‘The Ben Show’ and ‘Nathan For You:’ Comedy Central’s new look Thursday

benshowBY ALEX RUSSELL

Comedy Central has never been afraid to try something new.

Every year the network adds a big handful of new programs to their heavy-hitter lineup of The Daily Show with Jon StewartThe Colbert Report, South Park, Tosh.0 and until very recently, not much else. Shows like Workaholics and Key and Peele are hitting their strides. Those six shows and a willingness to pay for Futurama, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and other can’t-miss shows bought from other networks have put them in a very safe space.

That’s the sweet spot for risk. If you’re certain that a show can fail and be replaced in prime-time by Futurama reruns, why would you be afraid to give a show to anyone? Why wouldn’t you treat the network less like a sniper rife and more like a shotgun? You just need one of the ten to hit, and then you’ve filled your Wednesday for the next three seasons. Honestly, if you’re not afraid of over saturating the audience, you don’t even need one. You can always use more Tosh, if the numbers can be believed.

Since the leading comedy channel now isn’t afraid to give shows to comedians, we’re finally in a golden age of 30-minute television. They won’t all work, but this year Amy Schumer, Anthony Jeselnik, Nick Kroll, Ben Hoffman, Nathan Fielder, and Andy Daly will all get to try to prove they have what it takes to be on the Comedy Central lineup when they’re done killing the shows that don’t work. Comedy Central’s been brutal in the past with canceling shows quickly (Sports Show with Norm Macdonald) and burying shows at midnight on Tuesday (Mash Up) but at least the four of this list of six that have already aired all have a fighting chance.

Jeselnik’s show is just starting and has some real growing pains. He’s too tonally similar to Daniel Tosh on his show (even though their comic personas on stage aren’t at all) and they have marketed his show as essentially the same show as Jeff Ross’ The Burn. Either like will beget like and people who watch any of them will watch all three, or he’ll die on the vine unexamined as someone with something new to say.

Nick Kroll’s show is more than fine. It’s already been picked up for another season and he’s found his niche with mixing character work, sketch, and stand up. It’s also got a recurring role with a now 37-year-old Andy Milonakis, so it’s definitely weird enough to deserve your eyeballs.

After dipping in with Kroll and Jeselnik and before getting to whatever Amy Schumer and Andy Daly’s shows will look like, they are now left as a network to market shows for the least known of the six by their core audience. Your average Comedy Central viewer has a strong chance to have seen The League and Eastbound and Down. They can figure out Jeselnik from the promos. Amy Schumer’s not hard to market, and her stand up is on more than the others.

But what do you do with two guys most viewers have never heard of?

The Ben Show stars Ben Hoffman, who I’ll admit even as a really obsessive comedy fan in all mediums, I didn’t really know. He apparently worked on Sports Show with Norm Macdonald, which doesn’t bode well for him with the network. The promos make him seem nondescript, like the whole point is that he’s a neutered character with absurdity following him.

After one episode, it’s already apparent that this is going to be a unique show. “Every sketch leads into the next sketch” has been done before, but The Ben Show has Ben address every new sketch’s main character as though they’d seen the previous one. They never have, of course, so it’s a continuous joke of Ben making references to jokes we get as an audience, but the cast is lost entirely. It’s muted, so it works.

This episode follows Ben wanting to buy a gun. Well, not wanting to, but his process of exploring what about him makes him think he needs a gun. There’s some dick jokes about needing one to compensate. There’s some weakness jokes about him being scared of the world. It’s a very effective way to introduce us to Ben. Ben is a simple man who has no idea what he needs, so it may as well be a gun.

The jokes are all over the place. A sketch interviewing the drummer from Guns N’ Roses turns instantly into a video about deer being places they shouldn’t with a stupidly catchy song called “Deer on the Loose.” It’s screamingly funny when it works, but then bits you can work out yourself about old people saying things that old people never say for a movie called “Gangster Granny” and an animated scene about a woman’s first use of crack cocaine are really disappointing.

The show’s tone is supposed to be very slight. Ben is a calm, slightly frightened character in every scene. He keeps the show in a cohesive narrative so it never turns into that weird YouTube-feel of some lesser sketch shows. But it’s a weird coincidence that the two best bits of the night don’t have Ben in them at all.

If you want to know what you’re working with, this is probably the best joke of the night:

The Thursday night follower Nathan For You is similarly quiet, but it’s definitely the better show. Nathan Fielder comes from his small role in Jon Benjamin Has a Van, among other things, and it really makes you wonder why Comedy Central went with two pieces of shows they seemed to hate. It’s been marketed mostly around a poop joke where Nathan “helps” a frozen yogurt place drum up controversy with a poo-flavored yogurt. It’s funny, but it sells short just how much this show has to offer.

Essentially, the Nathan character believes he’s the smartest problem solver in the world, and he wants to use his acumen to fix local businesses. It would be a funny premise if the character were either an idiot or just a failure, but it’s far funnier because he is neither. He’s competent, and it’s tough to tell if he’s supposed to believe in himself or not. Either way, it doesn’t depend on you feeling any way at all about Nathan. Every bit is dependent on the cast around him.

From a pizza place offering eight minute delivery with no intention of ever making it to the yogurt bit you can’t have missed if you’ve watched any TV aimed at people under 35 in the last month, it hits and it hits. Nothing feels extra, and the editing process alone leaves Nathan for You so clean that you can’t imagine this won’t work. One joke’s timing of a character telling Nathan “It’s not something I’d have out here for more than a day” and his response of “We settled on two and a half months to start” is timed so well it very literally could not be improved on.

There’s fewer “jokes” than a show’s first episode should have because the premise requires some set up in every scene. But once you’re in a scene you understand it completely. Nathan talks to a PR director who tells him his plans are terrible and it goes off the rails just like a very brutal, but very good, Daily Show correspondent piece. The tension drives the jokes.

Nathan’s smarmy character seems to be what Comedy Central wants to focus on now. The closing credits accompany a montage of people cursing and yelling at him, some from this week and some from weeks to come. The quietness of Nathan, though, is definitely not the direction the network seems to want to go. They want people who are big and loud, which is understandable in comedy.Nathan for You has one bit that is entirely silent. If they can stick around long enough, they might be able to make something entirely unique in the channel’s landscape.

Watch this two-minute clip of Nathan trying to land a job using an earpiece which feeds him comments that a seven-year old comes up with in a van outside. I can’t recommend this enough.

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One thought on “‘The Ben Show’ and ‘Nathan For You:’ Comedy Central’s new look Thursday

  1. Nathan Fielder is the perfect blend of awkward, oblivious, and inexplicably confident. Hilarious premise, and the first episode definitely delivered on my expectations.

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