Nathan Fielder, Chris Gethard, and Dr. Steve Brule: The Comedy I Gravitated to in 2021

I loved Bo Burnham’s recent Netflix special, Inside. It captured so many highs and lows of the pandemic, as well as the anxiety of it all. Bo made himself a stand-in for all of us, dealing with the panic of isolation the way many of us were: by creating. There were catchy songs that parodied Internet culture, such as “White Woman’s Instagram” and “Welcome to the Internet.” But mostly, it felt like an artist struggling with his art during an unprecedented time. I believe it will stand the test of time, and is likely emblematic of this era in comedy.

But that’s the thing: with no disrespect to Mr. Burnham, in 2021, I sought pure escapism in my comedy. And unlike most people my age, I refused to do yet another marathon of The Office. Instead, I rooted for underdogs and cheered for the awkward. In the case of one show, I felt like I was going to the coolest party in town that no one knows anything about, full of silly rapport and various pranks. All three of the shows I’ll talk about feel like they were tailor-made for younger sensibilities, with enough weirdness to blow your average Boomer’s mind and not in a good way. Two were produced by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim AKA Tim & Eric. In a world that already felt surreal and off-kilter, their comedy, which used to be somewhat alienating, can now be more easily accessed.

These three TV shows can be easily streamed on HBO Max, and brought me a lot of joy and helped take me out of my comedic comfort zone as I navigated a year in which the world began to open up again. I hope you get similar happiness from these three unique and unconventional recommendations.

Nathan for You

Admittedly, I am a latecomer to Nathan Fielder’s fantastic mockumentary series Nathan for You, which ran on Comedy Central for four seasons from 2013 to 2017. The premise is simple: Fielder is a business consultant who, as he says in the show’s intro, “graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades.” He tries to get businesses to agree to his ludicrous plans to increase their profits. Everything from a realtor who can assure her clients that her houses are “100% ghost free” to a yogurt shop that sells a poop-flavored yogurt has been covered, with Fielder’s supposed obliviousness and deadpan commitment to the gag becoming the through-line for the entire series. A particularly famous early episode involves Nathan creating the world’s first parody Starbucks, appropriately named “Dumb Starbucks.”

Over time, Nathan’s plans get even more complicated and silly: He offers a rebate on gas that has customers hiking and camping for over a day in order to try to get it. He tries to get people to move furniture for free by claiming that it’s America’s latest fitness trend. He finds a loophole in California’s law against smoking indoors by claiming a bar is actually a slice-of-life theatrical performance piece called “Smokers Allowed.” In some episodes, the entire runtime is devoted to a singular premise, such as Nathan switching lives and places with a guy named Corey in order to turn him into a national hero by making it seem like he was the one walking on a tightrope for charity when it was actually Nathan, or when he puts an incredible amount of effort into making a funny anecdote during a promotional appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! as accurate as possible.

A special highlight is the last episode, a 90-minute special called “Finding Frances,” in which the show’s long-time resident Bill Gates impersonator Bill Heath tries to reunite with a long-lost love from his youth named Frances. Nathan and Bill travel to Arkansas, hoping to find clues as to where Frances ended up and whether or not she’s still single. However, once they finally do locate her, in order to prepare to meet Frances again, Bill must roleplay what it’d be like to encounter her. This leads to Bill saying one of the funniest things ever uttered: “I am here to marry your wife!” Especially for fans of Sacha Baron Cohen’s various characters, Fielder’s mockumentary tendencies are a stroke of genius and help to turn Nathan for You into something unforgettable and one of the best comedy shows of the 21st century so far.

All episodes of Nathan for You are available to stream on HBO Max.

The Chris Gethard Show

I can’t explain The Chris Gethard Show any better than its opening theme song, performed by Gethard’s wife, musician Hallie Bulleit, and her band, The LLC.

“Coming at you live/ in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5/ And nobody knows/Yeah, nobody knows
Just what’s gonna happen/ in 4, 3, 2, 1, action/ It could explode/ Oh, it could all explode!
C’mon, let’s get it going/It’s way more fun not knowing where it could go
Who knows where we’re going? Let’s start the show!!”

Gethard, an alum of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, originally developed the show for public access TV in New York City, where it achieved a cult following. I remember friends mentioning it, recommending it, or getting into it before either Gethard or the show had even broken into the mainstream. Finally, the show was picked up by the cable channel Fusion, and later by TruTV, where it lasted two seasons and eventually completed its run.

A celebrity guest will usually join Chris for the fun, which is not structured the slightest like a typical late-night talk show. Along for the ride is sidekick Shannon O’Neil, the Andy Richter to Chris’ Conan; Bethany Hall, who serves as “Internet liaison” and will usually communicate with fans and tell Gethard what they’re saying about that night’s episode; and Murf Meyer, the show’s boisterous, bombastic announcer who begins episodes by shouting “good evening, weirdos!” My favorite person on the show might just be one known only as “The Human Fish.” Supposedly a fish-human hybrid learning about the world, Human Fish sports goggles, swim trunks, and flippers, and mostly offers questions asking which one of two options is superior. Examples include “‘I cannot tell a lie’ versus ‘I go good with fries,’” “A gateway to Hell versus a gateway to Taco Bell,” and “Never give up versus sign a pre-nup.” Chris also has a recurring nemesis named Vacation Jason, whose whole deal is that he doesn’t like Chris and loves being on vacation as he sports a Hawaiian shirt and shades.

One of the funniest episodes includes Gethard’s assistant Justin Linville being given the opportunity to deliver a 5-minute-long monologue about his years working for him, and Justin does not hold back. An excerpt: “I fear that this will change our relationship forever, and that you will punish me in small, bitter ways…I felt uncomfortable sleeping in the same bed with you in Newark, New Jersey…When I was an unpaid intern on this show, you spread a rumor that my glasses are not prescription, and that I only wore them to appear non-threatening…You made me my cry one time and you don’t know about it. I’m never going to tell you what you did, I just want you to sit in it.”

Another highlight is when Gethard is forced to be locked in a car with the infamously stinky Scandinavian food surströmming. The show also drops phone booths in cities all across America, such as Baltimore, Denver, Austin, and Gethard’s hometown of Asbury Park, NJ, where people can enter it in order to communicate with Gethard & co. in New York and be featured on the show. There’s even an episode entitled “Oops, We Gambled Away the Budget” and another one simply called “Pot Brownie Roulette.”

From that alone, you can probably tell that there is a scrappiness to The Chris Gethard Show (which Gethard himself references by speaking to the show constantly being on the verge of cancellation) that I really appreciate, as opposed to the more polished look and feel of most other late-night shows. It feels like the classic mantra of “let’s put on a show” was applied to this one hipster comedian and his menagerie of weird friends and characters. Because of that, this show certainly isn’t one to miss.

All episodes of The Chris Gethard Show that aired on TruTV are available to stream on HBO Max.

Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule

I visit my old buddy David Zavelsky a few weeks ago. In our inebriated state, we default to watching episodes of Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule. At one point, we witness Steve Brule (John C. Reilly) attempt to fill out a job application. The headhunter he’s with asks him to put his first and last name.

“My last name, like my name from before…?” Brule asks naively. “It was lil’ Stevie! Now my grownup name is Doctor Steven Brule.”

We howl at the line, and for the rest of the weekend, if we ever wanted to make the other one chuckle, all we would have to do is repeat that line. But I think it does much to sum up why the show is successful at poking fun and subverting things we take for granted about the world we interact with. It also demonstrates why, even after initially airing over a decade ago, the show might be more popular and relevant than ever before.

The show, which aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim late-night programming block from 2010 to 2016 with a singular special episode released in 2017, focuses on Reilly’s Dr. Steve Brule as he hosts a fictional cable access show. Brule attempts to learn about or explain a different topic in each episode, which is awkward at best and a descent into chaos and madness at worst. Brule will usually begin the show with a short poem or quote, and constantly mispronounces everything, especially everyone’s names.

Staples of modern life, like coin machines, become a game called “one of paper against four of coin” in Steve Brule’s demented mind. He also works alongside a variety of side-characters, like the show’s fortune teller Carol Krabit (Carol Kraft), commentator Terry Bruge-Hiplo (Robert Axelrod, best known to my generation as the voice of Lord Zedd on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers), and sports anchor Doug Prishpreed (Doug Foster), who are all very memorable for how strange and off-putting they are. There’s also Pablo Myers, the owner of the all-powerful, in-universe Myers Super Foods grocery store, played unnervingly by Pablo Pumphrey. Myers uses his time on the show either to advertise horrible dishes like “Myers Super Foods Quality Canned Horse Meat Foods” and “Toad’s New Cream Chip Beef/Corned Beef Hash Combo Can” or to promote his theory of an imminent apocalyptic event.

Steve’s mom, Doris Pringle Salahari-Brule (Nancy Munoz), is a sociopathic old lady who admits to poisoning Steve when he was young, and despite her advanced age, supposedly gets pregnant only to ultimately give “birth” to a ball of hair. Tim and Eric themselves even appear as Jan and Wayne Skylar, respectively, the married hosts of the public access channel’s “The Married News.” Steve has a major crush on Jan, which he gets the opportunity to pursue after Wayne starts to die. If the show had an antagonist, it’d probably be Scott Clam (Scott Stewart), who eventually takes over the show from Steve and keeps leaving arguably-demonic imprints whenever he does a segment on the show, be it about clams, finance, or bird-calls.

No matter the ridiculousness Steve and his friends have gotten into, most episodes end on an upbeat tune played during the closing credits very reminiscent of the music played in TV news. Reilly’s dialogue was mostly improvised, and in order to achieve the VHS-rip visual quality of the show, they would pipe the footage through a videocassette recorder and literally hit the recorder in order to simulate a jump in the vertical synchronization.

With each episode lasting around 10 minutes, and only 25 episodes total, the entire series can be binged in a little over 4 hours, which is a major appeal. And its popularity only seems to be growing as time goes on. Over at /Film, Ethan Anderton even covered why the show was a perfect quarantine binge during the height of the pandemic last year. Now is the perfect to time to catch up on this crazy weird show if you have never checked it out before.

All episodes of Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule are available to stream on HBO Max.