Nathan For Everyone: Why Nathan for You is the most Marxist show on TV
There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.
—Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”
Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder is not a Marxist, and he doesn’t play one on TV. As he announces in the opening credits of his Comedy Central series Nathan For You—which premiered in 2013 and finished up its fourth season last fall—Fielder “graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades. Now, I'm using my knowledge to help struggling small-business owners make it in this competitive world."
Describing the show is challenging. On the most superficial level, it’s just like Nathan says: Nathan For You is modeled after reality shows like Bar Rescue and Kitchen Nightmares, which I have not seen, but which I am told feature a consultant who each week helps some enterprise revamp their brand and turn things around financially. On another level, the show can appear to approach “Ali G” levels of trollish mockery, as it is obvious that Nathan is not being entirely serious.
His plans are consistently outrageous, cynical exaggerations of common, already quite cynical marketing strategies: His first ploy of the series, for example, is to attract attention to a local frozen yogurt shop by introducing a “poo” flavor. A later episode finds Nathan determined to help a local electronics store compete with Best Buy with a plan that includes both price matching and an alligator. In the most recent season, Nathan proposes to help a shipping company pay lower tariffs by classifying smoke detectors as musical instruments, even starting a band in order to ensure that the classification is legitimate.
Some of the stunts, like the “Dumb Starbucks” coffee shop that attempts to circumvent copyright law by presenting itself as a “parody” of Starbucks, garnered national media attention before the nature of the enterprise was even revealed. When Nathan realizes the company that makes his preferred soft shell jacket, Taiga, had publicly paid tribute to a Holocaust denier, he releases his own imitation brand “Summit Ice,” which goes on to generate over $300,000 in revenue, all donated to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
The struggling entrepreneurs invariably decline to implement Nathan’s suggestions permanently, but seem to go along with them out of a combination of varying degrees of politeness and desperation. Almost as invariably, Nathan will then ask the client if they want to hang out sometime, his earnestness and awkward insecurity softening the edges of an invitation normally considered too vulnerable to be taken unironically. The clients usually say no.
Its host’s dry deadpan, its creatively unnerving scenarios, and the unforeseeability of its narrative development make Nathan For You the most original and hysterically funny comedy series on offer today. The show is unique. But what makes the show so politically unique is the utterly captivating way the apparent cracks in Nathan’s “business” persona—a college transcript prominently features a C+ flashes across the screen as he says “really good grades”—and the patent outlandishness of his schemes illustrate a society of alienated individuals unable to wrest subjectivity from the economic forces that dominate them.
What the show’s absurd, sometimes absurdly creative plots also do is create conditions where spontaneous action on the part of both producers and consumers can radically alter the course of events, despite the seeming inevitability that market competition will crush them and the capitalist system as a whole will remain. “What we always hope for is that someone will take it in a direction that’s not expected at all, and then we can drop everything and go that way,” Nathan told Vanity Fair in 2015. “Those are usually the most engaging things that end up happening, when someone offers up something that we never expected.”
Unlike the reality shows it’s modeled after, there is no standard narrative structure to an episode of Nathan For You: The plots take sharp turns based on the specific requirements of that week’s scenario, and almost like the opening moments of The Simpsons, it is often impossible to predict where the contingency of human subjects and the necessities of their environments will take them. A scheme to sell certifiably ghost-free homes to the 50% of homebuyers who believe in ghosts leads Nathan to discover that his client, Sue Stanford, has actually had violent supernatural experiences of her own: She undergoes an apparently successful exorcism on camera, and in the recap episode “A Celebration,” we see that Sue has kept the mantle of “Ghost Realtor” full time. Numerous ideas were pursued but never aired because they ended in either disaster or mediocrity.
In the end, the system recoups its losses: Nathan’s plans either don’t work or work so well that they reveal the profound coercion and irrationality of social and economic life under capitalism, the lengths to which people will go both as producers and consumers to feel like they have achieved a modicum of security.
Nathan’s clients are predominantly immigrants of color with few or no employees, their financial difficulties often visibly impacted by discrimination and their broader isolation from mainstream American society. Rooting for them to bilk mostly white customers has a certain appeal, but it falls far short of class warfare. Nowhere in this show does the working class rise up to seize the means of production—the show’s Marxism is one of despair, where the stranglehold of capital on the lives of all can only be escaped in brief, spontaneous moments of utopian vision and social connection.
The politics of Nathan For You might be closest to the historical materialism articulated by Walter Benjamin in his 1940 essay “On the Concept of History.” Benjamin, who was a close affiliate of the Frankfurt School who took his own life fleeing from the Nazis later that year, was far from orthodox in his Marxism: He began his intellectual trajectory as an anarchist, never joined the German Communist Party, and was described by his friend Gershon Scholem (though never self-identified) as a Trotskyist.
The essay considers the possibility of redemption from a historical materialist perspective. Following Marx, Benjamin describes historical materialism as the task of “brush[ing] history against the grain,” reading the material basis of history back into it, demystifying the dynamics of historical development by lending voice to the suffering and toil of the oppressed people who have been written out of it.
Writing history is itself one of the spoils of class war: Our “cultural treasures,” our stories about what happened, “owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries,” Benjamin writes. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
This is the core of the dialectical logic pioneered by Hegel, commandeered by Marx, and reforged for a tragic and tumultuous new century by Benjamin and the other thinkers of the Frankfurt School: change occurs because, contrary to what is known in traditional logic as the principle of noncontradiction, nothing is ever only what it is, but also its opposite. Contradiction is a constant, inhering in the very nature of things. Dialectical thinking has been a wellspring of revolutionary theory from the writings of Lenin and Mao to the work of Frantz Fanon because it offers not only a warning in good times, but also hope amidst hopelessness—as the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, former roommate of Hegel, put it in his poem “Patmos”: “Where danger lies, there grows salvation also.”
The two decades that separated the end of World War I and the German Empire (the “Second Reich”) from the time of Benjamin’s writing at the outset of World War II, however, saw German society squander every revolutionary possibility in its descent into the most unmitigated barbarism imaginable.
Most German workers had jettisoned any sentiments of international solidarity and supported the war effort, after which the German Communist Party’s attempt to replicate the Bolshevik Revolution in the Weimar Republic was brutally crushed with the help of the Freikorps, a proto-fascist militia who would go on to form the core of Hitler’s supporters. The permanent splintering of the left and the dysfunction of Germany’s post-imperial experiment in liberal democracy created the conditions for German workers to embrace their own destruction.
What hope is left? Benjamin finds it not in a concrete past event, but in our very relationship to the past. His view of history is not teleological—utopia is not the endpoint of some inexorable historical development. Utopia exists in flashes when we nevertheless act as if the future is not determined, when we transgress the bounds of what is even thought possible in our present. Thus he laments the passivity and complacency engendered by the German working class’s belief that it “was moving with the current,” that progress is simply a matter of staying the course:
Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.
Redemption, then, is not a distant inevitability, but an immediate possibility. Latent in each moment of the present is a chance to harness the pain and failure of past generations in service of a truly radical act, one that could “make the continuum of history explode” as the French Revolution had:
The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class give the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.
Revolution is dialectical in the precise sense of the notoriously untranslatable Hegelian term Aufhebung: It is simultaneously preservation and negation, citation and innovation. Unlike in the realm of fashion, the terms of which are entirely dictated by industry, in the realm of politics the “tiger’s leap into the past” is at the same time a leap forward into the “open air” of an indeterminate future.
The most oft-cited passage in the essay refers to the Swiss-German expressionist Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus (“The New Angel”), which depicts
an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin’s historical materialism doesn’t claim to derive immutable laws from the study of history in order to deduce the future—by itself, the failure of the left in Germany was enough to demand a reassessment of the prognostic value of orthodox Marxism. It is we who, because of our limitations in time and space, see history as a chain of events, while the angel sees all that has come before in “one single catastrophe”: to “awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed” is the task of a humankind that can only act retroactively, in the present, to make good on the utopian potential of the struggles of all previous generations. In his and Germany’s darkest hour, Benjamin felt that it was precisely our inability to predict the future based on the past which offers hope.
In the sublime season one segment “Gas Station,” Nathan proposes to let Daniel Ashikian, the Armenian owner of Sevan Gas, advertise a nationwide-low $1.75 per gallon by offering a rebate that has to be dropped off in person at the top of a mountain which is only accessible by foot. Like virtually all of Nathan’s other clients, Daniel is skeptical at first, but appears to be won over by Nathan’s promise that no would be able to successfully claim the rebate.
While numerous customers initially leave deterred, several eventually turn out to be up to the challenge—one, Lauriem, even returning in gym clothes. The non-existence of “Mount Chileo” doesn’t stop another steadfast customer, Elizabeth, from declaring that while she’s “never been up there,” she’s “heard the view is beautiful.” Daniel is visibly worried, but Nathan takes over the face-to-face interactions and reassures him: “[o]nce they get up there, it’s only just the beginning.”
To describe Nathan’s plans as pragmatic fails to capture the utopianism, the “weak Messianism,” of the M.O. he asserts, with not only a straight face but a seemingly unshakeable commitment to a totally ludicrous goal: “to create the perfect rebate.” Despite being surprised to learn that the rebate offer includes the stipulation that the customers must also solve “a series of riddles,” an almost full shuttle of customers head to the remote site of the rebate dropbox. Their responses are marked by turns by cautious rationalization and stubborn persistence. “I love being out of the city, getting to relax a bit,” says Elizabeth. “I don’t have to pick up my kids till tomorrow afternoon,” Laurie declares 2 hours in.
A balding white man named Ray, as well as Laurie and Elizabeth (who are also white), are even willing to stick it out for the night, camping out in tents Nathan claims he had not expected to have to use. They talk over a campfire, and over the course of the night, the customers bring up everything from their romantic regrets to their views on drinking urine as alternative medicine. What emerges from the exchange is a profound loneliness and empathy that undermines the inhumanity of the exploitative premise, itself only a radicalization of common advertising strategies.
Nathan’s remark that “money was the least of their problems” may strike one as trite and insufficiently materialist, yet he is vindicated when, after 17 hours of riddles and conversation, he is successfully able to convince them that the social experience of openness and intimacy they had shared was more important than the twenty dollars they had given up an entire day to save. Everyone who made it far enough to claim the rebate goes home having had an entirely unlikely human connection.
Benjamin describes real people’s resistance to the spiritual impoverishment imposed on the working class as temperaments, even virtues:
The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude.
“I knew there was no rebate box,” Laurie chuckles after Nathan gets everyone to agree to go home without submitting their rebate slips (a slow zoom-in reveals that there is, indeed, a rebate box). But here, if anywhere, we can take Laurie at her word—as the other customers had demonstrated when they dropped out, the economic necessity of staying for the rebate had become more and more questionable by the hour. Nathan’s challenge in “Gas Station” is utopian because it is an earnest lie: Because it’s easily readable as an absurdity, the deceptive or manipulative purpose of the pitch is overshadowed by the sense that, whatever it may turn out to be, Nathan is offering something unpredictable.
In the end, the promotion is a success for Daniel—an immigrant of color who, in one of Nathan’s most unguarded moments, reveals that he, too, believes in the restorative powers of drinking urine, and recommends his grandson’s.
There is obviously no denying that a great deal of the show is immensely uncomfortable to watch. When real, often already insecure and struggling people meet Nathan’s radically contrived concepts, the show’s dramatic irony tiptoes on a knife’s edge, with both Nathan’s earnest-but-not-honest approach often threatening to slip into the exploitative and mean-spirited. “That’s what you’re driving for, not that we accomplish that a lot. We’re really chasing the most elusive joke or moment, and we throw away the easy gag. We’re going for these really weird human moments that make you laugh or make you uncomfortable, but you can’t even pinpoint why, because it’s not really a joke. Those are hard to find.”
It’s crucial, then, that when the going gets tough, Nathan always makes a point of stepping up to take the brunt of whatever consequences his plans may have: In one episode, he challenges the purveyor of the self-described “best burger in Los Angeles” to offer $100 cash to any customer who is not convinced that it is the best burger in Los Angeles. All Nathan asks from the owner of LA Burger, Gustavo, is his word that his really is the best burger in LA.
“Wait, is your burger the best?” Nathan asks with concern when Gustavo hesitates. “Because no burger place has ever made a claim like this.” When he feels that customers are disingenuously claiming to be less than satisfied, he puts up his own money so Gustavo won’t take any losses as a result of the unreasonably risky promotion.
Without Nathan’s backing, Gustavo’s initial assent would feel somewhat coerced—and, indeed, it initially does, but the show encourages viewers to feel those questionable moments in all their ambiguity as it hunts for a redemptive moment in the banality of capitalist commerce and consumption. It is how Nathan lives up to his end of the bargain, to take Gustavo at his word and protect him from incurring any losses, that reveals that he isn’t interested in humiliating his clients, but in demonstrating that even at consumer society’s most formulaic and interchangeable, there exists a glimmer of the truly different and barely possible.
Seth Rogen, Nathan’s high school improv pal in their hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, recalls that "to the untrained eye, you would not understand he had a sense of humor. You would maybe just think he was weird. I started to realize that it was partially deliberate, how weird he was. It's your classic case of taking ownership of the thing that could be your worst trait.” Even back then, it was clear that in Nathan’s hands, his worst trait could be exaggerated into a universal signifier of human alienation under capitalism, an ambivalence that finds no happy medium but deals only in extremes. “He would take big swings,” Rogen says. “I remember thinking, 'Nathan's gonna do something. It's either gonna be really great or people are really gonna be confused by it.”
Nathan’s persona channels the pain and vulnerability of his past and seeks—valiantly, though usually in vain—to connect to the wounded, often no less insecure people he’s trying to help. His schemes are comical precisely because they are messianic in their sheer ambition and self-seriousness: Each plan is a weekly deus ex machina that, like the angel of history, tries and fails to redeem the past, to make whole what has been smashed.
But is Nathan For You really the most Marxist series on television today? To this, one might reply with another question: What even comes close? Yes, the show is premised on helping small business owners make money by bilking customers. Yet where barbarism lies, there lies civilization also. The system recoups its losses in the end, but in taking commonsense dogmas to their irrational extremes, the show reveals how the contingent and unpredictable fills the void left by our expectations: In brief flashes, even the immovable object reveals the cracks in its foundation. Like placement of the framed portrait of Lana Del Rey in his office, Nathan’s persona is deliberate but genuine, a personification of utopian naiveté and the tender yearning to be whole.