TV’s Strangest Comedy Show, ‘Nathan For You,’ Is More Than Just Dumb Starbucks

In my favorite episode of Nathan For You, Season 1’s “Gas Station/Caricature,” comedian Nathan Fielder suggests that a gas station owner use a rebate promotion to increase sales. The twist is that it’s not a mail-in rebate. Instead, customers have to spend 90 minutes hiking to the top of a mountain and solve a series of riddles in order to find the hidden drop box. Surprisingly, people actually agree. It organically turns into a sort of camping session. These three strangers, and Nathan, begin to share secrets — one man even weeps about his divorce — and they form a makeshift family, both hugging and pranking each other. It’s surreal and mind-boggling, but Nathan sticks with it, listening intently with his always unreadable expression.

It’s so funny, especially the next day, when Nathan admits there isn’t a drop box and everyone shrugs and goes home, agreeing that they had a lovely and cathartic time anyway. As they begin the trek back, the camera zooms in on the drop box that was there all along. What’s more? Nathan puts his own rebate in the box and the gas station owner has to pay him. It’s the perfect example of Nathan’s expertly crafted program. It’s a silly idea that someone agrees to, likely because of the comedian’s straight-faced and polite approach. Then, it escalates to a point where everyone should bail but no one does. There is a twist at the end, and also a surprising amount of honesty — at one point, the gas station owner readily admits to drinking his grandson’s urine — and Nathan’s expression never changes.

Season 1 of Nathan For You was a stealth operation, sneaking up on viewers who had no idea what to expect. The basic premise of the docu-reality show is that Nathan tries to help a small, struggling business but only offers up bad ideas. It was one of the funniest programs of 2013, although hardly anyone was watching.

Season 2 will probably suffer the same fate, even though I’m sure more viewers will tune in thanks to the Dumb Starbucks prank. But at least Comedy Central has full faith in Nathan Fielder. Based on the first two episodes, Season 2 of Nathan For You is going to be even funnier than the last. His bad ideas are now hilariously worse. In the premiere, he works with a realtor and suggests a gimmick where all of the houses she sells are 100 percent ghost-free, which also means working with a medium to ensure that the realtor isn’t lying.

This episode is a study in Nathan’s unassuming personality and how it gets people to completely open up to him without any sort of nudging or regret. The medium feels the presence of an incubus — a male demon that has sex with a woman in her sleep — and the real estate agent, without any sort of prompting, tells Nathan about the time she encountered a violent incubus in Switzerland. It’s a shocking and bizarre reveal that comes completely out of left field, but Nathan doesn’t laugh or shut down her claim. He lets the moment play out. He listens, he responds calmly, and he accepts everything she’s saying.

One of the best things about Nathan For You is that he doesn’t make the strangers the butt of the jokes. It’s always Nathan — his naivety, his dumb ideas, his social awkwardness — that’s the joke. (Another running joke is his loneliness. In Season 1, he fakes a reality show just to learn how to be comfortable around women; in “Mechanic/Realtor,” he asks the mechanic, who is hooked up to a polygraph, if he has any interest in becoming friends.) Nathan For You thrives on discomfort — slowly allowing awkwardness to take over an entire interaction and then linger there for an entire scene — but it’s never mean-spirited.

What’s also great about Nathan For You is how committed Nathan is to building these blocks on top of each other, escalating as much as possible to keep up with these lies. In next week’s episode, “Souvenir Shop/E.L.A.I.F.F.,” he finds out that one of his ideas — centered around a fake movie — might result in a lawsuit. Admitting wrongdoing or paying people back isn’t an option for Nathan. Instead, without getting into spoilers, it’s safe to say that he goes to hilariously creative and time-consuming lengths to make everything legitimate.

Nathan For You is arguably the strangest (and most honest) comedy currently on television. It never, ever stops being funny, and it’s a show that needs to last. Comedy Central’s other sketch programs are great, but this one sticks out because of its sheer inventiveness. Nathan For You found its footing earlier in the first season, but now it needs to find its audience.