Everyday Performance and the Willingness to Accept It

In “Technique,” Crease and Lutterbie describe a view of technique as “inseparable from human experience” (162). This understanding points to a kind of everyday performance in which we use learned techniques, often involuntarily, in our daily behaviors. Sociologist Erving Goffman writes about a similar concept, suggesting that we cement our identities and social roles by performing to others in our everyday interactions. But he suggests that, in order to give a convincing performance, we “tend to show [the audience] only the end product” with the effort that goes into performing concealed (44). I’m interested in considering how these everyday aspects of performance can be revealed, and what the implications are when they’re modified.

The Push provides one way of thinking about this: By putting its subjects in extreme scenarios, their performances were drastically modified to the point that they eventually attempted murder. But I’m interested in looking at this idea of performance in scenarios closer to daily experience, so I’m instead going to primarily focus on another example. Since watching The Push, I’ve been thinking a lot about the comedy reality show Nathan For You, which uses somewhat similar tactics of manipulation and deceit. In it, deadpan comedian Nathan Fielder goes to small businesses with elaborate stunts framed as business advice, like a rebate at a gas station that requires customers to hike up a mountain and solve a series of riddles to claim. (If you’re interested, the episodes “Smokers Allowed,” “The Hero,” and “The Anecdote” seem particularly relevant.)

In the show, Fielder performs as a deeply socially awkward version of himself. In interviews, he describes the persona as an exaggerated version of his real-life awkwardness, suggesting a blending of self and character somewhat reminiscent of Colbert. There’s a frequent discomfort that comes from that, as it can be difficult to judge Fielder’s true feelings or intentions at any given moment. But what I think is especially interesting is how he interacts with the performances of his unknowing participants. Goffman describes a tendency people have to cooperate with each other’s performances, playing along so as to avoid discomfort. But Fielder doesn’t do that in interacting with people for his show. As he explains, “In my personal life, I will do whatever it takes to make a situation comfortable… if I’m talking to someone [and] there’s a silence, I’ll try to fill that gap… But in the show, I don’t do that, and I let those moments sit.” This creates a certain frailty to the interactions portrayed on the show, as he leaves people’s performances, or their techniques, very exposed. And often, there’s a poignant humanity in that, and the show presents its subjects with surprising empathy.

The show plays with the idea of performance in several other interesting ways. The idea of bleed described by Bowman frequently seems relevant. Not only does the public draw meaning from some of Fielder’s marketing-based stunts (several have been mistaken for Banksy pieces), but Fielder himself often seems affected by his own performances. When audiences find meaning in his bizarre stunts, he finds meaning in them too. And there are moments in which he uses his own fictions to comfort himself, in one instance asking an actress to portray one of the small business owners in order to tell him he did a good job. As he constructs his elaborate fictions, there’s an extent to which he seems to believe them on an emotional level.

In this way, I think the show highlights our frequent willingness to believe performances, both of others and of ourselves. We tend to accept and cooperate with the version of a person we’re presented with. And when we don’t, it’s disorienting. I’m interesting in exploring both that willingness to believe and the discomfort of leaving a performance exposed.

(Goffman quotes are from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life)

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