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Television

Nathan Fielder finds the laughs by tapping his most awkward, clueless self

Comedian Nathan Fielder )
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Nathan Fielder has been wedged at the top of a Griffith Park playground slide for more than 10 minutes.

His discomfort is all over his face, but he gamely attempts to find a workable position for the photographer while also answering questions from a reporter. Finally, he gives up with a sheepish apology: “I can’t stay up.”

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Just before admitting defeat with the pose, the star of “Nathan for You,” which returns for its third season on Comedy Central on Thursday, had been talking about politeness and the social construct.

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“People don’t want to rock the boat,” said the 32-year-old Vancouver native. “You don’t want to say anything and you can justify it to yourself by saying, ‘Oh, it’s nothing that big.’ But the longer you don’t say anything, the deeper you get.”

His docu-reality comedy series that features Fielder as a version of himself who helps real-life small-business owners improve their fortunes is starting to rock TV’s boat. It’s a new and different kind of comedy that is picking up notice in an overcrowded marketplace and plays like a mash-up of “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes” and “The Office.”

The show is driven by Fielder and his outlandish schemes to boost business. Schemes like filming a fake movie to sell souvenirs. Or having a car mechanic submit to a lie detector test. Or telling children they’re a “baby” if they don’t have a certain toy.

“I was really obsessed when the mortgage crisis happened and how it came down to these personal moments between people where someone senses something’s wrong, but they don’t want to speak up,” said Fielder.

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His character on the show focuses more on the specious legality of some business dealings, which Fielder describes as, “For Nathan on the show, ethics are not on my radar as much. Risk and effort don’t seem to register and it’s inspired by that modern Wall Street mindset of finding loopholes.”

At its heart, the show strikes a curious balance between the personality quirks of its creator and those of its guests. In order to ensure that the joke is always on him and never on the general public, Fielder taps into his childhood insecurities, channeling his most awkward, clueless self.

“It’s always been more difficult for me to socially connect with people than the average person,” said Fielder, who has an undergraduate degree in business. “I went through a phase in my late teens where I started asking people what their first impression of me was and all the fake ways I was trying to come across as more confident; no one was buying it.”

Fielder feels as though his willingness to be vulnerable is key to the success of the show, both emotionally and comedically.

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“I don’t want this to feel like a comedy character,” he said. “Audiences are very good at sensing inauthentic moments, and I like putting myself in situations that throw me off, because that leads to the most authentic moments from myself.”

Fielder interrupts himself to apologize several times, concerned that his answers aren’t clear enough. He then tries to clarify his concerns.

“When I was a kid, I had a tutor who said, ‘I don’t think you know more than 500 words total,’ so I started listing words and I wouldn’t stop,” he recalled. “A, the, it, or, them, who…"

His brow furrows before continuing, “Maybe I don’t know a lot of words. Sometimes I can’t articulate things as well as some people.”

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In the show’s second season, it made international headlines for creating “Dumb Starbucks,” a stab at helping a local coffee shop compete with bigger coffee chains. Because Fielder didn’t announce he was behind the unusual marketing campaign, the event became cloaked in mystery and stirred up a media storm.

“We thought ‘Dumb Starbucks’ was a great idea when we came up with it. We just thought it would be a local L.A. food story,” he said. “But the thing about our show is that we’re dealing with reality. If I open a business on the show, I have to open it in the real world, otherwise we’re just doing a sketch.”

The sudden exposure prompted Comedy Central to ask for more than eight episodes this season, but Fielder didn’t want to shoot that many.

“Some episodes this year took 12 days over the course of six months to shoot,” he explained. “You go somewhere, you have something made, you leave, you come back. It’s a very inefficient way of making TV.”

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He’s quick to point out that Comedy Central has been very supportive of the show, allowing him to do it on his time frame and by his standards. He blames his exacting tastes for the extra time needed to shoot the show.

“It’s chasing this elusive thing. It’s like watching a good documentary,” he said. “There are moments so human and weird that they make you laugh, even though it’s not a joke. Those are the moments I’m always hoping to find.”

Follow me on Twitter @midwestspitfire

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‘Nathan for You’

Where: Comedy Central

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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