The comedy genius of Nathan Fielder reaches new heights in The Rehearsal

Why leave life to chance? That’s the idea behind in Nathan Fielder’s new comedy series The Rehearsalstream it on Neon from August 27 – which goes to absurd and troubling lengths to simulate life events before they happen. Tim Batt explains what has already made him such a fan of Fielder – and why The Rehearsal is his new favourite TV show.

“I’m not good at meeting people for the first time. I’ve been told my personality can make people uncomfortable.”

That’s the opening narration of Nathan Fielder’s genre-defying and mind-bending new reality-comedy(?) series for HBO, The Rehearsal. Those final nine words summarise why the show is currently generating a volume and depth of online discussion that is generally reserved for extremely high-budget prestige drama or crowd-emptying horror films at Cannes.

Fielder has been honing his very specific comedic voice for over a decade. You can track the development of his cringe-inducing tone and watch the scale of his antics increase to the now-absurd levels HBO afforded him, starting in the 2000s with an interview segment called Nathan On Your Side on the Canadian current events comedy series This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Even at the start of his TV career, he already showcased the fully formed elements that make Fielder who he is. Namely, an unflinching ability to put real people in extremely socially awkward situations and keep them flapping on the hook like a fish struggling for its life.

There’s a legendary clip from Nathan On Your Side where Fielder interviews the network’s CEO, a man who describes himself as “A fan of the show”. After being asked what his favourite Nathan On Your Side interview is, he gives a polite, political non-answer saying he wouldn’t want to elevate one over the rest. Fielder calmly refuses to let this pass and asks if he’s ever seen his interviews. The CEO pleads “Don’t do this to me”. Seeing the man’s face shift in real time from a jovial ease to visible, pained regret isn’t for everyone but if you get your kicks from Larry David or even The Office, you’ll love it. This is one of Fielder’s key moves; Gently place someone into an impossible position and hold them there while the camera rolls and they struggle.

His talents on the show were immediately apparent and this led to Fielder’s biggest claim to fame (until one month ago when The Rehearsal debuted), Nathan For You on Comedy Central. It’s a deservedly lauded four-season series that saw Nathan answer the call from struggling real-world small business owners to help them improve their profits. Fielder would then create, pitch and implement completely demented solutions to help their bottom line, such as making the first frozen yogurt flavour that tastes like actual shit.

The episodes are truly insane and they work off two main ingredients. The first is Fielder’s inventiveness with coming up with, and then deadpan commitment to, an absurd idea. One of my favourite episodes sees him convince the owner of an independent petrol station to sell the cheapest gas in all of America. Crucially though, customers will only get this price by redemption of a rebate coupon, which can only be mailed via a single postbox placed at the summit of a nearby mountain that is accessible only by foot after a multi-day trek.

The second ingredient is harnessing the cavalcade of bizarre people who inhabit our world by simply letting them talk on camera. From the same gas station episode, we meet several people willing to leave their lives for several days to climb a mountain to save a few dollars in gas money. After an intense personal journey of strangers-turned-comrades trekking together to mail a rebate, the episode closes on the gas station owner catching Fielder off guard by explaining his firmly held belief that drinking the urine of children under five will help overcome misfortune and fear in life.

A thousand Emmy-winning screenwriters working at a thousand MacBooks could not write the events and dialogue that appear in Nathan For You.

The Rehearsal’s conceit is that Nathan Fielder wants to help people navigate challenging situations in their life by giving them an opportunity to perform practice runs before they have to engage with the event for real. That’s a relatively simple idea and by itself, not necessarily very funny but the scale and lengths the show goes to in order to fulfil its premise is what has made it my new favourite TV show.

The show has generated exhaustive discussion about whether it’s ethically acceptable to treat people the way the show does, and how real the show actually is. There are valid arguments to be made that The Rehearsal crosses a line into exploitative treatment of the show’s participants but Fielder’s on-screen character is such a bizarre, emotionally-challenged, yet disarmingly vulnerable character that for my money, he always lands on the right side of the ledger (JUST).

HBO has armed Fielder with obviously significant resources for this series—not just monetary (though that is on display) but clearly talented crew, like set builders and producers who are all charged with enacting the breathtakingly crazy ideas that Nathan Fielder comes up with. It is a beautiful thing to watch such a strange but clear vision be enabled to bring it to life without compromise. It’s also sensationally funny.

The biggest shift from his previous shows to The Rehearsal is Fielder’s attention to story. This show is shot, edited and presented as a reality series. It is promoted as a comedy. But the revelations and twists that it takes the viewer on, even in the first four minutes of the pilot, are on par with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

It’s easy to be disoriented watching the first episode, as the show windingly reveals the lengths Fielder has gone to to “help” people on the show. But The Rehearsal, like all great shows, draws you into the intimate personal and troubled world of the show’s characters—in this case, both the participants and the show’s host himself. Nathan Fielder is not a silly character. He is hilarious but he is also a complicated and visibly-struggling individual that doesn’t fully grasp the complexities of the world and people around him. The Rehearsal gives Fielder too many resources to bring his heavily flawed ideas to life. For my money, it doesn’t get funnier than that.