The Weirdo Show That First Brought Us Nathan Fielder
Nathan Fielder’s latest project, an HBO docu-comedy series titled The Rehearsal, just aired the sixth and final episode of its first season this past Friday. In the wake of this bizarre social experiment that somehow had a budget comparable to a small island country’s GDP, we’re left to ruminate on the question that has plagued us for almost a decade – “Is Nathan Fielder a genius, a monster, or both?”
But before Nathan Fielder built meticulously detailed facsimiles of Brooklyn bars and then moved them across the country to a soundstage in Oregon, and after he graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades, Nathan was the boom operator on a fake news team in a short-lived show called Jon Benjamin Has a Van. The one-season wonder ran on Comedy Central for ten episodes in 2011 before vanishing into the annals of comedy history, but as we start a new drought of Nathan Fielder projects, Jon Benjamin Has a Van warrants a revisit as it marked his first major role in American television.
Created by comedy writer Leo Allen and the prolific comedian and voice actor for whom the show is named, Jon Benjamin Has a Van was a fake news show that portrayed itself as an investigative reporting program in the same vein as Dateline NBC, but if Dateline NBC only did stories about guys who build breath-operated machine gun wheelchairs. H. Jon Benjamin played the grumpy, selfish, and immature face of the journalism team as he pursued both the wildest and most mundane mini-stories in their eccentric reality.
The series was initially conceived by H. Jon Benjamin as a small-scale fake news comedy in the style of shows like CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt and a specific regional program called Chronicle in Benjamin’s native Massachussettes. Said Jon about Chronicle, “It always told a story of, you know, ‘There was a guy who lived in a shack and painted dolls’—big half-hour stories. Or a guy who makes lures, or something like that. So we decided, ‘Yeah, let’s potentially bore people.’”
Jon initially pitched the program with a number of “man on the street” interviews and impromptu segments such as “Do You Have A Minute?” Where Jon would approach unprepared real-life New Yorkers, ask them the question in the title, start a one minute timer, then stare into the camera in complete silence. Comedy Central was enticed by such segments, and they ordered a ten episode season of the show.
The scope of Jon Benjamin Has a Van widened once it was picked up by Comedy Central, and more thematic narrative elements started to worm their way into Benjamin and Allen’s writing process to the point where there was a full-on “show within a show” in which the members of the news team were fully involved in the stories they were supposed to be investigating.
By the time Jon and Leo had completed the first episode, the inaugural installment of Jon Benjamin Has a Van included a plotline about Jon pushing his producer, played by Matt Walsh, across the US-Mexico border without his passport, then returning a year later to see what his former boss’ life was like in his new country. Walsh donned a since-frowned-upon fake Mexican accent and claimed to have been fully acclimated, then Jon tricked him a second time and sent him into Guatemala, where Walsh became a notorious drug lord.
Every one of Jon Benjamin Has a Van’s ten episodes includes some narrative element where Jon and his crew become involved in the story. The show that ended up being made was drastically different from the one that Jon and Leo pitched to the network, with Jon admitting as much, saying, “We never really discussed whether this would be a good series or not, or how it would go over the course of each episode, or if there would be an arc or anything. There wasn’t much discussed, so the first real discussion was when we completely changed the nature of the show—then (Comedy Central) was upset. But they quickly got over it. They weren’t—I wouldn’t say upset, but more, ‘Why would you do that?’”
Despite the haphazard and not-studio-sanctioned conception of the show’s hidden narrative, those plot elements ended up being some of the strongest parts of the show. In the fourth episode, which happened to be the installment that most heavily featured the “Wizard of Loneliness” himself, the crew investigated a so-called “Poor Farm” in the middle of the desert where billionaires would go to pretend to be the down-on-their-luck, working-class-to-homeless denizens of the “poorest place in America.”
After filming the segment, the crew loaded up the famous Van just to find that it wouldn’t start, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere. Realizing that none of the crew had brought cell-phones, Jon accepts the vaguely ominous offer of a passing truck driver to give one of them a ride to a payphone ten miles away. Jon volunteers Nathan, and the sound guy rides off in the truck, leaving the rest of the crew to perform the next four minutes in complete silence.
The truck driver takes Nathan hostage and demands that Jon give him ten thousand dollars as ransom in one hour, a deadline that Jon narrowly beats. After Jon buys Nathan’s freedom, the truck driver sets fire to the money and reveals himself to be a billionaire real-estate developer, with the entire hostage situation being another “Poor Farm” ruse.
Jon Benjamin Has a Van didn’t make much of a splash when it hit the airwaves in 2011, and Comedy Central elected not to renew the show for a second season. After lukewarm reviews and nearly non-existent ratings, the show faded into obscurity, only to be remembered as a footnote on the resumes of its illustrious cast.
Still, Jon Benjamin Has a Van marked an important milestone in Nathan Fielder’s relationship with Comedy Central, a partnership that would eventually blossom into Nathan For You, which in turn paved the way for HBO's The Rehearsal. Therefore, without Jon Benjamin Has a Van, we would never see the full extremes of what the medium of television is capable of when you give a socially awkward Charles Manson-level manipulator an unlimited budget and an army of actors trained in the “Fielder Method." So for that, we celebrate Jon Benjamin Has a Van in all its messy glory.
Top Image: Abso Lutely Productions
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