What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Nathan For You

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Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: the nervous weirdness of Nathan For You.

It’s summer, and TV is dead. Even with Netflix releases of shows like Orange is the New Black, we’re still mostly at the mercy of TV scheduling to determine when we watch new stuff. If your DVR looks like mine, right now you don’t have much to catch up on. This is the perfect time to start something new. For the next few weeks, we’re going to go over what you should watch to get ready for the glorious return of fall TV.

The first installment is Nathan For You, a supremely strange show that had an eight-episode first-season run on Comedy Central last spring. In each episode, comedian Nathan Fielder meekly suggests business ideas to struggling local businesses. They range from the simple and bad (a cab service where you can opt out or in to conversation with the driver) to the complex and bad (a gas station that offers “free” gas with rebate where the rebate requires customers to climb a mountain and sleep in the woods).

The real joy of Nathan For You is that these ideas aren’t complete jokes. For a brief second, all of them seem like they have a chance at working. When Nathan suggests that a burger place claim that they have the best burger in town — and they’ll give you $100 if they’re wrong — you definitely feel compelled to go to the burger place and see. Watch this three-minute clip from the episode:

The business owners in these episodes always come off genuine. Nathan only shames people or makes them look stupid if they’re actually terrible people. There’s an episode with a private detective who is genuinely awful, and it’s fun to watch Nathan make him look like an idiot on TV. There’s a very The Daily Show with Jon Stewart feel to those interviews, but in this one the burger guy just seems genuine. He wants you to eat his burger and he thinks it’s the best in town, he’s just not sure he wants to risk $100 that he’s wrong. Nathan offers to put up the cash himself, and the game is on. You might see where this is going.

“Cringe TV” can be pretty awful. I’ve written before about how The Office was a fun show, but 22 minutes of Michael Scott disappointing inner city kids in “Scott’s Tots” doesn’t work because it’s too mean and too sad. Nathan For You has some rough moments to watch, but they’re all at Nathan’s expense. When he offers people a free pizza if a pizza place can’t deliver in eight minutes, you know it’s going to end badly. But when the customer is angry that the free pizza is the size of a hand, Nathan’s the one who gets yelled at. It’s funny because you think the poor real pizza delivery guy is going to catch hell, but it’s this nervous Canadian comic instead. The pizza guy getting yelled at is sad; Nathan having shit rain down on him is amazing.

You should start with the gas station episode. It’s really beyond description to watch people file into a van to spend the night in the woods with Nathan to save miniscule amounts of money on gas. The creators’ choice to pop up images about how little people are saving as they go through the ridiculous rebate process is inspired. Watch it, love it, and throw the new one airing tonight on your DVR. What, what else are you watching tonight?

You can watch all eight episodes of season one of Nathan For You on Comedy Central’s website.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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