“Dumb Starbucks” may not be the most logistically elaborate setup that Nathan For You has come up with, but it is the most conceptually elaborate. Over the course of the episode, Nathan borrows the auspices of one institution after another—law, art, commerce, mass media—to provide cover for a scheme that is just as dumb as it says on the label. There is no brilliant meaning at the heart of “Dumb Starbucks” except for the meaning that bystanders bring to it. And that, paradoxically, is the brilliant meaning at the heart of “Dumb Starbucks.”
When coffee-shop owner Elias Zacklin hears Nathan’s plan to create a parody Starbucks, he says, “It’s smart; I just don’t know if people will get it.” But as Nathan For You has proven before—and with new vigor in this episode—“getting it” is a more slippery idea than we generally assume.
The plan hinges on the implications of American parody law, which, according to Nathan, “allows you to use trademarks and copyrighted material as long as you’re making fun of them.” That raises the question of what qualifies as making fun of something, and as usual, Nathan For You seeks to satisfy only the bare minimum requirement. Hence Nathan’s vision is to simply appropriate all of Starbucks’ branding and call it “dumb.” If that doesn’t qualify as parody, Nathan intends to make someone tell him why not.
Lawyer Peter J. Marks offers one reason why not: People could easily confuse Dumb Starbucks for the real thing, and then the law doesn’t protect you. He says that if Nathan could establish a reputation as a parody artist, though, that reputation could serve as a protective veneer in the eyes of the law. Fundamentally, it’s the same advice that Nathan got in “Souvenir Shop/E.L.A.I.F.F.,” where he was told (in so many words) to acquire a modicum of prestige so that his idiotic video could be considered a legitimate “film.”
The twist is that while Marks is advising Nathan on how best to deceive the public, Nathan has already deceived him. Nathan reveals that Marks’ appearance release form, which he signed before the interview, includes a clause that holds Marks liable for any legal damages that Nathan incurs on his Dumb Starbucks quest. The panic that ensues is hilarious and amazing, marked by Nathan’s dogged efforts to get the contract back and the greatest cutaway in Nathan For You history: a clip of Marks endorsing the document while he mutters, “What kind of lawyer am I? I’m signing shit I haven’t read.”
Marks gets cornered because when he signed the document, he wasn’t in law mode, he was in mass-media mode. It’s all bullshit for the camera, he unconsciously presumes, so none of this matters. In other words, Marks thinks he “gets it.” As he argues with Nathan, he makes repeated appeals to the assumed fakeness of TV: “I don’t know if you’re doing this just for the show, but….” Nathan’s stance is simply that Marks is a real lawyer in a real law office who just signed a real legal document. And this infuriates Marks! (But since he later presides over Nathan and Zacklin’s official breakup, he apparently gets over it.)
Nathan moves on to establish his bona fides as a practitioner of parody. When he attends an open-mic night to sing stupendously lame send-ups of such classics as Bush’s “Glycerine” and Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight,” the anti-comedy doesn’t sit well with the crowd. The nicotine-gulping malcontent who opines, “He fucking sucked” might be the most astute observer of the episode.
Yet while Nathan’s corporate logo de-makes are just as facile as his parody songs, some of the visitors to the “Nathan Fielder: Think Twice” gallery show find inspiration in his artless art. One attendee haltingly tries to ascribe a vague anti-war, anti-capitalist message to the “Tank Of America” logo, and Nathan corrects him by offering an even more insipid and toothless interpretation: “The meaning of this is actually just like, you know, you put your money in the bank. It’s really safe, like a tank.” All Nathan has to do is boost the production value and change the context—from a lowbrow open mic night to a hip gallery—and the spectators become more willing to see ideas where there are none.
The dumbness of Dumb Starbucks extends to its corporate structure. “Because of the size of the company, I’m also the HR department here,” Nathan explains to his two employees. Then he has them say who, out of their small group, they find the most attractive. If this request came from an average citizen, the baristas would probably find a way to decline. But because it’s attached to their jobs, they cautiously go along with it. After all, it’s policy!
Once Dumb Starbucks takes off, the media frenzy is a blur. It’s all a delight, but my favorite clip shows a Fox News “legal analyst” credulously explaining the basis in U.S. Law for the existence of the store. This despite the reality that the legal argument for Dumb Starbucks’ operation as an actual business is dubious at best—Peter Marks essentially says as much to Nathan. Any decent legal analyst would hasten to point out that this is a lunatic-fringe interpretation of parody law. Instead, this cable-news talking head makes Nathan’s case on his behalf, because boring facts are less important than her need, and the media’s need, to show that they “get it.”
The people waiting in line outside Dumb Starbucks believe that they “get it,” too, but since they’re not speaking from a position of ill-earned authority like the Fox types, their interpretations of the stunt come off as sweet. One patron believes it’s an anti-Starbucks protest. Another thinks that it’s another countercultural work by the street artist Banksy. “It was cool that people could draw their own meaning from a business that was just there to make money,” Nathan narrates, the implicit joke being that it’s not even there to make money, either. It’s dumbness all the way down.
Since the beginning of Nathan For You, the socially inept Nathan has made a habit of trying to exploit his TV show to make new friends. “Dumb Starbucks” is momentous because he finally gets his wish: “For the first time in my life, people actually wanted to be around me,” he says as a prelude to his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. But when the store is shut down and the spotlight fades, Nathan finds himself friendless again. Zacklin, who basically abandoned the project halfway through and was subsequently spurned by Nathan, offers no sympathy when Nathan returns, hat in hand. “My friends don’t have cameras and lights and lawyers and producers. That’s not how you establish a friendship,” he says.
It’s an unintentional summation of Nathan’s entire quest for companionship. No matter how much the awkward host tries to wield the trappings of the media, the law, or, say, corporate HR policy for his social benefit, these institutions are all hollow when applied to the personal realm. None of them can help Nathan create an authentic connection with another human being. But Nathan For You would never come out and say that. Instead, the show’s creators let someone else say it for them. That’s where the show places its faith: in the accidental but weirdly beautiful wisdom of other people.
Then again, if Nathan were here, he might tell me I’m reading too much into it. What can I say? I’m as dumb as the next guy.
- Nathan pointedly notes that he saw people talking about Dumb Starbucks on a straight bodybuilding message board.
- When Peter J. Marks hides the contract and insists/hopes that the whole affair is just fakery for the cameras, how does Nathan convince Marks to proffer the document again? By telling him it’s just for the cameras. You’re a shrewd bastard, Fielder.
- The cringe-inducing presentation from Nathan Fielder, HR representative, concludes with a statement that “now we can work as peers without there being any awkwardness.” There’s never not awkwardness on Nathan For You.
- Among the awful puns at Nathan’s art show: Tank Of America, Continental Breakfast Airlines, T.G.I. Fart, Fruit In The Room, 1806 Flags, WoodFellas (on a canvas priced at $2,500), and a 7-Eleven logo with “SIXTYNINE” in lieu of “7-ELEVEN.” But my favorite work might be the his-and-her toilets, complete with wigs.
- As Nathan gets caught up in all the media attention, his narration grows even loopier. “The attention was like sunlight on my soul.” “I was invincible.” And then the capper: “They say that the devil is an artist, and if that’s so, then maybe I was his greatest piece yet.”
- I wonder if the second Brooklyn location was actually part of the plan at some point.
- The Los Angeles Department Of Public Health is a real spoilsport.