The Rehearsal Will Break Your Brain in the Best Possible Way

For people of sound mind the most common response to any episode of Nathan is for YouThe Comedy Central show ‘The Defeat of Small Business Owners,’ which aired in the middle-2010s on Comedy Central, has a creator named Nathan Fielder. It is something like: What is this guy’s deal? Between awkward conversation and viral stunts viewers often saw Fielder grappling with the same question. He followed up with a series. The rehearsalIt is, among others, an attempt at answering it.

What has made Fielder such an enigma, for fans as well as for the unwitting subjects of his docu-comedy, is the unlikely combination of his soft-spoken, preternaturally calm affect and the psychological pressure he’s nonetheless able to exert on people who are not necessarily stupid or weak-willed. You can read the entire interview here. Nathan is for You, he sold a frozen yogurt business on adding a “poo” flavor to its menu and convinced a souvenir shop owner to host a fake movie shoot that would require extras to spend their own money buying the store’s trinkets. He did all this without losing his cool.

The rehearsalFielder is once more at the disposal of those who feel they are incapable of solving their problems on their own. But this time around the predicaments are more personal than entrepreneurial, and the Nathan Fielder who hosts, narrates, directs, and writes or co-writes each episode comes off as a more authentic representation of the real Nathan Fielder—or, at least, a more authentic facsimile of a real human being—than that inscrutable Nathan is for you guy. In fact, the show’s conceit is that it pulls back the curtain on its predecessor, using Fielder’s over-the-top social-engineering methods to help people overcome the stumbling blocks in their lives.

Nathan Fielder, centre, in The Rehearsal’


In the 45-minute pilot episode, Fielder arrives at the home of middle-aged history teacher Core Skeet, and cracks some seemingly spontaneous jokes to break the tension before talking through Skeet’s situation: The trivia buff has, for years, led his crew of pub-quiz pals to believe he has a master’s degree. He doesn’t. Now, he wants to come clean but fears he’ll lose friends. “I understand his dilemma,” Fielder drones in the voice-over. “This trivia team is his life. And when you reveal your true self, people don’t always like what they see. But I wanted to show him that if he planned for every variable, a happy outcome doesn’t have to be left to chance.”

It’s at this point that Fielder reveals, to Skeet and to us, that the casual exchange we’ve just witnessed between the two men was in fact predetermined based on rehearsals Fielder conducted with an actor standing in Skeet. We see footage of these rehearsals, set in a life-size recreation of his subject’s apartment (whose layout and contents the show’s crew had accessed in advance, under false pretenses), with Nathan and the actor running through dozens of scenarios for how his first meeting with the real Skeet might go. Fielder even makes the same joke he made during a rehearsal, about a title on Skeet’s bookshelf. The secret was this technique of obsessively planning for difficult interactions. Nathan is for You’s awkward yet seamless escalations.

As Skeet rehearses his confession—a process that eventually entails a full-scale replica of his trivia spot, Brooklyn’s Alligator Lounge—Fielder takes steps to ensure the best possible outcome. Ethical dilemmas arise, forcing the man behind the curtain to decide whether behind-the-scenes deception is justified if it facilitates Skeet’s honesty. When Skeet compares him to that master manipulator Willy Wonka, it’s not exactly a compliment. The observation that “when you reveal your true self, people don’t always like what they see” gains new resonance. Fielder appears to be trying to resolve the surrounding debate. Nathan is for YouIn the best way that he knows, he argued over his acts of humor, cruelty, and profound.

It ends up feeling like an amalgamation of Nathan is for You; The pseudo-instructional ruminative docuseries John Wilson: What to DoFielder is an executive producer of the company; MadeMTV’s longest-running reality series matched teens with coaches that could make their dream of being a sports hero or homecoming queen come true. The structure is less rigid in the 30-minute segments that follow. Fielder installs Angela, a woman who can’t decide whether to have kids, in her dream home to rehearse the experience of raising a son. Played by a rotating cast of child actors, the boy is to age three years each week until he’s 18. The acceleration of such an elemental human relationship—and the simulation of the subject’s own rapid aging, as visualized through a bathroom-mirror screen that digitally ages the parent along with the baby—proves unexpectedly haunting. So it’s fitting that Angela’s story lingers as the season continues, overlapping with simpler scenarios, like one in which a guy rehearses confronting his brother about a dispute over their grandfather’s will.

Nathan Fielder, “The Rehearsal”


Fielder’s obligations and priorities, in running multiple simulations at once, get tangled. As he becomes increasingly invested in the Angela experiment and others, so does our—and apparently his own—understanding of who he is as a person. This is the real artifice that underlies all of those bizarre encounters. Nathan is for You Fielder has been exposed. He no longer has an impassive business-idiot facade to hide behind. Is His deal? Is he simply happy to humiliate regular people on television, like his critics claim? Or is he really looking for insights into human experience, even his own? There are times when the seams of The rehearsal’s complex construction show, and you catch sight of a whole other level of narrative manipulation that Fielder doesn’t even cop to in his introspective voice-overs.

It’s a head trip. When Fielder stops to wonder, midway through the season, “Wait, what is this show?” he’s mirroring the viewer’s uncertainty. Anyone who participates in the discussion. The rehearsalIt will likely be more than just a cringe-comedy, although it sometimes can, and you’ll get something else out of it. Fielder gave me the opportunity to paint a self-portrait, showing a man who is compelled by God to try to help others, but also to deceive, embarrass, and sometimes hurt them. This allowed me to look at every character with a mixture of great and horrible qualities. A man tosses off antisemitic comments in one scene and tenderly cares for an elderly guy he’s just met in the next. A woman who righteously condemns one type of prejudice ends up harboring others.

If Nathan is for You This was an after-recession reminder of the fact that the American Dream can be viewed as a Ponzi scheme. Anyone who says they know the secrets to success may just want to make a sale. The rehearsal speaks to a culture that has reorganized itself around an absurd political binary that presupposes everyone who agrees with us is good and everyone who doesn’t is bad. The world isn’t made up solely of sociopaths and saints; we’ve all got dimensions. What is anyone’s deal, really? You need to get to know them, dig deep into their minds, and try to find their biggest regrets. It takes effort and time. Perhaps, it is necessary to practice, even in a culture that relies on snap judgments or false assumptions.

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