Nathan Fielder’s new show “The Rehearsal” is weirdly an excellent metaphor for language learning

I am a longtime fan of comedian Nathan Fielder, having watched his previous series, “Nathan For You,” a show in which he tries to help small business owners attract clients by implementing oddball ideas that often lead to hilariously uncomfortable situations. I saw Fielder in person at his live show in DC in 2017, and I also own a jacket from his apparel line, Summit Ice, whose proceeds directly go towards Holocaust education.

All that to say: I was extremely excited when Fielder came back a few weeks ago with a new show on HBO, “The Rehearsal.” I even paid for a VPN service just to be able to watch it on HBO Max.

The premise of the show is that Nathan helps people prepare for potentially uncomfortable and emotional conversations with others in their lives. In the first episode, for instance, Nathan is tasked with helping a teacher named Kor confess to a friend from his trivia group, Tricia, that he has been lying about having a master’s degree for twelve years.

Armed with an HBO budget, Nathan goes all out on the rehearsal. He builds a life-sized replica of the bar lounge in which Kor and Tricia will have their conversation. He hires an actor to play Tricia, as well as background actors to play other bar patrons. Kor and the actor practice every possible scenario that might emerge as a result of Kor fessing up to the lie: Tricia might be okay with it. She might yell and scream at him. She might storm out.

In the scenario where Tricia is so upset that she exits, as Kor sits there by himself moodily, the ridiculousness of the situation escalates. A bar patron pipes up behind him: “I just heard this guy tell his friend that he’s been lying about having a master’s degree.” Another: “That’s so messed up!” Another: “Who doesn’t have a master’s degree?!” At this point I’m laughing so hard that my stomach hurts.

I’ve seen lots of interesting commentary about this show online. One is that the concept of these rehearsals actually closely mirrors “masking,” which is where people with autism quietly practice how they will act and react to potentially stressful situations so that they can better manage their anxiety as well as blend in as neurotypical.

Another observation is that this is a practice that is sometimes used in therapy; for instance, if you’re not ready or willing to confront a loved one face-to-face about an issue, you can practice talking to an empty chair, and that can be a very cathartic and healing experience.

I am totally fascinated by these assessments and agree with them. But I also noticed something else: surprisingly, the concept of “The Rehearsal” reminded me of my own experience as a foreign language learner.

When I moved to Switzerland in 2019, I had to start learning French from zero. I could not do any of the most basic life things in French: set up a bank account, rent an apartment, call to make an appointment. Even though Geneva is a fairly English-friendly city for new expats, I felt severely limited, inconvenienced, and infantilized by my inability to speak the French language.

I began taking classes right away. And I also found a teacher, D, who tutored me in basic conversational skills over Skype. One day, I told her, “I have an appointment this weekend with my hair stylist, who doesn’t speak English. I need to practice telling him what I need.”

“Great,” D said. “Let’s write out a script in this Google doc.”

We started off with how I would greet the stylist, Paul. Hello! How are you? I’m doing well, and are you well?

Then, Paul would probably ask me what kind of haircut I wanted. Usually, he sits me down in the chair, makes eye contact in the mirror, and simply says, “Dites-moi.” (Tell me.)

I would then describe to him the request. I would like to cut it shorter, and remove some of the volume.

After the script was done, we practiced reading it back multiple times, D reading for the part of Paul and me reading for the part of me. There were a couple of different scenarios for what Paul might ask. How many centimeters would you like to take off? Would you like bangs? Are you interested in coloring your hair? I was prepared for multiple possibilities. Two centimeters. Yes, I would like long fringes. No, I’m not interested in coloring.

(I should note that the real Paul doesn’t talk much at all.)

I can’t stress enough how much these practice conversations helped me gain confidence. Three years later, now at an intermediate level (B2) in French, I just walked into the same salon today. “Hello!” Paul greeted me warmly. “How’s it going?”

I sat down in his chair. “Dites-moi,” he said, same as always.

“Well, it’s too hot,” I said. “And too long. And what’s crazy is that you just cut it last month, but it’s been growing so quickly.”

“I know,” he said. “I’ve always said, you have a ton of hair. I’ll take out some of the volume, but I wouldn’t go too far. You still need enough volume for your hair to have a pretty shape.”

“Cool,” I said. “Do whatever you want.”

Years later, even though D is no longer teaching, I’m so grateful to her for spending the time with me, going through these tedious mock exercises — how do I check into a hotel in French? How do I go to the store and ask for a repair of my phone in French? My French is better now, but often, before I have an appointment or an important work meeting, I will go on Google Translate or Linguee and spend a few minutes looking up vocabulary words that I might need. I practice saying sentences out loud beforehand, because if I don’t, French words will often trip up my tongue.

We like to pretend that all that exists is the final scene that makes it into the movie. That there were no mistakes, no breaking, no unusable takes. But that’s, like, at least 75% of real life. If we’re mature, conscientious people, we rehearse things — maybe not by writing down scripts, but by picturing conversations in our heads, thinking about how other people might feel about our actions. And we’re all the better for it. (Or at least it’ll make for some very funny TV.)

Photo by andrew welch on Unsplash

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