Dumb Starbucks

Nathan Fielder

Dumb Starbucks is the fifth episode of the second season of the American television docu-reality comedy series ‘Nathan for You,’ and the thirteenth overall episode of the series. Written by series co-creators Nathan Fielder and Michael Koman, as well as Dan Mintz, it first aired on Comedy Central in 2014.

In the series, Fielder plays an off-kilter version of himself, who tries to use his business background and experiences to help struggling companies and people, offering them strategies that no traditional business consultant would dare.

In the episode, Fielder attempts to help a struggling coffee shop by renaming it ‘Dumb Starbucks,’ a parody of the American coffee company and coffeehouse chain. While producing the episode, the actual Dumb Starbucks location provoked real international media coverage. This episode was the second time ‘Nathan for You’ was the subject of serious coverage from mainstream media outlets, the first being for a video produced for the season one episode ‘Santa/Petting Zoo’ (in which he encouraged a petting zoo to create a viral video where a pig saves a drowning goat).

The Dumb Starbucks location attracted dozens of visitors before it was allegedly shut down by the Los Angeles Health Department of Health Services (LACDHS), an event incorporated into the episode. Spectators and media commentators questioned the stunt’s authenticity, viewing it variously as performance art, a statement on consumerism, a viral marketing achievement or the work of street artist Banksy. Starbucks did not pursue legal action, although it did note to the press that it was ‘evaluating’ the possibility while reinforcing that the ‘Starbucks’ name is a protected trademark. Upon the episode’s broadcast, it was acclaimed by television critics.

Dumb Starbucks opened on February 7, 2014 at 1802 Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, which they announced via a tweet by an ‘official’ Twitter account. The location offered items such as Dumb Espresso and Dumb Frappuccino, CDs of Dumb Nora Jones Duets, and sizes ranged from dumb tall, dumb grande and dumb venti. Bootleggers outside the store sold ‘Dumb Starbucks’ hats and stickers. A line outside, composed of curious locals, extended beyond the strip mall. The location did not have a business license or health code rating visible. The popularity of Dumb Starbucks was also fueled by social media, and according to ‘USA Today,’ tweets from visitors revealed they stood in line for an hour to receive the free coffee. ‘The New Yorker’ noted that visitors protested the store’s ‘terrible coffee.’

A reporter from Grantland visited the location, describing it as ‘madness with a side of possible poignancy.’ News crews set up cameras in the strip mall’s parking lot, but were unable to interview the ‘mysterious’ owner behind Dumb Starbucks. Upon the store’s closure at 5:30 p.m., several people in the line began chanting ‘We want Dumb!’ Comment threads online suggested Fielder was behind the prank, and Fielder held a press conference on February 10, confirming that the Dumb Starbucks store was a television stunt. The store was closed later that day by the health department for operating without a permit.

‘Dumb Starbucks’ as a whole explores the fair use of copyrighted material with regards to the art form of parody. Fielder describes the issues involved within the episode, noting that parody ‘allows you to use trademarks and copyrighted material as long as you’re making fun of them.’ A ‘frequently asked questions’ notice on the window of the location stated that the location was operating as an art gallery and was technically ‘making fun’ of Starbucks as a parodic work of art. ”The ‘coffee’ you’re buying is considered the art,’ read the notice, ‘but that’s for our lawyers to worry about. All you need to do is enjoy our delicious coffee!’ Fielder summarized the episode’s satirical intent as ‘a parody about the power of corporate branding.’

Outside the scope of the episode, the actual Dumb Starbucks spurred discussion regarding public consumption of art. Spectators questioned the store’s authenticity, some of which are depicted in the episode, presuming it to be a political statement on consumerism, or an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many commentators theorized it could be subversive British graffiti artist Banksy, and others simply considered the stunt a successful viral marketing strategy. Dissenters dismissed the store as ‘too hipster.’

The episode features the one recurring narrative in ‘Nathan for You,’ namely, ‘…that the underlying motive of these schemes is so Nathan can find friends, find love, and end his loneliness.’ Robin Hardwick of ‘Entertainment Weekly’ characterized the episode’s ending as a Faustian bargain.

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