Good Kaufman, Bad Kaufman: Comedy Central’s The Ben Show and Nathan For You

The legacy of Andy Kaufman lives on in more ways than one, as Comedy Central’s Thursday-night pairing of  The Ben Show and Nathan For You has proven over the past eight weeks.

Kaufman’s comedy as performance art elevated the art form while also subverting the audience’s notions of reality. Ben Hoffman and Nathan Fielder — both marking their first-season finales tonight as series stars — have taken the Kaufman formula and run with it in different directions. Just read the official descriptions of tonight’s finales from Comedy Central. For  The Ben Show with Ben Hoffman, “we watch “The Ben Show Blooper Reel” and “Freak Animals,” and Norm Macdonald makes an even more pointless appearance.” That’s followed by the season finale of Nathan For You, in which “Nathan puts a private investigator to the test by allowing himself to be spied on for a day, a taxi company is brought a solution for shy customers, and Nathan demonstrates how to fire someone.”

Both men place themselves in awkwardly staged situations with people who may or may not be actors themselves and play the awkwardness for laughs. You can call it cringe humor. You can call it docu-reality. Both are just as paradoxical conceptually as they are when executed on film. Laughing from cringing? Isn’t a documentary supposed to be reality already?

The way they thrust themselves into other people’s lives — Hoffman interviews people only to achieve that episode’s own self-seeking motives, then concludes by handing them a sheet of paper to see if they’ll read just about anything aloud to promote Hoffman; Fielder, meanwhile, seeks out businesses with the intent of helping them succeed, even if the advice he offers and puts into motion fall so far outside of the box of better business practices that to call them misguided belies his own earnestness. Fielder really makes them and us believe that he believes his ideas have value. Hoffman doesn’t seem to care.

Watching them back to back on TV then makes for a compelling hour of Bad Kaufman/Good Kaufman.

Trying to make sense of this is a fool’s errand. Alas, this fool shall fulfill the errand for you.

The Ben Show with Ben Hoffman

Who is Ben Hoffman? From what we see of Hoffman onscreen, he’s a selfish prick who’s almost always wearing the same blank black ballcap.

That’s not helpful information on the surface, though, to explain why we’re seeing him starring in his own TV series. His regular Skype sessions with his father back in Kentucky unfortunately don’t do much to clear that up for us. Perhaps these facts will: Hoffman worked as a writer and correspondent for Sports Show with Norm Macdonald on Comedy Central, which gets him in the door with the network. Last year, Hoffman pulled off a prank on Twitter by pretending to live-Tweet a private Hollywood fund-raising dinner for President Barack Obama’s re-election.

If the mainstream media will fall for that, who knows what unsuspecting pedestrians on the sidewalk or viewers at home will believe when Hoffman is giving free rein?

Each week’s episode has a running narrative theme. “Ben Goes Home.” “Ben Takes Ambien.” “Ben Has A Blind Date.” Last week found Ben trying to chill the f— out. We typically open with Ben Hoffman on the sidewalk, looking for someone to read a sheet of paper to introduce the first sketch. Will that someone notice any insults or embarrassing copy directed back at themselves as he/she reads them, and if so, comment upon them? It’s all part of the game.

In our most recent case, this found him back with his therapist, who clearly waives any actual pretense of patient-client confidentiality as well as good advice by counseling Hoffman on camera. How can Hoffman chill? He asks a sex coach, a Jimmy Buffett “Parrot Head,” a travel agent and a Christian life coach for guidance.

In between, the show vacillates among ideas that don’t necessarily tie or even attempt to tie each episode’s theme together.

For every bit that appears to comment on how our self-seeking ambitions for fame as well as our apathy toward it can be mined for mockery — roll this song written about pedestrians who walk past a commonplace filming notice sign in Hollywood…

…there’s toilet humor. In each of the past two weeks, cameras followed Hoffman or a co-worker into a stall as he de-pantsed to sit down on the toilet. Sometimes they really are just talking, or singing about, crap.

While Hoffman makes the Christian life coach, we see a board behind our host with several episodes planned out via color-coded index cards. To the side, yellow is marked for sketches; purple, music; blue, real; green, animated; white, Norm (Macdonald). So how much of The Ben Show is real? Not much blue on that board, but plenty of pink. Pink cards signify sketches in which Hoffman Skypes with his father and interacts with strangers.

Ben does cede center stage for two celebrities, with varying success.

Todd Bridges tells several stories from his younger days smoking crack, which then are animated. Any comparisons to Charlie Murphy’s stories in Chappelle’s Show should be discouraged, since these animated crack tales lack any A-list talent or LOL-quality laughs. Not even a quick cut to Gary Coleman asking, “Whatchu talkin’ about, Willis” could make this segment compelling, and Gary Coleman isn’t walking through that door.

Multiple bits with Hoffman’s former boss, Norm Macdonald, do hold our attention, carried more by Macdonald’s charm than by the punny premises (Pair O’ Norm-al Activia; Trans-Normers) that find him posing for CGI trickery.

Want to see Hoffman doff his cap? He does, but to play a sleazy Spelling Bee judge who gives the kids sexual or profanity-laced definitions, he puts on a wig instead.

When Hoffman is following the episode’s plotline, he’s more often than not finding out what strangers (or sometimes old acquaintances) are willing to put up with to be on TV with him. Before meeting his blind date, he visits an anal bleaching salon, claiming proudly that his date will likely go that far. He also goes drinking with an ex, and with several beer bottles on their table, she jokingly suggests he get his date drunk: “It’s not rape if she’s drunk.” This taped before the Steubenville rape trial in Ohio but aired just afterward. Topical!

This is more like the Andy Kaufman who’d bore you for his amusement by reading “The Great Gatsby.” Thrilling.

Of course, when Hoffman meets the Playboy Playmate he’s dating, she reveals she already has a boyfriend and a casting agent had sent her to Hoffman. Likewise, in an earlier episode taking Hoffman back to Lexington, he’s willing to pull back the curtain on how a local TV news station covered his film shoot — followed by a post-interview interview with the TV reporter.

It’s not Kaufmanesque or even Sacha Baron Cohen territory, however, when we see him in a mustache and cowboy hat singing about “eating pussy and kicking ass” to an elderly audience. There’s no mystery or misdirection. It’s all staged shock value, which lacks the value of anything shocking.

Among the myriad shows within The Ben Show is another recurring segment in which Hoffman pretends to be a director on a casting call. Aspiring actors and actresses come in to read for his projects to see how far or how low their aspirations will take them. Yes, men would play themselves in a dual role as identical twins who fall in love and have sex with each other. Yes, they’d also go quadriplegic and pretend to speak via computer. Yes, there are elderly women who want in show-business badly enough to be “Gangsta Grannies.”

This, as with most of his other interactions with strangers, is all legit. As Hoffman told Vulture:  “I can’t piss these people off or be too rude or they won’t sign the thing and it’s a wasted shot.”

The casting call sessions might not remind you of anything Kaufman would do, but rather, something straight out of Tim & Eric. They’re not behind The Ben Show. No, that’s Mike Gibbons and the folks at Levity Productions. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are, however, backing the success of Nathan For You with their Abso Lutley Productions shingle.

Nathan For You

If Ben Hoffman exhibits the late Andy Kaufman’s more off-putting characteristics, then Nathan Fielder is the kinder kid-like Kaufman, the kind as in Fielder is clearly Canadian way. Fielder told Rolling Stone: “I don’t like getting people upset, so that’s not my goal. But I like putting people in situations where how they respond says a lot about them.”

A typical episode of Nathan For You starts with a profile of the business that’s reminiscent of the older version of The Daily Show — with Nathan as the correspondent interviewing the business owner — but then adds an advocacy component, as Nathan attempts to help that business prosper. And Fielder had prior experience in this sort of role in Canada on that nation’s TV series, This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Between then and now, Fielder worked behind the scenes for Demetri Martin’s sketch series on Comedy Central, then on camera as a cast member for Jon Benjamin’s show, as Benajamin’s fictional show-within-the-show sound guy.

The layering on Nathan For You, however, is so subtle that you’re not even supposed to notice it. When it’s working — and it’s often so sincerely gut-busting funny that you cannot believe that what you’re seeing is real — it doesn’t matter if it’s all real or not.

Docu-reality. That’s the term Comedy Central uses for Nathan For You, putting it the same genre as any Bravo/MTV/VH1 primetime soap, even if Fielder’s series rises so far above that other dreck that I feel I’ve misled you by even cooperating in that comparison. It is good, though, to remember the dirty secret of today’s “reality” TV series is that most of those conversations are staged and sometimes re-staged to get the angles, the lighting or even the dialogue just right. And in Fielder’s case, he had to stay in character even if everyone else wasn’t. Fielder told Vulture: “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.”

Yet Fielder had a hit even before Nathan For You premiered this winter, thanks to his “viral video” idea for an animal petting zoo, titled “Pig rescues baby goat.” More than 7.7 million views since Sept. 19, 2012.

Fielder’s first pure triumphs (poo-free pure!) came in episode three, in which he convinces an independent gas station owner to sell his gas for $1.75/gallon with a catch seemingly too imposing to cash in on, and in which he has a caricature artist insult his customers. For the gas-station rebate, Fielder is taken aback when he finds several takers for a long drive leading to a 90-minute hike up a mountain, riddle-solving, and an overnight camping expedition, just to save anywhere from $16-$27 from their tank of gas.

And that’s topped off with this humdinger of a postscript!

For artist Greg Dohlen, Fielder says caricatures are “insult comedy” and so “the meaner you are, the better.” As “The King of Sting,” Dohlen is an unexpected hit on the Santa Monica Pier insulting his customers by focusing on their flaws and stereotypes.

Fielder upped the ante when he consulted with a haunted house, Reign of Terror, by trying to make the house so scary that its customers would sue — thereby ensuring great publicity, if not also hefty legal bills.

As fun as it is watching Fielder actively try to convince people to sue him, it’s even more fun when the business owner comes to the most realistic conclusion. “I think it’s completely impractical for a haunted house,” the owner tells Fielder. “You took a good haunted house, and made it not any better.”

He had more success making himself feel better about his luck with the ladies, overcoming that alleged fear by dating 10 women at once and constructing his own fake TV dating show, “The Hunk.” “Maybe women would date me just for the chance to be on television,” Fielder deadpans in a statement that couldn’t be more on the nose if it wasn’t already breathing out both nostrils at you. But just in case you don’t pick up on it then, you’ll hear minutes later: “This was cool, because it was also like The Bachelor…The only thing I had to do to attract them was to create a fake show.” The editing on Fielder’s version, or lack of jump cuts that allow the uncomfortable moments to breathe as deeply as the comfy ones, makes this special.

The host and women on “The Hunk” didn’t know that their dating show was more fake than the others.

The people who lined up to taste L.A. Burger’s “Best Burger in L.A.” with the promise of a $100 guarantee? They definitely knew how to game the system. Which provided Fielder with a different challenge when he offered it alongside the burger joint’s owner on morning radio. “I just couldn’t tell who was lying,” Fielder said. “The only way to calm the mob was to pay them.”

Last week’s penultimate episode saw Fielder go through with his most audacious stunt, “Claw of Shame,” a magic trick challenging him to free himself from handcuffs in 90 seconds before a robotic arm pulled down his pants and underwear in front of an audience of children, with a police officer and a judge also standing by as witnesses. If he failed, Fielder told us repeatedly, he’d be branded a sex offender for life. Fielder actually practiced magic as a teen-ager and shows us that footage first, but since he doesn’t know how to pick handcuffs, he hilariously tries to get another magician to teach him and be on the hook for it as a credited consultant.

For dramatic effect, we also learn that Fielder has failed before. Some of those ideas included a different way to tell children about dead pets, a street magic act that secretly tests bar patrons for their blood-alcohol levels, and a germ-free hot dog stand.

That last idea actually is supposed to air in full tonight in the season finale.

But what about the “Claw of Shame”? Did it claim Fielder, and the children, as victims?

The kids end up laughing at Fielder, but perhaps not for the reason you’re thinking. What’s real, and what’s fiction, when the whole process of a TV show is staged in one form or another anyhow, may prove unimportant when it comes to Nathan For You. The real magic is following Fielder wherever his harebrained schemes want to take us and enjoying the ride, illusion or not.

Just like Andy Kaufman would have liked.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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2 thoughts on “Good Kaufman, Bad Kaufman: Comedy Central’s The Ben Show and Nathan For You

  1. I’m really enjoying these shows. It’s better The Comic’s Comic deconstructs them, even if you think it’s a fool’s errand. I think you found a great way to explain the humor pretty simply with the Kaufman correlation. I couldn’t think of a good way to really explain the shows to people.

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