When I lived in New York City more than a decade ago, the comedy scene included a group of mostly improv performers dedicated to pulling off large-scale public pranks. Sometimes this took the form of flash mobs, and other times it was based on a simple premise, like a group of redheads protesting the Wendy’s mascot for its harmful depiction of their people, or a reading by Anton Chekhov at a Union Square bookstore…despite the fact that Chekhov has been dead since 1904. It was often hilarious.
Two particular pranks stick out in my mind, though, mostly because they were featured in an episode of This American Life in 2005. In the first, the group’s leader picked out an unknown band from Vermont who would be performing late on a Sunday night in New York—a set of circumstances that guaranteed there would be very few people in attendance—and assembled a group of 35 people to pretend to be superfans. They screamed, they danced, they yelled the lyrics in unison, and the band had absolutely no idea what was happening, but eventually embraced the rockstar treatment and had their best show ever. In the second prank, the leader of the group and a few followers picked a person at random in a bar, addressed him as “Ted,” and pretended it was his birthday. They bought him drinks, gave him presents, and told old stories about their time together. When he showed them his license, they’d laugh it off, and when he tried to leave, they’d insist he stick around for one more drink.
Both of these premises are, on some level, funny. They’re also incredibly cruel, and they had the negative effects you might imagine. The band were furious, then humiliated, and one member in particular who had been bullied as a kid felt that he was reliving the worst parts of his childhood just as he thought he had come into his own. “Ted,” the birthday boy, was sensitive to begin with, and the night made him frightened and paranoid that they might come into his life again—a paranoia that felt justified when the group’s leader called him exactly a year later on his fake birthday to ask how “Ted” wanted to celebrate this time.
This was bad enough, but on the This American Life episode, the leader of the group was insistent that these were positive experiences in the life of the victims.
“Regardless of how he feels about it now, I do know that that night was awesome,” he said of the birthday prank. “Whatever you say, you had a blast that night.”
He was similarly cavalier about the band, saying, “Is it cruel to give somebody the best day of their life just because they’ll never have another day like that again? And I don’t think so.”
I had taken improv classes taught by this man, and watched him perform, and considered him both talented and a nice person—at least to me. But when I found that TAL episode, my opinion of him changed, and whether it was fair or not, I saw something sinister in him. If he was being disingenuous about the consequences to his prank victims, that was bad enough, because it meant he was hurting others for his own gain (his company later had a television pilot) and didn’t really care. But if he really believed those experiences were positive, it was somehow worse; it meant he was comfortable playing god, deciding how they felt, and dismissing them if they disagreed.
I thought of this recently after I read the excellent Vulture feature on Nathan Fielder, the genius behind Nathan For You and the new HBO show The Rehearsal. Fielder is different in many ways from my former improv teacher, in that he puts himself at the forefront of his work and is after a deeper comedic experience that contains some commentary, if you look deeply enough, on the most superficial aspects of our culture. But when asked about a woman who felt badly about how she was portrayed on his show, he sounded basically the same.
“It kills me any time I hear people didn’t like their experience,” he said. “I remember her being very excited about it.”
This was incredibly strange to read, because one of the chief byproducts of Nathan For You was the humiliation of its subjects. It may not have been the show’s purpose, or its main comedic engine (those were the premises themselves), but it was so fundamental to the final product that when you hear Fielder express surprise that anyone might have felt badly, the only possible reaction is cynicism. How can he not know what he does to these people? And if he’s lying about not knowing, what does that say about him and his work?
In a way, it would almost be more refreshing if he admitted that yes, people got hurt, but that this was part and parcel of his art.
In my experience, if you watch enough comedy over a lifetime, it gets harder and harder to truly laugh. There are many shows I really enjoy which almost never make me laugh, just because I’ve overdosed to such an extent that the bar to actually elicit a real laugh is stupidly high, like an addict who needs greater and greater quantities to get the buzz he needs. There are a small handful of shows that can still do the trick, and Nathan For You was one of them. Not only that, it made me laugh the hardest. I want to be extremely clear about that: when I write about the show’s cruelty to its subjects, those thoughts are coming afterward, on consideration. In the moment, I’m helpless to the absurdity, and Fielder’s interactions with other people, and the bizarre lengths he’ll go to follow his premise to its logical conclusion, are uproarious.
The Rehearsal isn’t as blatantly and irresistibly funny as Nathan For You, and that’s on purpose. Like his first show’s infamous finale, “Finding Frances,” he’s after something a bit more experiential, emotional, and perhaps even meaningful. Make no mistake, though—he’s still manipulating the hell out of every possible scenario, chasing narrative threads to their ridiculous ends, and showing an almost unbelievable proficiency for unearthing America’s weirdest people. In other words, when he wants to be funny, he’s still very, very funny.
He’s also still mean, and the meanness is also still funny. A necessary part of the Nathan Fielder experience is trickery to elicit the participation of his subjects. In Nathan For You, business owners thought someone was coming to help them turn a profit. In The Rehearsal, the governing concept is that if you have to make a hard decision in life, or hold a difficult conversation, what better way to ensure success than to practice over and over and over in the most realistic simulacrum of the eventual moment? It’s an idea that vaguely makes sense on the surface, but Fielder quickly turns it all profoundly stupid on a magnificent scale. He builds an exact replica of a bar in advance of a tough conversation over pub trivia, he has a woman raise a child from infancy to 18 on a 30-day timeline, substituting actors of various ages at fast intervals to simulate the growing process, and even the minor details get the Fielder treatment; if someone wants to have a vegetable garden, they’ll make it, and even bury fully grown vegetables in the ground to be plucked if there’s not enough time for them to grow before filming is wrapped. It’s a testament to the need to control everything, and a pretty astute commentary on the futility of that approach to life.
Again, though, there are casualties here. Some of the subjects are highly unsympathetic; there’s blatant anti-Semitism from one man, and the woman at the center of the child-rearing project is somewhere beyond insufferable. It’s tempting to let yourself slip into the mindset of believing that it’s okay for them to be humiliated, and that maybe they even deserve it.
But do they? It’s one thing for a person to get his or her comeuppance in life, and we all enjoy those moments. But to have it happen on television, in service of another man’s art, is where things get tricky. This is the most public thing that will ever happen in their lives, and they’ll likely never do anything that resonates on anything close to this level to the world writ large ever again. Not only that, but they’re being tricked by armies of HBO apparatchiks armed with forms to sign, lured in by the promise of fame, placed in bizarre situations that no human could possibly know how to cope with, and then having their experiences over days and months edited down to minutes to highlight certain moments in order to create the exact impression that Nathan Fielder wants. Even for people who come off like assholes, that feels like a different level of mean.
I’ll be the first to admit that cruelty can be very funny. In a show like Veep, the characters are heinously mean to one another, and though some viewers find it too unpleasant, I think it’s brilliant. But those are fictional characters. The people in The Rehearsal are real, and they have to live with their portrayals at the hands of someone who—even if he wants to claim otherwise—doesn’t really care.
I don’t even know if this is a bad thing, and I mean that honestly. At times, I feel I’m being weak or censorious to even feel these qualms. It could be that Fielder’s work is so smart and so incisive that it justifies the fallout. I don’t know who’s qualified to judge something like that, but it’s certainly not me. All I know is that when it’s over—after I’ve laughed, and after the fascination with a singular artistic experience has worn off and I have time to think—the feeling that remains is one of deep conflict. The admiration for Fielder never goes away, but something else creeps in to exist alongside that admiration, and it doesn’t feel great.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here.