In the opening moments of the first episode of the HBO docu-comedy The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder lays down the philosophical premise of the show. As Fielder is meeting trivia buff Kor—a middle-aged man—for the first time, his directorial voice-over informs us: “I am not good at meeting people for the first time. I have been told my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that. Humour is my go-to instinct, but every joke is a gamble.”
The ‘every joke is a gamble’ bit is key because, in essence, The Rehearsal seeks to eliminate the emotional risks of human engagement. Using actors, elaborate sets and flowchart software to map the potential trajectories a situation can take, Fielder helps people ‘rehearse’ difficult conversations or make life-altering decisions. In Kor’s case, this involves admitting to a trivia teammate that he lied about having a master’s degree all these years. For a devoutly Christian Etsy vendor named Angela, this means a months-long simulation of parenting, as she and Nathan (platonically) co-parent ‘Adam’, played by a series of actors rapidly increasing in age from 1-13.
The degree of simulation keeps increasing through these six episodes (ranging from 27-44 minutes), as though Fielder has to ‘level up’ in a video game about meta-fiction. At one point, Fielder embeds himself into the life of a young man named Thomas, who has joined Fielder’s acting class. The syllabus involves observing people closely in order to imitate them, helpfully dubbed ‘The Fielder Method’, also the name of the episode.
As you might have surmised already, this is not a brand of comedy that’s going to work for everybody, or even work consistently on the same audience across a period of time. The Rehearsal, and indeed Fielder’s body of work in general, is the comedy of discomfiture, the poetry of the cringe-impulse. Fielder begins jokes at the point where most comedians end them, but that’s just a part of his deadpan appeal. The reason he has become such a phenomenon in recent years is that underneath all the layers of postmodern artifice, his surrealism has a core of unmistakable tenderness about it. And tenderness, as Fielder knows quite well, is impossible to depict sans irony in a culture saturated with nudge-wink art, in an industry where focus groups and online polls have yanked the artist’s hand away from the wheel.
The Rehearsal, and indeed Fielder’s body of work in general, is the comedy of discomfiture, the poetry of the cringe-impulse.
To that end, some of my favourite moments in The Rehearsal’s inaugural season involved the convergence of these twin qualities—discomfiture and tenderness. People (both the real-life subjects and their actor counterparts) have second thoughts about the whole show, they raise practical or even ethical concerns and the resulting back-and-forth elevates proceedings without warning. This is by no means easy viewing, but a deeply rewarding experience once you accept the escalate-at-all-costs technique Fielder employs throughout.
The Rehearsal is clearly rooted in the comedian’s own previous work, especially the show Nathan For You, where Fielder would use his business degree and his blank-slate screen persona to pitch outlandish promotional ideas and/or stunts to small businesses. The riches served up by that show included a real-life ‘Dumb Starbucks’ coffee shop, a petting zoo with a faux-heroic pig and ‘The Movement’, a fitness movement that began with emphasising exercise through lifting household items, and moved on to duping people into working for a moving company, believing that they were merely exercising.
In some ways, The Rehearsal is a response to some of the criticism Fielder (or his comedic forebears like Tim & Eric) has received in the past for Nathan For You—the people featured in his gags did not know the nature of the whole enterprise, after all. In this show, therefore, Fielder coaxes comedy out of people who are fully aware of the endeavour’s meta-implications.
If we’re being perfectly honest, though, the work of art that The Rehearsal most closely resembles was something entirely scripted, albeit thematically resonant; the Philip Seymour Hoffmann movie Synecdoche, New York (2008), written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, Hollywood’s poet laureate of identity crises (Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). Hoffmann plays Caden Cotard, an ageing, fading playwright who receives a MacArthur grant in the twilight of his career. He then hires a sprawling cast of actors and an abandoned warehouse in Manhattan’s Theatre District to build an elaborate reconstruction of the city outside and all its inhabitants, including and especially Cotard himself. As the years pass by, Cotard gets increasingly enmeshed in the actors’ personal lives and vice-versa, until it’s difficult to separate artifice from reality.
I don’t know if Kaufman is familiar with Fielder or The Rehearsal, but I have a feeling he’d enjoy it, as will audiences who relish the challenge and the narrative-roulette of the avant-garde.