Comedy Central Star Nathan Fielder Tried to Strap Himself to a Flying Plane
The creator and face of "Nathan for You" tells THR about a season full of stunts, describes his biggest gambit, and suggests the ending of this story.
During the voiceover that introduces every episode of his Comedy Central show, Nathan Fielder is open and honest with his audience: he studied business at a top Canadian college, he got pretty good grades, and now he’s going to apply those old lessons to help some small business owners get an edge in a competitive economy.
No, he’s never actually worked in business, but that hardly seems to matter.
"Nowadays, people accept these reality TV experts," the 29-year old veteran comedy writer says, with more than a pinch of amusement. "I've gone to all these businesses and not one person has asked me, 'So what are your qualifications?' Because people assume that if you have a TV crew filming and going around with you, then you’re an expert."
For the record: Fielder attended the University of Victoria and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, majoring in Entrepreneurship and Marketing... And then he went to work in television and stand-up comedy.
In the first short season of his comedy docu-series Nathan for You, the finale of which airs Thursday night at 10:30, Fielder has traveled around southern California bringing his quirky marketing ideas to entrepreneurs willing to take a risk on camera. Among his many successful stunts, Fielder has raised the profile of a struggling frozen yogurt chain by inventing a "poo-flavored" sweet, convinced a boutique owner to allow attractive customers to shoplift, and taught a caricature artist to draw racist cartoons (a surprising hit with the models).
His most famous gambit, a staged video of a pig saving a baby goat at a petting zoo, was the non-"Gangnam Style" viral sensation of the fall, racking up over seven million YouTube views and mentions on the Today show, among many other major news outlets. Everyone thought the rescue was real, earning Fielder notoriety and padding his reputation as an ace at grabbing media attention.
Ironically, pulling off the same sort of headline-grabbing coup for his series proved more difficult.
"I wanted to do a stunt to market my own show, where I strap myself to the outside front of a 737 for a flight from LAX to Burbank, like a short haul thing, and get all the media there to cover it," Fielder explains, betraying a tinge of regret at an opportunity lost. "We had an entertaining twist set up for it.
"But Comedy Central just literally looked at me like I was insane when I said it,” he continues. “We had a very clear plan, we looked at how much it would cost, we could get for $60,000 a 737 to do a short flight. We had a way to make it safe... But I was looked at like I was insane."
Out in the "real world," beyond the insular little fiefdoms of TV networks, Fielder has had better luck, thanks in part to a general public that he has found to be way less cynical than industry types. In one particularly memorable excursion, he helped an independent gas store increase traffic by advertising incredibly low prices -- after rebate. To cash in, customers had to hike up a mountain, answer a long series of riddles and camp overnight.
He didn’t expect anyone to follow through with it -- hence, the trick behind the money making scheme -- but a whole busload of people decided to take the hike. By the end of the evening, three were left, opting to camp out so that they could net their $15 rebate check.
"The funny thing is, those three people, when I was up there on the mountain with them, around the campfire, it was interesting because they had very similar back stories," Fielder recalls, "where they had been in very difficult relationships, I think they had all been through a very terrible divorce. You kind of got the sense that, Oh, these people aren’t just doing this as a rebate or for a show, this is exciting for them because their home life is kind of tough."
It's that sort of sweet earnestness that he loves most about the show; though there are plenty of awkward situations and a fair share of moments that don't reflect especially well on some people, it largely shows a positive side of human nature. People are willing to cooperate and sign release waivers even when they know they might look silly on television; they can laugh at themselves, making it easier for the audience to feel good about laughing, too.
While he waits to find out the future of this show, Fielder has other television ambitions to pursue. First and foremost, he would love to revive the old TV "event" specials, chock full of celebrity surprises and one time-only spectacles. It is another product of his fascination with manufactured excitement, attention-seeking stunts and personal marketing -- advice on which he even gives this writer near the end of our conversation.
"When you write an article, you know how some reporters incorporate themselves into the article?" he asks, "Like, 'I went there and I ordered a coffee...' Is that considered a good thing?"
Generally, I tell him, I try not to inject myself into articles unless necessary; I'm the vehicle for someone else’s story, and no one, save for perhaps my mother, is interested in what I have to say.
"You think so low of yourself, that people don’t want to know about you. Maybe you should incorporate that into the article," he suggests, offering encouragement and advice. "Like, 'After hanging up the phone with Nathan, I made myself a sandwich and was thinking...' And then you fill in the rest. So people are like, 'Oh, I get it, he's the guy I should be following.' Because then people will look for your specific stories."
That seems like a good idea, but I tell him I think I could give it an even better twist. "I'm going to end it on that note, but quoting this conversation," I say.
Fielder continues to spitball. "You should say I suggested that you end on a personal note, with you reflecting," he says, adding to the quickly-forming plan. "Mention that I mentioned it, and then reflect."
We share a few laughs about that idea, then exchange a minute or two of small talk before hanging up. I exit the coffee shop I had paced around during our phone conversation, and walked out into the New York sun, soaking in one of the first truly comfortable days of the year. It’s lunchtime in Chelsea, and office workers crowd the streets, striding purposefully as they check their phones, talk with colleagues and line up for salads.
There are so many people on this block alone, I think, much less this entire city. I’m bound to be lost in the shuffle, trampled simply by sheer numbers, if not others’ ambition. Is it possible to stand out among the competition? Might as well try Nathan’s advice, I tell myself, reflecting back on the profound words he shared just moments ago.