Well, this is it. The episode we’ve all been waiting for…
The curtain has finally been lifted.
A little background: In February a coffee shop called Dumb Starbucks mysteriously opened in Los Angeles. The design was identical to an actual Starbucks, except all the product names were preceded by the word “dumb”—dumb lattes, dumb Norah Jones duets albums, etc. Everyone was waiting for Starbucks to bring down the legal hammer, but the store—technically an art installation—was protected under parody law. As media coverage swelled, people began to speculate as to who was behind the stunt, with some even attributing it to world renowned graffiti artist Banksy. Before things got too far out of hand Fielder stepped forward and claimed responsibility, holding a press conference in the Dumb Starbucks parking lot announcing that he would be opening a second location in Brooklyn. Shortly thereafter the health board shut down the operation entirely, and all we could do was wait patiently for the backstory to be revealed in the next season of Nathan For You, which at that point was still a few months away. Everything was explained last night, in the season’s fifth episode.
The episode begins with a montage of the media freaking out over the Dumb Starbucks mystery back in February as the story was still developing. This isn’t the first time one of Fielder’s stunts has generated international news coverage, though. In the show’s first season he orchestrated a viral video of a “hero pig” saving a drowning goat to generate publicity for a struggling petting zoo, and several news organizations picked up the video, unaware that it was a hoax. The “hero pig” video came and went, as it wasn’t really that much different than your typical “cute animals doing something crazy” Internet video; that’s what it was designed to resemble. Dumb Starbucks was something totally unique and far more compelling.
No one familiar with Nathan For You could have been that surprised to find out that Fielder was behind the whole thing, and it’s fitting if not inevitable if not hilarious that for all of his misguided and, frankly, idiotic attempts to generate publicity for the businesses he’s “trying” to salvage, he finally hit the lottery with one of his half-baked ideas. Even with his schemes that are completely ludicrous, there’s always something about them that makes sense in a weird way—like hooking a mechanic up to a lie detector while he’s giving price quotes—and you’re left thinking that maybe, under just the right circumstances, some of these ideas could actually work. Those circumstances finally presented themselves for Dumb Starbucks, and the result was a viral news story that, more than anything else, served to generate publicity for Fielder and Nathan For You.
But as we learned Tuesday night, the ploy began just like all of Fielder’s do, as an attempt to save a struggling business, in this case a boutique Los Angeles coffee shop so hip it didn’t even have a menu…or customers.
No one knew what to expect from the actual “Dumb Starbucks” episode, but I was personally a little surprised as to just how much there was to it. All the focus had been on the actual store and the aftermath of its opening, but just like every Nathan For You segment, there were several layers to the scheme that had to play out before the store’s doors opened, and it’s the strength and hilarity of this backstory that makes “Dumb Starbucks” a great episode in addition to a great concept.
All of the best Nathan For You elements were at play. The business owner exhibited just the right combination of reluctance and enthusiasm for the idea. A lawyer was brought into the fold, whom Fielder memorably tried to trick into assuming legal responsibility for Dumb Starbucks. Fielder and the business owner performed parody cover songs at an open mic night to establish themselves as parody artists (so Dumb Starbucks would hold water in court). There was some sexual awkwardness, as is the case with any good episode of NFY, when Fielder made the two Dumb Starbucks employees he hired state which of the other two people in the room they were most attracted to. There were even a few hilarious interstitial moments, like the seconds-long snippet of Fielder being shown the vacant retail space where he eagerly tells the female realtor that he has metal in his house like the metal on the space’s wall. On paper this isn’t funny and it didn’t do anything to advance the story, but it made me laugh out loud harder than I did at any other point of the episode. It was a perfect example of the brilliant little things Fielder does to add color to his character, whose nervous psychological tics and awkward preconceptions are almost like subplots that run throughout the series.
Eventually Fielder’s enthusiasm for the idea intensified to the point where he had to drop the business owner (hilariously, of course, via a lawyer), who had lost interest and become dead weight. Helping small businesses is one thing, but Fielder wisely wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of seeing an idea as genius as Dumb Starbucks to fruition. He knew that he was onto something too big to fit within the show’s typical format.
His first new order of business was to continue to establish himself as a parody artist by setting up a parody art exhibition in a posh-looking Los Angeles gallery. It mostly featured altered corporate logos, such as a Bank of America logo that had been changed to “Tank of America” in a cliched attempt to make some sort of comment on America’s greed and hunger for war. The exhibit was a perfect opportunity to show the stupidity of pretentious art lovers who will praise any piece of bullshit hanging on a white wall with nice lighting around it.
Which is essentially the same thing Fielder accomplished with Dumb Starbucks. News coverage and the hundreds of people who lined up for a free cup of dumb coffee similarly hailed the store as a brilliant critique of corporations, a piece of art. But the genius was that Dumb Starbucks was critiquing those praising it for lampooning Starbucks more than it was critiquing Starbucks itself. If anything, it was an homage to Starbucks, a way to make as much money as possible. Fielder said as much in the parking lot press conference. The joke wasn’t on Starbucks so much as it was on all of us.
Dumb Starbucks transcended the world of Nathan For You to include the entire Internet and even most television news broadcasts, both of which are always ready to manufacture an artificial news story out of absolutely anything they can. Because Fielder didn’t come forward to explain it, the media was able to fill the lacuna of understanding with all the bullshit it could, and all the while Fielder was sitting back smiling, ready to come out in front of the world and tell everyone that no, it’s not art, he’s just trying to get rich. He relished letting down everyone who had ascribed some artistic significance to the store. In the end the goal was to make money, not to make any sort of statement on corporate greed.
And after all is said and done, in one last example of why the “Dumb Starbucks” episode of Nathan For You more than lived up to the Dumb Starbucks phenomenon, Fielder leaves a handwritten note on the store’s now permanently closed doors, redirecting customers to the original cafe he was trying to help…if they just so happened to be looking for a place to get coffee.