

Comedy Central has confirmed the show has ended after four seasons, but its legacy is already solidified.

No one ever referred to “Nathan for You” as the show the world needed right now. It was far too strange, served up near-fatal doses of secondhand embarrassment in nearly every episode and didn’t really have any sort of mainstream breakthrough until its final season. Yet in its brief run, it managed to sum up the current era better than any other modern satire could, mainly because that was never really its intention.

The show began quietly in 2013, just as Vine was beginning to take off, and ended with a feature-length finale late last year, long after Vine perished and its former users had moved on to other, less ethically sound things. In those brief four years, however, host and creator Nathan Fielder managed to gain considerable insight into the “social experiment” videos that have plagued YouTube since, into brands like Burger King’s attempts to be relatable on Twitter, and major public frauds like last year’s Fyre Festival, without ever referencing them directly.

For those unfamiliar, the show’s premise was simple: Fielder played a fictionalized, socially awkward version of himself, and suggested ideas to real-life businesses that, while feasible and sometimes even clever on paper, were often completely absurd in execution. These absurd ideas would typically spiral off into other, equally absurd ideas, and by the end of any given episode you’d likely forget what the original plan was. For example, in one episode (season four’s “Shipping Logistics Company”), a scheme to get smoke detectors shipped overseas tax-free ends in a major protest of oil spills that makes the local news. By the episode’s end, when Fielder celebrates his victory, it’s comically difficult to remember what he’s even celebrating.

In the hands of any other host, the show could’ve been a cruel, mean-spirited disaster, a gotcha show with nothing to say — Fielder, with his sensitive persona and deadpan demeanor, elevated it into something else entirely. His incredibly specific brand of humor showcased the strangeness of basic human interaction. With certain common situations presented in sitcoms and movies, it’s normal to think about how you would react in the character’s shoes. “Nathan for You” cleverly combined these relatable situations with predicaments that were often completely unpredictable and nonsensical, ones no one thought about, which made for such engaging (and hilarious) viewing.

No episode sums up the show’s strange humor and empathy better than its finale, “Finding Frances.” The show’s final outing was unlike anything it had attempted before — in the episode, a Bill Gates impersonator, who made recurring appearances on the show throughout its run returned for one last time, and Fielder took him on a cross-country journey to find his long-lost high school sweetheart. It’s closer to a typical documentary than other episodes of “Nathan for You” and also more emotionally resonant. In 90 minutes, Fielder manages to tell nearly the life story of Bill Heath, a man who had previously been utilized only as a punchline by the show. Though the picture Fielder paints of him is somewhat unflattering, the episode still manages to make audiences care deeply about him in the end. It’s about as perfect a note to go out on as any show could hope for.

The show couldn’t have lasted forever, though. After all, its premise was inherently unsustainable — it depended on Fielder not being easily recognized by people, and the more popular it got, the more difficult this became. That being said, it is refreshing to see a beloved TV show end on its own terms, something that seems increasingly rare. In an era when wildly popular shows get suddenly cancelled, and critically acclaimed ones are forced to rush to a quick ending, it’s remarkable that “Nathan for You” was even given a chance in the first place, and even more impressive that it was granted such creative freedom over its four seasons.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

More Stories