From the twisted mind of Nathan Fielder, the creator of the hit comedy Nathan For You, comes The Rehearsal – a show that’s been compared to The Truman Show, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Synecdoche, New York. The show is a bizarre amalgam of candid-camera comedy, post-modern commentary, and jaw-droppingly original premise-building (for lack of a better term).
Some of these qualities were already on display in Nathan For You. Granted, most of those pranks were more puzzling than anything, but occasionally they crossed the line into being uncomfortable. But it was the sort of uncomfortable you’d expect with a candid-camera show (i.e. Borat or Bad Trip). And true to the format, Fielder was often able to diffuse the tension whenever it crossed the line. Specifically, he was able to match the level of discomfort to the participant: the less likeable the participant was, the more incisive his comedic attacks; the more likeable the participant was, the more Fielder would be the brunt of the joke.
In short, like a good candid-camera comedy, he rarely ever hurt anybody who didn’t deserve it, while also pitching some truly outrageous concepts. And the format of the show was tailor-made for the Youtube era, with each prank lasting about 5-10 minutes, and each one standing on its own (as in, you don’t need to watch the rest of the show to appreciate it). It was a solid, entertaining, generally ‘safe’ comedy that shocked you without really provoking you.
However… The Rehearsal takes the discomfort to a level that I’ve never seen explored on this type of show. The premise is that Nathan is helping people ‘rehearse’ for situations that they’re nervous about, whether it’s having a tough conversation with a friend, or raising a child.
For instance, in the first episode, Nathan helps a man confess to a lie he’s been telling a friend for twelve years. To help ‘rehearse’, he recreates the venue where they’ll be meeting (down to the last detail); hires an actress to play the friend (by covertly recording the friend in real life, to understand her mannerisms); and then runs through dozens of versions of the confrontation. That way, once the man confesses in real life, he’ll have planned for every possible variant.
Right off the bat, I can’t overstate the audacity of this, purely from a production perspective. Each participant requires a sizable investment from the studio, even more so than in Nathan For You. For the above example, they’re paying to build a replica of a bar, hiring an actress to play the friend, hiring extras to play ‘customers’ at their ‘bar’, and spending two weeks on rehearsals.
Well, let’s say the participant decides to quit, or has a family emergency, or isn’t comfortable being recorded. Let’s say they find somebody who isn’t good on camera, or who’s lying, or who’s boring. Let’s say everything goes right in rehearsal, but the night of the actual confrontation, it goes terribly, and all the work went to waste… It’s a huge gamble, more than is typical for this format of a show. And there is an episode where Nathan has this happen – somebody quits abruptly, and he has to spin it. It’s not that it’s impossible to work around, but I’m still stunned by HBO’s willingness to invest in the project, given all the failure points.
Equally audacious is how existential the show is. Though in this case, it’s a nice change of pace, given that most candid-camera shows tend to be surface-level and shock-driven. Nathan still captures a fair amount of humans being shocking (whether due to arrogance, stupidity, or both). But his commentary on the modern experience, on our desire for security, our unwillingness to invest in long-term goals, our ideas of family and friendship… It’s all thought-provoking and contemplative. It’s the sort of cerebral comedy that I wish studios would produce more of, instead of pandering to a mass audience with sex, slapstick, and stereotyping.
Unfortunately, the comedy does veer into the unacceptable. Now, I’m not talking about the awkwardness of seeing a conspiracy-theorist spouting nonsense, which Nathan records multiple times. In those cases, merely letting the person dig their own grave is amusing without being uncomfortable. It’s disheartening that people like them exist, but Nathan isn’t doing anything to egg them on – they’re bringing it on themselves (again, this is a staple of the candid-camera genre).
There is a time, though, where Nathan does cross the line – specifically with his first participant, Kor Skeete, the man I described earlier who rehearses his confession to a lie he’d been telling. Unlike some of the other participants, Kor is a sincere, genuine, likeable man. But by all accounts, he does lack emotional maturity, social skills, and any sense of self-awareness. He’s the sort of person that, truth be told, would probably benefit from seeing a therapist more then BEING ON A REALITY SHOW.
Granted, I think most people on reality shows need therapy. But it’s typically easier to laugh at them because they’re vain, greedy, thirsty for attention, and overall unlikable. In Kor’s case, he’s a very simple but sincere man, and if he found out some of the tactics Nathan used to help him rehearse, it might genuinely break him. For instance, he holds trivia as sacred – which probably isn’t healthy, but that’s where he’s at, emotionally. Nathan purposely cheats at trivia to help the rehearsal. And while he’s smart enough to not tell Kor that he cheated, if and when Kor watches the episode, he’ll be devastated, possibly even traumatized.
Poking fun at clueless people can be funny if they’re toxic. And the show mines a lot of genuine laughs from some genuinely toxic participants. But violating the boundaries of a well-meaning clueless person? That’s a line I’m not comfortable crossing. That said, I admire the show’s go-for-broke willingness to break convention, and I’m looking forward to watching more – especially since Kor seems to be an isolated case so far. But I also hope it’ll stay audacious in a healthy way, and not damage well-meaning people in the process.