A few months ago, everyone became temporarily obsessed with a “Dumb Starbucks” store that had popped up in Los Angeles. It was a blatant parody of Starbucks — the name, the logo, the drinks, the Norah Jones soundtrack — but with the word “dumb” in front of everything. No one was quite sure what it was: An actual coffee shop? A statement on consumerism? Banksy’s latest creation? As it turns out (and as a few people cleverly assumed), Dumb Starbucks was a creation of Nathan Fielder, for his brilliant show Nathan For You. The much-anticipated “Dumb Starbucks” episode finally aired last night and not only did it live up to the hype, but it went above and beyond.
As expected, Nathan had created Dumb Starbucks in order to help a small, struggling coffee business. The coffee shop would be rebranded to resemble an already-established (and hugely popular) business, meaning people would flock to it out of familiarity. What pushed the episode from an amusing idea to pure brilliance were the ways in which it escalated swiftly, incorporated Dumb Starbucks’ unplanned fame, and chronicled Nathan’s quick rise and fall.
Nathan’s pretty sure this would all be covered under parody law — he even checked Wikipedia — but double-checks with a lawyer Peter. To further cover his ass, Nathan tricks Peter into signing a contract stating that Peter would also be responsible if Starbucks sued, by including the clause in the appearance release; “You’re a lawyer and you don’t read stuff before signing it?” Nathan asks incredulously.
In one of Nathan For You‘s classic escalations, Nathan then works on becoming an established parody artist to ensure that he can claim Dumb Starbucks is a parody. He signs up at open mic to play Weird Al-like songs and then has a gallery showing of parody art (“Tank of America,” “WoodFellas,” etc). Convinced this is enough, Nathan opens the Dumb Starbucks — but on his own, as the coffee shop owner had already quit the idea.
From there, it’s nonstop humor: Nathan advertising for employees, giving the HR speech about workplace romances (which includes a hilariously uncomfortable scene where coworkers have to admit who they are most attracted to), and the confusion of the first few customers through the store (it’s “technically an art gallery,” Nathan explains). But then, overnight, Dumb Starbucks creates a media frenzy. That’s the story that we already know.
What makes “Dumb Starbucks” work so well isn’t just the funny idea but the ongoing narrative that runs through these two seasons of Nathan For You, the running joke that the underlying motive of these schemes is so Nathan can find friends, find love, and end his loneliness. It’s a gag that’s easy to forget about, and I often do until it pops up in random scenes. Here, it’s so wonderfully explicit. As Nathan rises to fame by holding a news conference and making the talk-show rounds, his voiceover plainly says, “For the first time in my life, people actually wanted to be around me.”
Nathan basks in having finally reached the top, but, as we all know, this fame is fleeting. Just as quickly as Dumb Starbucks opened, it’s also shut down by the health department for not obtaining proper permits. This was clearly expected by Nathan Fielder the person but not by Nathan the character, who is dealt a harsh blow. The customers are gone, the fame goes away, and he’s left alone. At the end, he uses the closed-down Dumb Starbucks to advertise the original coffee business — one last grasp to make amends and find a friend.
It’s an impressive episode of television, one that surpassed all expectations and seamlessly incorporated all of the prior media hype that was surrounding it, and just another showcase of why Nathan For You is consistently churning out some of the smartest and funniest comedy on television.