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Ben Hoffman and Nathan Fielder on How to Do Cringe TV Without Getting Punched

It’s a damn near-miracle that Ben Hoffman and Nathan Fielder, hosts of the back-to-back Comedy Central shows The Ben Show and Nathan for You (which air Thursday nights starting at 10 p.m.), have never been punched in the face. Though their concepts are different — The Ben Show is a mix of sketches, interviews, and Skypes with Ben’s dad around a different theme, while Nathan for You is a mock business makeover show — both rely on disorienting and straight-faced on-camera interactions with real people that veer to the outrageous, scatalogical, and politically incorrect. They are like more deadpan Tom Greens, and that can make for hilariously cringe-y experiences as you wonder why their subjects never once ripped their mikes off and fled from the cameras.

Both share the Daily Show approach of asking absurd questions in a traditional man-on-the-street or sit-down-interview format, and seeing how people’s desire to look good or be polite on television makes them play along with the most ridiculous requests or questions. A staple of The Ben Show has the neurotic Hoffman handing interview subjects (which include his own shrink) and random people on the street a piece of paper and asking them, “Can you read this to the camera?” Startled, the people obediently do so without reading the text carefully, and end up soberly reciting such sketch introductions as “You guys want tickets to the gun show? Then make sure Ben doesn’t take his shirt off because that’s called the flappy Jew show.” He also sits down with experts to ask for their advice on various subjects, like when he wondered if a doctor would recommend that Hoffman enlarge his penis so that it can reach his own mouth. Meanwhile, Nathan for You spoofs makeover programs hosted by Gordon Ramsay types, but for a wide range of small businesses. Fielder (who wrote for Jon Benjamin Has a Van and Important Things with Demetri Martin) proposes and implements patently preposterous ideas to store-owners, which they regretfully go along with, i.e. selling poo-flavored yogurt at a struggling frozen-yogurt shop to generate publicity or convincing a caricature artist to focus on horribly offensive portraits because celebrity roasts are hot. Vulture got a hold of both comedians to ask about their rules for provoking people in the name of comedy without getting killed (or dying of shame).

It’s better to be the butt of the joke.
For a segment on The Ben Show, Hoffman met with a Christian life coach to figure out a way to relieve his anxiety. But he went in determined not to get into an argument about religion. “Nothing against Bill Maher, who I like, but people like him would probably go after a Christian life coach and be condescending, like, ‘What’s your stance on gay marriage?’ and rip into their religion," Hoffman said. “But we kind of became pals. He was this older African-American gentleman and he was trying to get me to cut masturbation out of my life, and I told him it was going to be impossible. Instead of ‘You’re a sinner,’ he was laughing and going, ‘You can do it, Ben!’” And most of the time when Hoffman asks a stranger to read lines on the fly, they’re at his own expense, not the reader’s. (His high-school French teacher reads: “I told Ben in high school that he would never make it. Here we are, twenty years later, and boy was I wrong. Not.”) “Why would I trick someone into insulting me? It doesn't even make sense, but for some reason it makes me laugh a whole lot,” he said.

Also, they can’t use any footage without having the person on-camera sign a release form, so it is self-defeating to humiliate them. “I can’t piss these people off or be too rude or they won’t sign the thing and it’s a wasted shot.” But he’s not pretending that nobody walks away looking silly: One recurring segment has him holding auditions for fake movies with ludicrous dialgoue (like Gangsta Granny) and showcasing the tryouts of the terrible hopefuls. “I mean, some people are just dumb and they don’t understand that they just acted like an idiot on TV,” he said. Still, he usually asks for releases to be signed after filming is finished. “I want them to have the option of saying ‘no.’” 

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
“A lot of the time, people think I’m really dumb or really uncomfortable talking to them, which is kind of a real thing,” said Fielder, who exaggerates his deadpan, nervous persona for the show, and rides out awkward silences with conviction. And a segment that lasts a few minutes on air can take days to film, requiring him to stay in character for long periods of time. “It’s a lot harder than doing a show with actors. You have to keep that uncomfortable tone even when the cameras aren’t rolling.” Also, if you appear overly confident, you risk coming off as a giant douchebag. Said Hoffman: “The way Nathan does it makes the show fun. I wouldn’t want to see a guy totally cool doing that. Then it’s some badass business guy on MSNBC or something.”

Great moments come from sticking it out ...
One Nathan for You segment had him at a gas station, advertising incredibly cheap gas … after a rebate. But claiming the rebate entailed passing an impossible endurance test involving hiking to the top of a mountain, answering riddles, and camping overnight.  At the end of all of that, Fielder was filming a wrap-up interview with the owner of the gas station, who randomly started talking about the homeopathic benefits of drinking pee and offered Fielder the urine of his nephew as a gesture of goodwill. It’s the kind of surprise Fielder lives for. “We got into a five-minute conversation, and he was adamant that drinking the pee of a child under the age of 5 is very beneficial if you’re scared. He said it would help you not be scared,” Fielder said. “It’s just one of those moments that’s so rare that I feel like when things like that happen it makes all the stuff really hit harder. It’s what shows like mine or Ben’s can do that others can’t.” 

... but you never know it will be a day of clunkers.
There’s a lot you can’t control when you’re depending on strangers. “It’s weird to shoot a comedy show and wake up every day thinking, Is today’s show going to be funny? It could be the funniest thing ever made, or it could be the worst,” Hoffman said. “You just have no idea until the day is over.”

Know when to back off.
In one episode, Fielder proposed that a restaurant boost its business by opening up its bathroom to noncustomers, and the stalls were outfitted with monitors running advertisements for the restaurant’s new policy: “Come for the bathroom, stay for the food.” The toilets were outfitted with cameras so the show could monitor their reactions, and Ben stood outside the restroom to reveal the cameras and ask for a release; one customer became violently angry at this revelation (he appeared, but with his face blurred out), and Fielder kept his cool.

"Sometimes I’ll misread a person, and I’ll say something that triggers them in a way I didn’t want to. But I’ve gotten very good at reeling it back and making the person comfortable again, because on my show we’re not trying to make anyone upset. The goal is mainly to put people in situations that they probably haven’t been in before in the hopes that a more genuine part of their personality will come out and you get to know them in an enduring way. It’s funny when people show a side of themselves that they normally are not prepared to show.” 

Fear of failure is a great motivator.
Fielder started out as a correspondent on the Daily Show–esque Canadian series This Hour Has 22 Minutes, during which he had three minutes per episode to create painfully awkward situations with real people. (In one of his popular pieces, he asked a workplace ethics coach to talk about appropriate workplace jokes and then had her overexplain a knock-knock joke in a way that took up most of the segment.) “The first few times I did it, it was very embarrassing and I sucked at it. I’d be in a room with a real person and I’d realize, ‘Oh, if I actually do this, they’re going to kick me out,’” Fielder said. The pressure of having to regularly deliver something out of nothing forced him to better anticipate the reactions to his setups. Hoffman had a similar experience writing for InfoMania, a series that ran on Current TV (“a network no one watched for good reason”). “They’d send me to these conventions for reality TV or tech and they’d say, ‘Go and bring us back three minutes of comedy. No script or anything,'” Hoffman said. “To me, it was great training because there was nothing really funny about it, there were just people you could talk to.” 

Photo: null/Comendy Central