Comedy Central’s “Nathan For You”: Kafka for Late Capitalism

Manuscript of The Trial, Kafka’s Museum, Prague (Photo by Flickr user Pablo Sanchez)

Daniel Anderson

Nathan For You has recently concluded its fourth season on Comedy Central, still mired in the network’s 10pm time slot on Thursdays. Nathan Fielder’s brilliant satire of American consumerism has been enthusiastically received by critics, and comedians and other celebrities have publicly endorsed his innovative brand of comedy as well, both through public statements and donning his “Summit Ice” brand of clothing, an extension of one of the show’s gimmicks into the real world.

Despite the respect the show has earned from industry professionals however, it remains at the margins of the American television landscape. Perhaps this is exactly why it still works.

The margins of our culture, after all, provide the best perspective from which to observe the world in all its madness. For a satirist, this distance is essential. Franz Kafka, the German-speaking Jew thrust into a Czech nationalist culture, used his multi-layered marginality to great satiric effect. And where Kafka was the great comedian of early Modernism, Fielder is proving himself to be his heir in our current, Late Capitalist era. The economies of our age not only organize our material relations, they also inspire profound spiritual dilemmas that often contort our desires into the shape of the products we buy and sell. At stake in this environment is nothing less than our ability to imagine ourselves. No current television program can match Nathan For You for insight into the way that desire and ambition warp our human identity. 

For the uninitiated, the show follows the format of the “industry pro helps small business succeed” reality show. Something along the lines of Kitchen Nightmares. In this case, Nathan brings his “really good grades” as a business major from a Canadian university to the rescue of American small business owners who patiently allow him to implement bizarre ideas for their enterprise. The series introduces us to a wide array of entrepreneurs – real estate agents, auto mechanics, moving companies, coffee shop owners – all who listen to Nathan’s elaborate plans for their businesses and, ignoring their befuddlement, willingly go along for the surreal ride. The story of the L.A. real estate agent who allows herself to be rebranded as “The Ghost Realtor,” specializing in arranging exorcisms to ensure the houses she sells are not haunted, is a high point for the show and a good example of the absurd lengths Nathan’s business owners are willing to go for success in a brand-driven economy that trades in identity itself.

Fielder’s gags, driven to their absurd extremes by perhaps the greatest deadpan since Buster Keaton, achieve genius in their ability to transcend the object of their parody (any given entrepreneur) and implicate every person, place, and institution in the ridiculousness of the cultural and economic systems that organize our lived experience. No one is immune: the entrepreneur, the customer, the desperate side-characters that answer Nathan’s Craigslist ads, the news media who cover his antics, the very medium of reality television that he mimics and, by extension, us, the hungry viewers for such entertainment.

The true subject of Fielder’s satire is the desire-shaping, all-consuming system of acquisition and attainment in which we all live and help perpetuate. This is a capitalism gone mad, called Late Capitalism by Frederic Jameson and other critics. The term describes an economic system that parodies itself, contorts the logic of human existence, and, according to Jameson, creates the conditions from which Postmodernism arises. Everyone is both victim and perpetrator in such a system, and Nathan For You painfully, hilariously mocks us for it. This is the program’s spiritual work.

Fielder’s all-encompassing satire is Kafkian in scope. A reader of The Trial, for instance, will recognize a similarly totalizing system of mockery in Josef K.’s tragi-comedic misadventures through a dystopian criminal justice system. Each individual actor in Kafka’s great novel is a haughty fool with blind devotion to the system that dehumanizes them with their full permission. From the arresting agents to the Flogger who punishes them for doing their job. From the anonymous judges who commission fantastical portraits of themselves to Josef himself, no one escapes Kafka’s critique of the economic and social machinations of early twentieth-century modernity.

Fielder takes up this tradition in Late Capitalism. His show recognizes the depths of our economic system’s reach into our lives. Its influence stretches through our purchases and employment opportunities and into the very desires that determine how we can even imagine ourselves. It contorts us into the shape of whatever is being sold.

And this is where the comedy begins.

A season 3 episode called “The Movement” provides a good template for understanding how Nathan For You skewers our omnipresent economic system. The episode begins with Nathan offering to help a moving company control its labor costs. Nathan suggests that, since moving boxes and furniture around is good exercise, a fitness craze based on the activity might compel customers to pay for the privilege of doing the company’s manual labor. In short, with the right marketing, the moving company might transform labor costs into another income stream.

Step one of the plan is to invent a fitness craze based on the concept, and so Nathan embarks on his journey down a Kafkian labyrinth. First, Fielder recruits a bodybuilder at a local fitness show, informs him of the plan to create a fake fitness craze, and convinces him to perform the role of guru. Next he hires a ghostwriter (through a Craigslist ad) to invent a biography for the guru character (which ultimately includes a childhood friendship with Steve Jobs and his work with “jungle children”), later packaged into a fitness book called “The Movement,” which details the history and philosophy of this wholly fabricated workout program. Finally, the team sends copies of the book to local news outlets, which excitedly invite the guru for in-studio appearances to plug his exciting new workout program. The episode culminates with Fiedler recruiting some interested viewers into trying the program out for themselves.

The digressive, even circuitous nature of the scheme is one formal parallel between Nathan For You and Kafka. The labyrinthine plot that Fielder constructs recalls the puzzle of perpetual motion that K. encounters in The Castle. In seeking admittance to the Castle, K.’s pathway changes with every decision he makes, making entrance ultimately impossible. Likewise, as in “The Movement” episode, Fielder’s plots take such elaborate digressions in pursuing their original goal that the story is less about the goal than the bizarre tactics. For both Kafka and Fielder, the digressive plots serve to exaggerate and parody the institutional and bureaucratic structures that contort our human lives.

Yet there is a deeper connection between Kafka and Nathan For You. It lies in their insight into the utter control their worlds’ institutions wield over people. Kafka imagined a special kind of spiritual work literature, to “be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” In other words, art’s role is to shake us so that we notice the ways the world dehumanizes us. In Kafka’s literary imagination, everyone is reduced to the social role they play in modernity’s economic machine. The private is consumed by the public. This is also true of Nathan For You, but there is a key distinction: Kafka’s characters are usually absorbed into the system through forcible coercion, as seen in the torturous death-machine of “In the Penal Colony.” Conversely, Fielder’s characters willingly submit to the death-machinery of late capital. This kind of grateful submission is a highlight of this season’s premiere, which features a man who agrees to legally change his name to “Michael Richards” (yes, the Seinfeld star) for $1001 in service of one of Fielder’s byzantine stunts.

That small-but-important difference between Kafka and Fielder is largely located in the state of economic development of their eras. Kafka wrote during an early period of industrial capitalism, whereas Fielder’s playground is dominated by Late Capitalism, which extends the reach of the economic system into the individual’s conception of self.

A summary of “The Movement” episode demonstrates the near-total control consumer capitalism has over its subjects’ identities.

First, from the perspective of the moving company, the humans who labor for it are reduced solely to inefficient machinery. That attitude is a feature of most critiques of capitalism through the ages. In Late Capitalism however, the dehumanization extends beyond the control that wage labor wields and into our human identities themselves, which conform to the patterns of social and economic ambition. Conformity to the identities created by business passes from worker through consumer. Ultimately, not only are the company’s workers simple machines, its customers will happily agree to be so themselves.

The middle-aged bodybuilder Nathan recruits has, up to this point in his life, wholly devoted himself to fitness and exercise and constructed his identity around that discipline. But when offered the chance to be a celebrity in the postmodern economic machine, he is more than willing to say that he’d never been to gym in his life. In fact, he’s suddenly willing (and masterfully able) to adopt an entirely fabricated biography for himself in pursuit of an ideal invented by the fitness industry. His accounts of working with the mythical “jungle children” are totally compelling to the news media he speaks to. 

Likewise, the young writer who answers Fielder’s Craigslist ad clearly has imagined himself as an artist. His “try-out” consists of composing a sentence for Nathan in his office. What he delivers is rather astonishing. Ambitious, poetic, even strange, his art clearly does not conform to the genre Fielder is parodying. Yet even he discards that idiosyncratic artistic identity for the chance at entering the machinery of the culture industry; this is his chance to be a published author.

The pranks that Fielder designs for Nathan For You are meant to break the proverbial “fourth wall,” and the news media’s uncritical coverage of “The Movement” hilariously obliges. The convergence of entertainment and news into a single, indistinguishable cultural product is a symptom of Late Capitalism. Fielder understands this and instinctively brings news outlets into his parody-world. In their eagerness for “content” to sell, news stations compromise even the most basic standards of journalism and accept the glossy surface of “The Movement,” running it through their newstainment, morning show mill. Everyone, in the end, happily buys and sells the lies of this economic scheme that captures the truth of our real economic relations.

The television media’s mindlessness is subsequently passed onto its viewers who, inspired by Nathan For You’s collection of superficial signs, show up to do the one thing the moving company owner thought no one would ever do: pay to do manual labor, fully incorporating themselves into the madness of our postmodern economy.

Nathan Fielder’s skill as a comedian makes his ridiculous plans work. His ability to maintain his famous deadpan delivery while orchestrating his circus makes for painfully awkward, yet hilarious, moments. In addition, they have the effect of coaxing people into ignoring their trepidations about the obviously insane nature of his schemes. The awkward silences that follow his deadpan reactions to his subjects’ doubts are somehow unbearable for them. Out of an eerie, respectful deference to their television-figure host, his characters invariably follow his suggestions. His status as “expert/star” is all the authority he needs in the ambitious eyes of his cast. He need only stare at them to win acquiescence.

Furthermore, Fielder’s deadpan makes us suffer while we laugh. In this way, his cultivation of awkwardness is the axe that breaks up the frozen seas inside his viewers. Many of the shows best moments are excruciating even as they are hilarious. Our empathy builds as we are forced to feel the socially awkward pain Nathan’s targets must be experiencing. We are not afforded the luxury of guilt-free entertainment. This too is trait that Nathan For You shares with Kafka. The comedy comes with a healthy dose of introspective self-loathing, and this is the moral work that the show, and Kafka, accomplishes.

Everyone involved in Nathan For You’s plots is a willing cog in an inescapable machine of identity and commerce. But what about those of us who gleefully watch the satire from our living rooms? Are we not just as susceptible to the image? Even those of us who appreciate the show are not immune from the consumerist machine we collectively lampoon in our viewing. Though we laugh at the machine from some distance, it is still a distance provided by the machine; we are paying Comedy Central’s bills, after all. Therefore, our laughter provides no escape, only a jostling for distinction within our panoptic consumerism-god.

This is the final note of comic sadness in Nathan For You. We, the loyal viewers of the show, become its characters. And as we laugh at it, we really laugh at ourselves.

Daniel Anderson is Assistant Professor of English/Fine Arts Department at Mount Aloysius College where he teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, culture, politics, and religion.