“The Rehearsal” blurs comedy and reality together

Written By Jake Dabkowski, Editor-in-Chief

5/5 Globes

In the past twenty years, a new style of comedy has arisen. These movies and shows present real people’s reactions to various situations, often scripted or improvised by a host or actor playing a character. The first mainstream, notable example of this style is 2004’s “Borat.” In “Borat,” Sacha Baron Cohen portrays the titular “Borat,” a fictitious journalist from Khazikstan who travels across America and interviews various people. A majority of the people that he interacts with in the movie are real people, and their reactions to his antics are genuine.

While the character of Borat appeared in Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show,” but it wasn’t until “Borat” that he became a cultural phenomenon. In the years since this film, numerous other programs and movies have taken similar approaches. 

Some, like “Billy on the Street” are incredibly straightforward, hosted by comedian Billy Eichner, follows Eichner as he interviews people on the streets of New York City. The show is presented as a comedic game show, with Eichner asking people to answer comedic trivia questions in exchange for loose dollar bills. To an extent, Eichner is playing a fictional version of himself, or at the very least playing his personality quirks up for laughs, but the show is presented as being real, and very much is.

Comedian Eric Andre incorporates similar “man on the street” segments in “The Eric Andre Show.” The difference, however, is that in these segments he is undoubtedly playing various characters. While these situations are often over the top and undoubtedly staged (one segment follows Andre pretending to be a stockbroker walking around Wall Street, yelling ridiculous things into a phone. Sure, Andre is fictitious, but the reactions from people on the street are genuine.

Programs like this have raised a big question in the audience’s minds: “what’s real?” If the show is a comedy program, can it accurately reflect the people that it is depicting?

Nathan Fielder’s first mainstream comedy success was his Comedy Central show, “Nathan For You.” In the show Fielder, portraying a fictionalized, socially awkward version of himself, attempted to help struggling, small businesses by giving them outlandish ideas. The businesses would almost always go along with his suggestions, even when they were clearly terrible ideas.

Fielder has spoken about this on a few occasions. He believes that the reason most of them went along with him is because they had no interest in actually improving their businesses, but rather relished in the idea of being on television.

In HBO’s “The Rehearsal,” Fielder returns to the fictionalized, awkward version of himself for the first time in almost five years. In the show, Fielder and his crew give real people the opportunity to rehearse difficult things that they have coming up. For example, one episode follows a man who’s brother is withholding his share of his grandfather’s inheritance and is planning to confront him about it. Using HBO’s resources, Fielder builds an exact replica set of the Raising Cane’s that the man intends to confront his brother in, and then hires actors to portray not only his brother, but the entire staff and patrons. 

From this simulation, the audience ends up learning a lot about the man. For example, he is incredibly anti-semitic, and utilizes multiple stereotypes. Fielder, who is Jewish, confronts the man on this, but ultimately digresses, and tells him to talk to his “brother” the way that he would talk to his brother. In the span of an episode “The Rehearsal” gives us an intimate character study of a problematic man fighting for his inheritance.

The crux of the show, however, is a main rehearsal following a woman, named Angela, as she attempts a simulation of motherhood. The show utilizes child actors to portray her “son,” “Adam,” around the clock. Throughout the show “Adam” grows from a baby to an 18-year-old, but the real focus is on Angela, and her various co-parents. One such co-parent, Robbin, is undoubtedly the highlight of the show. 

Appearing in just one episode, Robbin shares many interesting things about himself, both directly and indirectly. 

During one of the most notable moments of the show, Fielder accompanies Robbin back to his apartment to pack an overnight bag to stay at Angela’s rented rehearsal home. At his apartment Robbin smokes marijuana, which is notably legal. Then, Robbin then goes to drive his car, which is notably illegal. Nathan stops him, and then points out that his car does not have a license plate on it, which is notably extremely illegal. 

Through all of this chaos, we, the audience, get an intimate view at who Robbin is. We see his apartment, how he acts and reacts to various situations, and his personal relationship with his roommates, who he gets into an altercation with.

Robbin has vocally criticized Fielder since the show’s release. It’s worth noting, however, that most of the things that Robbin did that make him look bad were done completely unprovoked by Fielder. Fielder never told him to rip a bong on national television and then admit to driving under the influence on a regular basis. Fielder did not remove his license plate, a license plate that he seemingly never had. Fielder did not start the fight between him and his roommate.

“The Rehearsal” is not as funny as Nathan For You. It isn’t supposed to be. Rather than presenting each situation for laughs, the show takes a thorough examination as to why the real people within the show behave the way that they are. Another episode follows many of the actors used within the various rehearsal as they prepare for the show. Many of them show signs of discomfort when being asked to research the real life people that they are portraying, but ultimately all digress. 

Fielder then enters the episode “rehearsing” as one of the actors, in an attempt to get into their headspace and improve the process, but what actually follow is Fielder utilizing his position as “actor” to skewer the process by which reality television is made. Fielder points out that all of the actors within the program are struggling, and with HBO cameras on them their desire for fame overtakes their rationality. Fielder also goes over the process of getting people who appear on camera to sign release forms, pointing out that many people signing them don’t actually know what they are signing.

He takes this a step further with the child actors featured in the show. There is a deliberate point made by the show to feature as many parents of child actors as possible, and it’s obvious why. These parents are very clearly forcing their children to act in “The Rehearsal” so that they can get a fifteen minute window of fame.

Ultimately, that is what “The Rehearsal” is about: the unnecessary desire for fame. “The Rehearsal” itself is inherently manipulative, and Fielder and the crew realize this. But rather than use manipulation for cheap laughs, Fielder utilizes it to make insightful commentary on the state of reality television, as well as providing an intimate look at the universal human experience.

Within the comedy world in recent years, the phrase “boundary pushing” has been thrown around a lot. Typically that phrase is used to describe edgy comedians telling transphobic and racist jokes, and are actually “boundary squeezing” as opposes to pushing. “The Rehearsal,” on the other hand, pushes the very boundaries of the artistic medium of television, presenting a show that is unlike anything ever made before.