The creator and star of the namesake Nathan For You has found a format that works in spite of the challenges it may bring: take real people and put them into an unreal situation with the aim of improving their business. It may sound simple, but in a comedic “anything can happen” turn of events, the end result relies heavily on being open to possibilities and ready to change outcomes if the story dictates.
I spoke to Nathan yesterday about preparing for season 3, the people of reality television, and if media coverage affects the outcome of the show.
How did you approach Season 3?
I tried to have a good time, tried to make a good show, trying not to repeat ourselves. Actually, I didn’t try that hard to have a good time. The challenge with the show is its format. A lot is based on going into a business with an idea – it’s hard to come up with ways to keep it fresh and unexpected for the audience. I think this season we do a good job of taking stories places where people don’t see it going, whether that’s based on situations or what the people involved do. Half the episodes have one full story per episode – last year we did two and this year we do four. Those are my favorite.
How much of the final product comes from pre-emptive writing?
Everything is really case by case. To me it feels like the show is almost written three times. You come up with an idea beforehand and have discussions about how a person might respond. Based on what happens when we actually shoot it, we rewrite around that and think of new angles and ways to go. In the edit almost all of that is thrown out and we start again based on actual footage and write the voiceover to narrate the story. Some episodes we can kind of guess how people will respond, but a lot ends up in a whole different area. My favorite parts of the show are the situations where even I wouldn’t know how to handle it, in the hopes it leads to something fresh and honest. I feel like audiences can really feel when something is inauthentic. You can plan but if it doesn’t feel organic it won’t be interesting or funny.
You can’t force a storyline.
Yeah, you have ideas of steps in the process but we try to be really open on set. If someone says something or something happens, it’s usually way more interesting than what we would have planned.
It seems similar to the way reality television is made – coming up with an initial premise, letting the situation happen and then editing the final storyline.
Although I think a lot of reality television is, “Oh you’re sitting here and going to have a conversation.” When I watch I try to think of or guess how they produce it, from what I have gleaned it seems to be telling everyone what the show’s about. We don’t try that cause we usually don’t even know. Most reality shows have inauthentic people and with ours we have this artifice of cameras and people around so it has the idea of a reality show, and people will try to act like what they think a reality show should be. We take that as our starting point and then undercut that to get authentic moments within the conflict.
How important is the casting process? Do you go out and find the businesses or do they respond to your offer of help?
Again, it’s very case by case. We often figure it out around an idea but we usually try to find people who aren’t eager to be famous or something, which you get a lot of in LA. It’s less interesting when you get people like that because they’re the ones on every reality show. I like people who have some desire to be on television because it’s so ubiquitous but they don’t really wanna be famous; they want to promote their business. They’re in the middle so you get an interesting push and pull where they want the promotion or something out of the experience, but they still have hesitations. Sometimes we’ll have an idea that we need a store and we’ll go out and find a place with a good personality to work with.
It’s pretty refreshing to see people in awe that there’s a crew and camera pointing at them. They’re in the middle of this unbelievable situation where they don’t really think of being anyone except themselves. I’m thinking most notably of the electronics store owner in the season premiere episode.
Yeah and that’s what is cool – he was really into the business idea and genuinely thought it was clever. If you put yourself into the mindset of someone who runs a small business, a lot of days, and years even, are routine. All of a sudden this TV show and crew comes in and makes you the star even if you’re uncomfortable or unsure of what’s going on. When it’s all said and done it’s probably one of the most interesting experiences that happened that year or maybe in your life. It’s very novel, but the hope is that even though the situations are uncomfortable, at the end of the day I like when people feel like it’s cool to be a part of. It’s charming for me to watch real people on a show who are sweet and nice and seem kinda normal versus the crazy, egotistical people you see on reality shows.
Kind of the way The Office was shot. Even though they’re all actors, some people grew egos and some were far more reserved.
And no matter how hard you try to avoid an asshole, they’ll still seep into the mix. No one’s personality is exactly the same, so you’re seeing people handle situations that may be similar but are resulting in different ways. It reveals different parts of who they are and that’s endlessly enjoyable for me.
How do you think the media affects the outcome of the show? Some situations are picked up and made into news stories and obviously affect the way people react and the end result. Do you think the attention is positive or does it make your job harder?
When the media picks up on stuff the irony is although we’re most famous for them, I don’t think they’re necessarily the core of the show or what we do best. We try not to repeat concepts, so with poo yogurt the idea was to do something controversial. We haven’t done anything since then that’s aim is to get publicity through controversy. With the animal rescue, the plan was to create a viral video to bring attention to the petting zoo. After that we didn’t want to do anything that’s aim was to go viral. Even with Dumb Starbucks the plan wasn’t fame – it was to open a coffee shop. At the end of the day, I just want the episodes to be good and interesting. It’s only good if someone picks up on something if it’s organic to the story; I have no desire to get coverage for the sake of it. Being a show about marketing, there’s some ways the media’s gonna get involved as long as that doesn’t become the main premise of the show.
Season 3 of Nathan for You premiers tonight on Comedy Central at 10:00pm.