Nathan Fielder is the prince of pranking

Nathan For You

His Dumb Starbucks stunt made him, but his comedy is anything but stupid

Even if you’re unfamiliar with Canadian-born comedian Nathan Fielder or his Comedy Central show Nathan For You, you likely remember Dumb Starbucks, the perplexing fake Starbucks store in Los Angeles that looked identical to the real thing, with every logo and product prefixed with the word “Dumb.”

Clandestinely created for the show, the stunt became a viral sensation before its episode aired. Los Angelenos flocked to the imitation coffee shop in droves. Some took selfies in front of the “Dumb Starbucks” sign. Others sold the flimsy, disposable “Dumb Starbucks” latte cups at marked-up prices on eBay. The media theorized who was behind the prank: Banksy, anti-corporate pranksters, or an anonymous performance artist? As it turned out, Dumb Starbucks wasn’t quite the blunt corporate critique some had expected.

It was for Nathan For You, a spoof of that special sub-genre of reality television one might call “business fixers”— like Gordon Ramsay’sKitchen Nightmares and Bar Rescue, in which professionals help failing businesses get back on their feet.

On the show, Dumb Starbucks was an idea Fielder pitched to a failing coffee shop to drum up business, and like all the suggestions presented to the impressional entrepreneurs on the show, it was a bad idea. The so-called business expert offers his clients nonsensical marketing schemes, creating unpredictable chaos when the unwitting, too-trusting subjects agree to proceed.

In the first episode, Fielder recommends a fro-yo vendor to try selling a poop-flavoured yogurt. In another, he promotes a clothing store by allowing attractive customers to shoplift from it.

Because the participants in Nathan For You don’t know it’s a comedy show, the shenanigans that Fielder gets away with sometimes get a little scary, particularly in the legal sense.

In one memorable gag, Fielder attempts to escape a pair of handcuffs while rigged to a robot called the “Claw of Shame,” which is undressing him one garment at a time, in front of a group of children. In this sensationalized bit, Fielder claims he’s willing to risk being classified as a sex offender for the rest of his life, unless he can complete his feat — which he does, thankfully.

The magic in that bit is not Fielder’s literal escape from handcuffs but how he gets us to believe that there isn’t a failsafe, that he’s genuinely risking going to jail. But in other cases the show does give the impression that Fielder’s many zany ideas would and could have real legal implications.

Dumb Starbucks is a great example, and it shows Fielder’s savvy — he went after not only a well-known brand, but one that has a well-known history of trying to protect its trademark.

Andrew Bridges, a partner at Fenwick and West who specializes in high-profile trademark, copyright, Internet, and unfair competition cases, says there could have been multiple reasons why Starbucks has not sued the show’s producers.

“Starbucks could evaluate the facts and, even if it had a good case, it could predict that the Dumb Starbucks would die an early death on its own,” he says. Companies also must prioritize legal expenses.

“Even big corporations are frugal with legal fees if they want to succeed as businesses,” says Bridges, adding that timing is important. “A lot depends on what other legal fires were burning at the time.”

There is also the possibility, given Starbucks’ previous loss in the high-profile lawsuit Starbucks vs. Charbucks, that it wouldn’t have wanted to risk its reputation.

“Starbucks may not have wanted to appear heavy-handed,” says Bridges. “Then again, some companies go out of their way to appear heavy-handed, to scare people off who might otherwise stand up to them.”

It’s clear that the legal requirements are very much on the mind of the producers, as well as Fielder, because they’re methodologically explained: Having obtained legal advice about the use of parody law to get away with Dumb Starbucks, Fielder spends weeks dutifully, yet lamely, meeting the basic requirements of being a parody artist, playing inane songs in the key of Weird Al at open-mic bars, in order to obtain believable legal protection.

Fielder’s commitment to the bit is something that will continue in Nathan For You’s third season. “There’s one episode in Season 3 that I had to do eight months of physical training in order to pull off,” Fielder told the Toronto Star in an email. “It’s by far the craziest and most ambitious thing we’ve ever attempted on the show.”

The combination of Fielder’s savant-like interest in practical business matters and his silly ideas makes Nathan For You wonderfully subversive. It also reveals the comedian’s long-time fascination with business. Despite what Fielder confidently claims on the show, he’s no expert, although he does have a bachelor’s degree of commerce from the University of Victoria.

Before making Nathan For You, Fielder gently satirized the all-too-serious genre of consumer-watch reportage on Canadian television.

“The idea for [Nathan For You] was definitely inspired by my segments on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, especially the ‘Nathan On Your Side’ pieces,” Fielder says.

“I initially pitched Nathan for You as a consumer advocate type show, like CBC’s Marketplace. But when we started thinking about the logistics of pulling stuff off, we decided that helping businesses (rather than trying to expose them for fraud and corruption) would allow us to do more. And it also felt more positive and hopeful, which I liked.”

Out of dozens of ideas, only one has ever actually worked for the business owner’s benefit. Fielder convinces beach-side caricature artist Greg Dohlen to cruelly mock his customers in his work, including making racially insensitive cartoons about Asian customers. As it turns out, that expected ridicule is exactly why people like buying personal caricatures. Fielder’s clients, typically, aren’t so good-humoured, but it doesn’t stop the rest of us from laughing.