• P.J. Fahrenkrug

Real Comedy: The Uncomfortable Humor of Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal”


Nathan Fielder in “The Rehearsal” - HBO

“Is Nathan Fielder… real?” This seems to be the million dollar question emerging from the buzz about HBO’s new, hilarious, and unpredictable docu-reality series, “The Rehearsal,” starring comedian Nathan Fielder. Fielder’s previous work includes the popular parody business improvement reality show “Nathan For You,” where he tries to improve businesses by offering outlandish or silly proposals such as renaming a coffee shop to “Dumb Starbucks” or selling more chili by sneaking into a hockey game and selling it out of a chili-filled suit. “The Rehearsal,” is a similar project that focuses on improvement, but this time, it’s more personal. Fielder prepares his various subjects for real-life confrontations and life events with the use of extensive rehearsals, elaborate sets, and hired actors to play key characters in the subject’s life.

The comedy of the series stems from the character of Fielder himself. His awkward, anxious demeanor and tendency to take these rehearsals a bit too seriously and a bit too far makes the show like one big car crash that viewers can’t look away from. In the first episode of the series, “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” Fielder helps a trivia-loving teacher named Kor Skeete confess to a friend that he’s been lying about having a Master’s degree, when he really only has a Bachelor’s. To demonstrate the effectiveness of his rehearsals, Fielder creates an entire replica of Skeete’s home and hires an actor to play him in order to rehearse his own interaction with Skeete, stating “This conversation’s going pretty well, right? …that’s no accident.” It’s this exaggeration and “taking things too far” that is at the heart of the show’s humorous moments.

In the third episode, “Gold Digger,” Fielder prepares Patrick to confront his brother, who is refusing to give Patrick his grandfather’s inheritance. Fielder develops a convoluted scheme to trick Patrick into an argument with the actor playing his brother, simulating the emotions Patrick may feel during the actual confrontation. The scheme involves an hours-long excursion with the fake grandfather of Patrick’s fake brother. The entire situation seems so silly and outrageous, we can’t help but laugh. The fake grandfather even at one point asks Patrick to help him wipe after going to the bathroom, something Patrick did with his real-life grandfather. We laugh at these dramatic over-exaggerations of life’s seemingly trivial moments, but often don’t take the time to reflect on how our own insecurities and problems in life often feel much bigger than they really may be.

This is demonstrated in the ending of “Orange Juice, No Pulp.” Earlier in the episode, Fielder sneakily feeds Skeete the answers to the trivia questions on the night of his confession so he won’t be distracted by the game. Fielder decides he wants to come clean about this to Skeete, in the same way Skeete wanted to admit to lying about his educational status. However, it’s revealed Fielder never went through with his confession, and it was only in his rehearsal with Skeete’s actor that he confessed. His fear of the worst case scenario, while unlikely, kept him from actually going through with the confession. It would be easy to watch this show and laugh at its subjects, thinking “I would never act like that,” but the character of Nathan Fielder reminds us that we all have those uncomfortable social interactions we wish had gone better, or we wish we had planned better. Do his subjects really need hours of rehearsal to prepare for one conversation? Probably not, but I’m sure it felt that way. Situations that seem laughable to one person may be the scariest thing in the world for another. In this way, Fielder expertly walks the line between comedic and tragic by exaggerating personal issues into situations that match the intensity of the emotions they create.

Nathan Fielder and Kor Skeete in “The Rehearsal” - HBO

Some wonder if the show has any reality to it at all, or if the finale will reveal that Fielder was pranking us, the viewers, the entire time. The real genius of Nathan Fielder is his ability to blur this line. Parts of him are outrageous; he creates extremely detailed flow charts to track every possible outcome during his rehearsals and coordinates elaborate simulations without his subject’s knowledge. Other parts of him are painfully relatable; cracking jokes to fill awkward silences and struggling to connect with others. At the time of writing this article, there are three episodes available to watch through HBO Max, but as the series progresses, we are seeing more and more of Fielder’s insecurities. Cracks are beginning to form in his outrageous ventures that allow viewers to see through his facade, bit by bit. Whether these cracks are real or fabricated for the show, Fielder exaggerates what is authentic and human to show viewers that no matter how much we prepare, life is always going to find ways to surprise us.

“The Rehearsal” - HBO