In June, Nate Dern wrote a sketch for comedy website Funny or Die called "They Finally Made a Handmaid's Tale for Men."
In the clip, the gender roles of the popular dystopian TV series of female subjugation and slavery are reversed. These poor "Handmen" are allegedly repressed by their inability to make crude comments, and forced to pretend they enjoyed "Wonder Woman." In this wasteland of freedom, only a few rights remain. ("Well, we can still get wasted and eat tacos," the narrator says to console himself.)
Dern, the senior writer for the site, said it was inevitably misconstrued by the very red-pill men's rights activists it was parodying. The internet being the internet, some viewers took "some of the lines the characters are saying at face value," Dern said in a phone interview. " 'Yes, I agree with this! It's about time.' "
After many misinterpretations, Dern said he and the staff discuss it — they don't want to be too explicit with the points they're making so that it drifts from comedy into an op-ed piece, or so vague that the meaning is obscured. "It's a constant tension between those two," he said.
Despite that unfortunate side effect, it's one of his favorite sketches he's written so far, along with "The Reason You Haven't Had Sex In So Long," starring Patrick Warburton (Putty on "Seinfeld.") Both have touches of science-fiction twists, which he describes as his wheelhouse. It also pokes fun at social mores, the acceptable uses of language, and bro culture.
The 32-year-old's interest in human behavior extends beyond humor — he holds a bachelor's in social anthropology from Harvard University. After that, he headed to Columbia for his master's in sociology and is working on his doctorate in the field.
In between all the academic work, he found time to serve as artistic director for the influential sketch/improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, which has produced many a "Saturday Night Live" alum and a long list of stand-up comedians.
He also writes humor pieces, and has been published in the New Yorker, Vice and other outlets. A collection of his comedy writings, essays and fiction, "Not Quite A Genius," is out this week on Simon & Schuster. (Dern will have a reading and signing on Saturday at Fact & Fiction.)
One of his personal favorites, "I Like All Types Of Music, And My Sense Of Humor Is So Random," was published in the New Yorker's "Daily Shouts" section. It "shows my sweet spot of funny, but also maybe a little sad," he said. It starts with someone's not-at-all quirky observations about themselves (likes good country and good Mexican food), but quickly spirals off into something more existential:
"I know that every person is unique, but I'm very unique. I hope. Being more unique than everybody else is also kind of my thing. Sometimes, I entertain the possibility that being unique isn't actually my thing any more than it's the thing of the other seven billion people on Earth, and it's like I'm staring into a soul that is my soul but also everyone else's soul — a sort of soul hall of mirrors that renders personal quirks meaningless."
In another piece, he comes to terms with his appearance on the reality TV show, "Beauty and the Geek," as a undergraduate. He looks back on the show and its publicity and tries to understand why he did it, after almost a decade of "trying to renounce the experience" as he went on to pursue comedy and academia seriously.
He sees overlap between the two fields, and considers his favorite comedians like George Carlin and Chris Rock as excellent amateur sociologists.
"Why do we do the things we do? What do we take for granted about social rules or customs? All the things good comedians do are the same things that anthropologists and sociologists are interested in," he said.
He doesn't want to give up either career track yet, and plans to pursue writing and comedy for the next few years. In the future, he'd love to teach again.
Dern's dissertation for his doctorate in sociology is "double-dipping, as it were," he said. He's studying the role of gender in comedy performance and improv, such as "ways that improv comedians choose to show gender or choose to make fun of gender and invoke gender."
One aspect he's noticed is that comedians once were more prone to do something shocking for its own sake: such as a sexist imitation of a drunk woman, or a rape joke. "Five or 10 years ago, there would be a pass and a laugh and it feels like both performers and audiences are getting more sophisticated or have less tolerance, or worry about social media reactions" or other factors, he said.
Dern, a Colorado native, was a competitive runner in his youth. He picked it up again and wrote an essay on the 128-mile Ragnar Trail Relay in New Jersey for Outside magazine.
He has another piece in progress, in which he seeks out the "hardest workout classes in America." Over the past six months, he's taken myriad exercise classes to find the most difficult.
"The weirdest one I took was called Power Plate, which claimed to be this space-age technology and just felt like doing crunches on top of a washing machine with a boot inside of it," he said.
"It feels like a relic of those archival movies of people getting their bellies rubbed really quickly. Is this real science? I don't know," he said.