Still from Nathan Fielder's 'The Rehearsal'
Still from Nathan Fielder's comedy show

How best to explain The Rehearsal? Comedian Nathan Fielder’s new HBO show doesn’t lend itself to easy summary. The show begins with a simple conceit: Fielder helps everyday people prepare for big personal challenges by meticulously rehearsing them. But, when the situations become ever more complicated and the elaborate rehearsals spiral out of control, the show blurs the line between performance and reality. In one heartbreaking instance, a young child actor involved in a parenting “rehearsal” seems unable to recognise that Fielder isn’t his real father.

The Rehearsal is emblematic of a perceptible change in modern comedy. We are increasingly fascinated with the comedy of real life; authentic portrayals of the messy business of being alive.

Fielder is a Canadian comedian with an exaggeratedly awkward, monotonous delivery, whose reputation before The Rehearsal was founded on the four seasons of his superlative Comedy Central show Nathan For You, in which he “helps” American business owners. His solutions begin with a certain twisted logic but descend by the end into a circus of the absurd.

In one of my favourite set-ups, he attempts to help the owner of a small electronics store. His advice is to use the retail giant Best Buy’s price-match policy against them, pricing all the televisions at $1 so that Best Buy have to do the same. The plan is to purchase all the bargains from Best Buy, and then mark them up. But, once the small store slashes their prices to $1, Fielder has to prevent customers immediately buying the televisions, so he sets up an obstacle course that includes a tiny door and a live alligator.

Fielder also executive-produced How To with John Wilson, a comedy documentary series now on BBC iPlayer. Always behind the camera, Wilson chronicles life in New York, using his footage to tell a themed story in each episode. Other than Wilson’s narration (more intentionally awkward and unpolished than Fielder’s), there is no acting on display: what we see for the most part is real New Yorkers going about their day, made to look absurd through Wilson’s lens. A woman carrying a pillow down the street. A man who has tied a clear bag of bread around a handrail on the subway. It’s all funny because it’s all true.

Slices of believable life

What makes The Rehearsal and Fielder’s other work so effective is that we are watching real people through the prism of an unusual mind. Neither Wilson nor Fielder are purveyors of the comedy of cringe, as perfected by Ricky Gervais in The Office. Something different is going on here.

It’s a fascinating time for comedy, a genre that depends to a large extent on subverting expectations. The contemporary decline in studio sitcoms like Fawlty Towers and Only Fools and Horses has been well documented, with the popularity of dark, character-driven comedies like Fleabag both explaining and capitalising on this shift. For a while, it seems, audiences have been less and less keen on being reminded of a show’s inherent artifice. Thirty years ago, if you launched a sitcom, you’d have a studio audience. In 2022, thanks to shows like The Royle Family, The Office and The Thick of It, the aim is the exact opposite: construct a world that makes the audience feel as though they are a fly on the wall. There are exceptions – Mrs Brown’s Boys is hugely popular – but the contemporary drift towards single-camera naturalism is unmistakable.

Equally difficult to ignore is the preponderance of the panel show, a low-stakes way of making audiences laugh. One of the biggest comedy phenomena in recent years is Channel 4’s Taskmaster, in which five celebrities – mostly comedians – complete a series of bizarre challenges. Not a show that naturally invites comparisons to Fielder’s work, it is nonetheless joyful because we see comedians dropping the mask and responding to insane challenges as themselves. For similar reasons, the BBC1 panel show Would I Lie to You? is unendingly popular: audiences like pondering what’s true and what’s not, again watching comedians play heightened versions of themselves.

The common denominator here is authenticity: panel shows thrive on their relatability; single-camera sitcoms are appealling for their ability to depict slices of believable life. What falls between the two stools is the theatricality of the studio sitcom.

This balance between the real and the artificial occurs in every medium. In the world of fine art, expressionism was in part a reaction against naturalism. Are Fielder, Wilson et al the expressionists or the naturalists here? An argument could be mounted for both.

Studio sitcoms are never fully able to escape their artifice, but there are interesting examples that push at the limits of the form, such as the recent comedy drama Kevin Can F**k Himself, divided between a fake studio set and the grimmer reality on the other side of its doors. The show has been rightly praised for deconstructing the much-loved family sitcom, in order to give us access to the inner world of the genre’s traditional supporting character: the patient, put-upon wife. The show plays with our understanding of reality, much like a mockumentary, but is still firmly wedded to the studio space.

Real and on camera?

Outside of the confines of a television studio, there is arguably more freedom to make riskier choices. Both The Rehearsal and How To with John Wilson inspire fascinating questions about audiences and observation. Are their creators attempting to construct something that is as real as possible, or are they making the point that it can never truly be “real”, so long as there are cameras around?

Because they do away with a studio audience and the rhythms to which the format adheres, shows like The Rehearsal and How To with John Wilson can be more audacious in how they swerve between comedy and drama – or even a kind of tragedy. Travelling around alone, Wilson’s voiceover reflections on how to find meaning in life are often sweet and melancholic. In The Rehearsal, Fielder can flip from making a joke about oranges being Satanic, to wondering aloud about the nature of the self: “I was starting to lose track of which version of myself I was supposed to be in these rehearsals.”

As The Rehearsal gets into its stride, it starts to ask more nuanced questions about reality. Take the elaborate parenting “rehearsal” Fielder runs for a woman about to be a mother. In order to simulate the experience through time, he uses actors of various ages, who are swapped in and out as the child “grows”. Fielder, meanwhile, plays the father. One child actor, too young to understand the conceit, can’t stop calling him “Daddy” off camera, sending the programme into difficult waters.

Fielder has been criticised for the ethics of his work, but The Rehearsal is notable for attempting to deal with this within the show. “Do you want to feel something? Do you want to feel something real?” one female actor asks Fielder as he begins to lose his grip on his increasingly complex experiment. This actor has been employed to rehearse the interactions Fielder is going to have with another woman playing the mother in the parenting simulation: rehearsals within rehearsals, for an authentic social interaction that may never arrive. In the inevitably feverish analysis, fans are asking if the “real” people in the show (such as the prospective mother) are in fact also performers.

Both The Rehearsal and How To with John Wilson acknowledge that, in a world where we are bombarded with more content than ever, it is a challenge to distinguish between the real and the contrived. “Unfortunately, most of what we take for spontaneity usually just turns out to be part of a meticulous plan,” says Wilson in one of his episodes. It’s a nod to an uncomfortable truth: we may never really know.

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2022 edition. Subscribe here.