The Surprising Kinship Between Giambattista Basile’s Baroque ‘Tale of Tales’ and ‘Nathan for You’


Giambattista Basile’s humongous (50-story-long) 17th-century tome The Tale of Tales is home to the first written versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty (“Sun, Moon and Talia,” in which Sleeping Beauty is raped and impregnated by the prince while she’s asleep…and then ultimately marries him), Rapunzel (“Petrosinella”) and Puss in Boots. Comedy Central’s Nathan For You is… a TV show. You wouldn’t think they’d have much in common. But you’d be wrong! Despite its historical significance, The Tale of Tales has flown somewhat under the radar for four centuries, at least outside of folklorist/academic circles. That is, pretty much until 2016, where it’s experiencing a sudden surge in representation, due to a new translation and a loose film adaptation.

Regardless of the influence Basile’s tales had on authors from the Brothers Grimm to Italo Calvino, the fact that he wrote these tales in the Neapolitan dialect led to a dearth of translations of what would probably otherwise be considered as quintessential as Children’s and Household Tales. However, a new, rich and fastidiously footnoted translation by Nancy L. Canepa was just released last week — and this was strategically timed to the anticipation of a loose film adaptation by Gomorrah and Reality director Matteo Garrone (starring Salma Hayek as a dragon-heart eating queen, Toby Jones as a giant flea-raising king, and Vincent Cassel as a king who falls in love with the voice and finger — yes, finger — of an old woman) which arrives stateside April 22. This may be the biggest year in the book’s 400-year history.

It’s hard to relate the bizarre, grotesque and surprisingly specific tales in Basile’s book to contemporary morality (for instance, no, Sleeping Beauty marrying the prince who raped her comatose self would not be a happy resolution), but there is one key thematic exception. And, perhaps surprisingly, that exception reminded me a lot of… Comedy Central’s Nathan For You.

For those who haven’t seen it, Nathan For You is a reality-TV-parodying reality comedy following a Canadian consultant who “helps” small businesses “succeed.” Like Basile’s book, its relationships to class are curious and often uncomfortable. Both works thrive on highlighting an absurdist desperation among the working/peasant class and petite bourgeoisie in competitive markets. Both are towering — but potentially condescending — feats of labyrinthine whimsy whose roundabout storytelling mirrors the obstacles of social mobility.

I’d always felt — but never fully understood — the allure of Nathan For You. Oddly, through this entirely unrelated book, I think, I get it more fully: the show is a series of attempted — and often failed (as Nathan Fielder’s schemes don’t often end “happily”) — contemporary capitalist fairy tales.

In The Tale of Tales, it was two stories about animals with valuable, commodified bowel movements that struck me — not only due to seeming personal preoccupations, but because of their lavish, strange vulgarity, their elaborate illogic, and also in their tensely ambiguous relationship to class. Inarguably, these are some of the most striking aspects of Nathan For You, which is similarly about the commodification of gestures as odd and futile as turds (especially when star/host Nathan Fielder is literally marketing, say, “Poo” flavored frozen yogurt).

The Tale of Tales‘ “The Goose” — one of the aforementioned stories that uses bejeweled excrement as a symbol of the desperation caused by wealth stratification — is synopsized in hilariously straightforward illogic by Basile:

Lilla and Lolla buy a coin-shitting goose at the market. A neighbor asks to borrow it, and when she sees that it’s the opposite of what it should be, she kills it and throws it out the window. The goose attaches itself to a prince’s ass while he’s relieving himself, and no one but Lolla can remove it; for this reason the prince takes her for his wife.

Meanwhile, in the “Tale of the Ogre,” a peasant who’s been forced to leave his family to work for an ogre desires to return home, and the ogre bestows upon him a donkey, warning him never to say “giddy up, shit gold,” to it. However, he doesn’t heed the warning, and when he says it, the donkey obliges. “With his mouth hanging wide,” writes Basile, “Antuono stared at those lovely bowel movements, at the superb diarrhea and rich dysentery of the little ass, and with great joy filled up a saddlebag with the jewels.”

In her introduction, Canepa emphasizes that she believes Basile to be “profoundly and polemically engaged” with Neapolitan society, and particularly the lack of class mobility in “an age wrought by socioeconomic turmoil.” Basile was notoriously disparaging of the court, despite weaving stories, mostly orally, exactly as a pastime for courtiers. Thus, given the demographic makeup of Basile’s audience, the author clearly had a complex relationship with the peasant class, at once mildly exploiting them for humor — depicting them, across two stories, going out of their way to examine animal stool — while also critiquing a world so askew that such was the metaphorical manner in which people would have had to operate to move up any social ladder.

Many pieces of The Tale of Tales seem to both make a convenient laughingstock of peasants for the wealthy (and make no mistake, a great deal of these stories involve the wealthy doing unsavory stuff as well) and to critique a complacent and undeserved aristocracy. Speaking of Basile’s story The Cockroach, the Mouse and the Cricket — in which a peasant purchases the aforementioned animals, who help him win over the princess he seeks by “uncorking” the bowels of the nobleman to whom she’s married and making him shit the bed, constantly — John A. Marino writes in Becoming Neapolitan: Citizen Culture in Baroque Naples that the details of the plot were “extremely relevant to the inversion of a hierarchical order of blood and the creation of a social order defined by deeds, not birth.”

In her introduction, Canepa offers speculation on Basile’s turn toward writing fairy tales as opposed to “bourgeois realism.” She posits that “one explanation sees the attraction to the enchanted realms of the fairy tale as an attempt to both evade and compensate for a dire social reality in which mobility was evermore restricted and active virtue seemed to count for less and less.” Which is perhaps the perfect segue into Nathan for You.

Nathan Fielder’s rapport with the small business owners he “helps” is tense, because while he claims the aim is never for the audience to laugh at them, the show banks on their gullibility and desperation. Looking at that alone, as with Basile — the storyteller weaving humorous, if critical, stories for the enjoyment of the rich — it could be easy to accuse Nathan of punching down. But following the concept through, the target emerges as the climate of unease created by corporate America, and the small-business death row it’s created in many industries.

But the fact that Nathan for You‘s not only a spoof of reality-small-business-makeover shows like Bar Rescue, but also, itself, real of course makes it a. more uncomfortably ambiguous about who/what we’re laughing at and b. a far more pointed jab at an economic climate that relies on televised deus ex machinas to save small businesses. Essentially, the ways Nathan Fielder promises he’ll help small businesses are no less strange than if he were to say, “I’ll buy you a donkey that shits gems.” The fact that the owners are willing exposes the vulnerabilities created by the market.

As mentioned, in the pilot episode, he uses his consulting skills to convince an independent frozen yogurt shop that the best way to garner new customers is to introduce a crazy new flavor — “poo.” Similar to Basile’s tales, where all enchantments have strange loopholes, Fielder then uses the absurdity of capitalist promises — like a flavor making company’s promise not to decline making any flavor, in order to get his poo — to the advantage of his wildly sprawling plots. And it does, indeed, draw customers. Conditions are desperate enough, both Nathan and Tales suggest, to make money from poop.

All of the episodes of Nathan for You lead to relatively elaborate plots that don’t sound too dissimilar to the cited summary of one of Basile’s tales — helping a bar that wants to maintain its smoker customer base by exploiting a loophole in smoking law and turning the bar into a “theater” by installing a lone row of seats and inviting theater critics to watch customers merely talk and smoke; beating Best Buy’s price match policy by having an electronics store owner sell his own TVs for a dollar, while safeguarding these cheap TV sets with a rigid dress-code policy and a live alligator. Etcetera.

With so much emphasis placed on birth in 1600s Europe, social mobility was something that was most feasible only in fairy tales, obtained only with, say, a magically shitting goose in a fantasy story. Here, now, the American Dream has always told us that birth has no bearing, that this is the land of opportunity; this is, itself, our most prevalent fairy tale. Social mobility is staggeringly difficult here, and in order to attain that fairy tale right, one must match it with equally fabulist schemes for competition. In Nathan for You, the fairy tale logic that aims to turn poo into money is no fairy tale — it’s reality.