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One of Nathan Fielder’s strengths as a TV comic is that he doesn’t look like someone trying to be funny. Outwardly, he’s more the type you might expect to find manning an IT help desk or checking your taxes, with a blandly innocent face and a stiff manner that suggests he wouldn’t recognise a joke if he tripped over one.
As his fans know, appearances couldn’t be more deceptive. But who is Fielder really, and what is he playing at? His new comedy-drama The Curse, co-starring Emma Stone, only deepens the mystery – but as a cheat sheet for newcomers, here are a few points we’re reasonably sure of.
Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder star as married couple Whitney and Asher in The Curse.Credit: Beth Garrabrant/Paramount+
He’s an outsider
Like many big names in American comedy, Fielder is Canadian. Born and raised in Vancouver, he went to the same high school as Seth Rogen, where they were both part of an improv comedy group (Fielder was also a keen teenage magician). He went on to study at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, earning the business degree he touts in each episode of his breakout success Nathan For You, which premiered on Comedy Central in 2013.
While Nathan For You gets ever more convoluted over the course of its four seasons, in essence, you might call it a prank show, as well as a spoof of reality TV. The awkwardly polite Fielder visits a range of struggling small businesses, mainly in Los Angeles, and offers dubious advice to the owners, who are desperate enough to give anything a try.
How far do Fielder’s targets take him seriously, and how far are they just keen to appear on camera? It barely matters any more than it usually does in reality shows built around supposed expert advice. That may be part of the joke, along with the implication that no one expects showbiz types to resemble normal people: Fielder’s pedantic blankness suggests a visitor not from another country but another planet.
He’s a trickster
There’s no doubting TV Nathan and his real-world alter ego have much in common: both are lateral thinkers, both like to be in control, and neither is what you could call a regular guy. In other respects, however, they’re polar opposites: where TV Nathan genuinely wants to help people, the actual Fielder is more interested in messing with them for his and our amusement. The pattern is set in Nathan For You’s first episode, in which our hero successfully convinces the proprietor of a frozen yoghurt shop to market a product that literally tastes like poo (“I feel like a poo yoghurt flavour would be a news story”).
While that goes about as well as you’d expect, other Nathan schemes have found more success – like his line of outdoor apparel that promotes awareness of the Holocaust, or his pop-up Dumb Starbucks store, a replica of an actual Starbucks that used parody law to circumvent copyright by adding the word “Dumb” to every menu item (“Dumb Iced Coffee,” “Dumb Frappuccino” and so forth). Still, the bottom line is that few of his business associates appear to gain much from joining forces with him, beyond some not wholly desirable publicity – and the chance to take a break from what we usually think of as the real world.
He makes people uncomfortable
Nathan For You is a masterpiece of cringe comedy: the laughter it draws from us is the painful sort, obtained by maximising discomfort on every level. Aside from Nathan’s terrible business ideas, there are his no less excruciating attempts at bonding with those around him, not to mention the ethical unease generated by the show as a whole. Don’t these people deserve better than being exploited for laughs? Is the joke on us for finding any of this funny.
Such questions loom even larger in Fielder’s follow-up series The Rehearsal, which premiered on HBO in 2022 (a second season is in the pipeline). This too is billed as a reality show of sorts, in which Nathan offers participants the chance to prepare for a life challenge – say, a confrontation with a friend or family member – by playing out a simulated version ahead of time.
In summary, the concept might not sound entirely absurd. But soon its logic starts to get out of hand, revealing TV Nathan as a megalomaniac bent on manipulating and reconstructing everything in sight. Behind the scenes, the actual Fielder appears to be up to a version of the same thing – that is, supposing anything we see is “real” in any sense at all.
Nathan Fielder, left, with his first participant/patsy/victim, Kor Skeete, in The Rehearsal.Credit: Foxtel/HBO
He’s an artist
Which brings us to The Curse, Fielder’s first fully-scripted comedy-drama, which he co-created with the indie director and character actor Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems). It’s not a big surprise that the plot takes us behind the scenes of an imaginary reality show: Fielder and Stone play Asher and Whitney Siegel, the newly married stars of Flipanthropy, which shows them doing their best for “eco-conscious housing” in the actual town of Espanola, New Mexico (Safdie, an actual executive producer of The Curse, plays the producer of the show within the show).
The first episode depends on some relatively familiar ironies, with Asher and Whitney’s supposed good intentions undercut by their determination to control how they appear on camera. But Fielder’s track record gives us much more to ponder. Given he’s previously claimed to know nothing about acting, is he a credible match for an Oscar-winning movie star like Stone? Are any of these characters meant to be credible, whatever that means? Is it possible that The Curse in its entirety is not what it appears, but part of a prank to be revealed further down the line?
What we mainly know for now is that Fielder is playing with us, slipping from reality to fiction and back again, holding the mirror up to nature while bringing home that the nature of a mirror is to get everything back to front. We also know the game may involve a degree of risk – but that this is unlikely to reduce the fun of playing along.
The Curse is streaming now on Paramount Plus, with new episodes each Saturday.
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