Nathan For You and the Line Between Tragedy and Comedy – Joe Mendenhall

Nathan For You is an American television series that at it’s surface deals with a man, Nathan Fielder, providing business advice to struggling small business’. However, the true themes of the show are Nathan’s constant battles with loneliness, his inability to romantically connect with women, and struggles with social acceptance. Thus, it is an apt example of the links between comedy and tragedy as described by Northop Frye in “The Argument of Comedy.” Frye states that comedy and tragedy are intertwined, specifically that “tragedy is really implicit or uncompleted comedy… comedy contains a potential tragedy within itself.”[1] In a tragedy, Frye states, the hero dies. However, in a comedy, the hero dies and is reborn. Nathan For You skirts the line between comedy and tragedy, because no matter how much rejection Nathan will inevitably face, he always tries again. He is struck down by those he tries to help, but, like the “God-Man” that Frye describes, he will be reborn[2].

The clip I have chosen of Nathan in a funeral home highlights the duality of tragedy and comedy. The moment that interests me in this clip is when Nathan and the funeral home director are discussing whether or not his idea will be implemented. She softly rejects him, a sort of death in itself, and then doubles down on the killing by saying she does not have a thank you gift for him. This is an intrinsically tragic moment. Nathan has been discarded. In a tragedy things would stop with the death, however since it is a comedy we need to see Nathan’s rebirth, which is achieved via his own supplying of the gift. Nathan completes the cycle, and turns a tragic moment into a comic one. Although Frye was writing about old Greek comedies, his analysis of the relationship between tragedy and comedy holds true today, even in relation to smaller scenes like the referenced Nathan For You clip.

[1] Frye, Northop. “The Argument of Comedy.” In English Institute Essays. New York, 1949. Pg. 65

[2] Frye, Northop. “The Argument of Comedy.” In English Institute Essays. New York, 1949. Pg. 65


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