Nathan For You: Confronting the Absurd – HarpoonMurder

Nathan For You: Confronting the Absurd

I just watched a man take the identity of another man with an elaborate getup of a body suit, scanned facial mask, along with mimicked physical moves and voice inflections all for the sake of making the latter man look better…but really for the sake of our entertainment.  If you haven’t watched the finale of the third season of Nathan For You, I’ll spare you the details and let you enjoy it for yourself.

Nathan Fielder approaches small business under the guise of being an expert in business and offers outlandish out-of-the-box ideas to help promote the struggling business.  Really he’s a comedian with a show on Comedy Central messing with people by presenting them with the most absurd ideas for their business and forcing them to react and then confront full-on the ridiculousness which usually snowballs into realms of the even more absurd and thus hilarity for the viewer.

If you’ve watched the show, you know Nathan Fielder plays a character Nathan, an exaggerated version of himself, awkward but as a complete straight-man he manipulates the complicity of people and their general tendency to be polite (although this is not always the case) to coerce them to go along with his unconventional schemes.

Here is Nathan convincing an electronic store owner to sell TVs at $1:


Now with all this absurdity , I feel like I wanted to talk about “The Absurd”.  “The Absurd” is a popular term in philosophy where wiki defines it as “conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any.  In this context absurd does not mean “logically impossible”, but rather “humanly impossible”.

nathan for you myth of sisyphus

I’m past looking at absurdity from Camus’ dreary suicide or revolt existential pov (too emo for me).  Looking at a more modern philosopher, Thomas Nagel in his essay, The Absurd, describes such situations

”In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality: someone gives a complicated speech in support of a motion that has already been passed; a notorious criminal is made president of a major philanthropic foundation; you declare your love over the telephone to a recorded announcement; as you are being knighted, your pants fall down….”

Or how about creating and selling a poo flavored yogurt “treat”, attempting to make money selling hamburgers with a guarantee that if it’s not the best burger you’ve tasted you will receive $100, creating a workout program comprised of moving furniture and using the participants as free labor for a moving company?

Now there is a seed of validity and logic to some of these ideas that Nathan uses to push it across:


Yes, from our point of view it’s obviously ridiculous but the seriousness in which Nathan delivers his idea coupled with the idea that as Nagel points out:

“We take ourselves seriously whether we lead serious lives or not and whether we are concerned primarily with fame, pleasure, virtue, luxury, triumph, beauty, justice, knowledge, salvation, or mere survival. If we take other people seriously and devote ourselves to them, that only multiplies the problem”

There is also the aspect of complicity and approval from Nathan and taking the lead of a so-called expert.  This ensnares them in this absurd situation.  For Nathan, success!

Often Nathan then takes the client on an elaborate path like with the electronics store owner.  Where the goal is to help Alan compete against the local Best Buy, Nathan devises a plan to use Best Buy’s price match policy against them.  Have Alan use a promotion of $1 TVs to get Best Buy to match the price, then buy a bunch of TVs at the $1 price from Best Buy and resell them at his store for a profit.

Through an intricate series of obstacles created to prevent buyers from actually buying them at Alan’s store like creating a wall with a small door and placing an alligator to guard the TVs, Nathan not only prevents any of the $1 TVs from being sold but also keeps Alan occupied with tasks at hand.  This I believe (along with his politeness) prevents him from looking at the larger picture, which is the ridiculousness of it all.

In The Absurd, the question of whether life is absurd is a precursor to the ultimate question of the meaning of life:

“Another inadequate argument is that because we are going to die, all chains of justification must leave off in mid-air: one studies and works to earn money to pay for clothing, housing, entertainment, food, to sustain oneself from year to year, perhaps to support a family and pursue a career-but to what final end? All of it is an elaborate journey leading nowhere. (One will also have some effect on other people’s lives, but that simply reproduces the problem, for they will die too.) There are several replies to this argument. First, life does not consist of a sequence of activities each of which has as its purpose some later member of the sequence. Chains of justification come repeatedly to an end within life, and whether the process as a whole can be justified has no bearing on the finality of these end-points. No further justification is needed to make it reasonable to take aspirin for a headache, attend an exhibit of the work of a painter one admires, or stop a child from putting his hand on a hot stove. No larger context or further purpose is needed to prevent these acts from being pointless”

It’s often said to accomplish something, break it up into smaller manageable tasks.  I sometimes tend to think procrastination is kind of a symptom of worrying about the larger picture and being overwhelmed.  I also believe, if someone is motivated with tasks before them their idle minds will never get a chance to question their being.

Nagel ends his essay with

“If a sense of the absurd is a way of perceiving our true situation (even though the situation is not absurd until the perception arises), then what reason can we have to resent or escape it? Like the capacity for epistemological skepticism, it results from the ability to understand our human limitations. It need not be a matter for agony unless we make it so. Nor need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate that allows us to feel brave or proud. Such dramatics, even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”

I tend to think that maybe Nathan For You works because life itself is a comedy and it just let’s us confront that.

If you remember another comedy, Monty Python’s meaning of life they addressed the question in the end:

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations”

In the end really Nathan For You makes me laugh, in fact it makes me laugh ridiculously hard.  Yes maybe life is absurd but by exaggerating the absurdity I come to the realization that it is funny.  Comedy’s greatest use is to break the questioning and enjoy life, absurdity and all.