On HBO, Jewish Comedian Nathan Fielder Goes Where No Man Has Gone Before
Jewish comedian Nathan Fielder is an enigma.
That’s partly because nobody knows if his shows are scripted or real, or if the people on them are actors or average people speaking their truth. The Canadian made a name for himself with the hilarious Comedy Central show “Nathan For You.” Supposedly real, he would come up with insane ideas or requests for businesses owners or patrons to try out.
In one episode, he asked a woman who ran a cleaning service if he could have a bus of 40 maids clean a house in only six minutes. They pretty much did it. In a very controversial episode, he had a scheme for a haunted house where a customer believed she had contracted an infectious auto-immune disorder called Klein’s Disease, and was taken in an ambulance to a hospital, only to then learn that it was part of the haunted house and she actually had not gotten any disease.
I met Fielder when he did a stand-up show in New York some years ago, and he was very funny and riffed on three people from the crowd. I wondered what his next chapter of entertainment would be.
His new show — “The Rehearsal” on HBO Max — demonstrates a level of genius that few have reached, but the show is not without some flaws.
The idea is to rehearse tough situations with actors before having conflicts with real people. The first episode is extremely poignant, as a man is terrified to tell a friend that he lied about having a master’s degree. Why should this be a big deal? Who knows? Fielder has a replica of the New York bar constructed where the man will meet his friend, and explain that he in fact does not have a master’s degree. After the man rehearses it with an actress over and over, Fielder makes a flow chart of different possibilities. It’s very meta. And it’s very funny, though if true, there is an element of sadness involved.
But things get a bit more serious when Fielder decides that he will co-parent a child with a woman named Angela. The plan is to have no romance. Angela, who is Christian, says she would like the boy to be raised in her religion. Fielder doesn’t raise any objections to this plan. Is Angela an actress or a real person? We don’t know. In one episode, when Fielder is helping a man prepare to tell his brother to give their father’s inheritance to him because his girlfriend is not a gold-digger, he says she isn’t like a Jew. This is upsetting to watch.
But it’s the fifth episode that is a doozie.
Titled “Apocalypto” — after Mel Gibson’s bloody movie, which is Angela’s favorite — we can sense there will be more conflict in this episode than any other. Fielder decides that he wants their “son” to be introduced to Judaism. His parents visit the house he has rented in Oregon (I assume they are his real parents), and his mother urges him to stand up for himself more. He hires a Jewish tutor named Miriam, and the son has lessons with her, without telling Angela, under the ruse that it’s a swimming lesson, so he makes sure the boy’s hair is wet and tells him to lie and say he had a swimming lesson.
He takes the boy to a synagogue, and Fielder narrates that he hadn’t been to a synagogue in a while because it is boring. He can’t answer his “son’s” questions of why women are not wearing yarmulkes or what the prayers mean.
The problem arises when Miriam meets Angela and calls her antisemitic. Angela simply wants to raise her child Christian, as was discussed. In real life, interfaith couples grapple with the complexities of raising children with one or both religions. There’s nothing wrong with the choices they make. But there is something wrong with the Jewish tutor calling the woman antisemitic; there are unfortunately many real antisemites, and we don’t want a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” situation. It’s bad enough that the world seems to barely care when Jews are beaten up in the street for simply being Jewish.
There’s also a scene where Fielder throws out a Christmas tree violently, and puts up a Jewish star sticker in the home. It’s not funny and not necessary.
Fielder has invented something nobody has asked for. It’s a very impressive show, but his use of Judaism is sometimes upsetting.
At the end of the episode, Miriam asks Fielder what he thinks about Israel, and says he should use his platform to be pro-Israel. Fielder is unable to articulate any opinion worth a dime.
Is Fielder mocking other Jewish celebrities who offer no public opinion on Israel for fear that it could hurt their career? Or is he not saying anything out of fear his opinions could hurt his own? Or is Fielder uneducated on the topic? We don’t know the answer.
In the same episode, Fielder mentions that Mel Gibson has said bad things about Jews, but Angela doesn’t respond. That makes me think it may be scripted, but again, there is no way to know.
Scripted or real — or something in between — there are a number of great moments on the show that strike emotional chords. Most touching is that Fielder, I would surmise, wishes he did have certain connections that he does not have — and to a great extent, all of us can relate to that.
Fielder uses a psychological scalpel, and the operation is mostly healing but partly wounding. Who doesn’t wish they could do something over again and have another “take”?
The show is a huge success — but it also requires some thinking and introspection, which some critics are too lazy to do. But you’ll be glad you watched.
The author is a writer based in New York.