Five questions for Dumb Starbucks’ Nathan Fielder

Nathan Fielder reveals his ownership of Dumb Starbucks in front of reporters and onlookers outside his shop in Los Feliz. Fielder has a show on Comedy Central called "Nathan for You".
(Christina House / For The Times)

Nathan Fielder, a Comedy Central star and the founder of L.A.'s Dumb Starbucks, will appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” Tuesday night and, we hope, answer some leftover questions.

In a news conference at the rogue cafe’s Hillhurst Avenue location in Los Feliz, Fielder revealed he was the mind behind Dumb Starbucks, which had been giving away coffee to hours-long lines of customers for days before it was shut down by health officials.

Dumb Starbucks boasts a near-replica of a Starbucks coffee shop, complete with “dumb” coffee and “dumb” jazz CDs. Fielder has contended that he’s legally in the clear because of protections for works of parody.

PHOTOS: The scene at Dumb Starbucks


Fielder’s Comedy Central show is called “Nathan for You,” and it follows Fielder as he gives terrible advise to to small-business owners, who then try his ideas out on customers. It’s produced by the company started by the comedy duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”

Fielder delivered his remarks in character and hasn’t given interviews since, so there are plenty of inquiries that remain. Here are some of ours.

How will this play on TV?

Dumb Starbucks seems like the natural progression of a “Nathan for You” stunt, though Fielder has called it a business he “plans to get rich from.” Heidecker and Wareheim’s Abso Lutely productions acquired film permits for the location, but Fielder and employees denied there were hidden cameras, other than for security. Still, it seems “Nathan for You” is the most likely explanation, unless it turns out to be Kimmel’s brainchild. Last year, Kimmel started a social media wildfire with a hoax YouTube video of a girl who appeared to accidentally set herself ablaze while twerking.

What will Starbucks do?

Seattle-based java giant Starbucks Corp. seems to be holding back for now, saying in statements to the news media that it appreciates the humor but that the faux store cannot use its trademark. The company is “continuing to evaluate next steps,” Starbucks said. “We are glad the mystery is over and can confirm that this store is not affiliated with Starbucks.”

On the set: movies and TV

Jeffrey A. Kobulnick, an intellectual property lawyer and partner at Ezra Brutzkus Gubner, said Starbucks may not want to take legal action until it’s clearer what’s going on. “They have to protect their brand, but they’ve got to do so in a way that doesn’t make them look bad,” he said.

Is it legal?

Fielder has cited “parody law,” which has two applicable branches: trademark and copyright law. In trademark, the point is to protect consumers, and copyright is meant to protect the brand of the original work (Starbucks’ intellectual property, in this case). Fielder’s stunt clearly uses Starbucks’ name and logo and some have called it “trademark infringement on steroids.” But it’s also fairly clear to customers that the Dumb Starbucks is not the same as the original, so customers shouldn’t be confused and Starbucks’ brand should emerge unscathed, Kobulnick said. “What is the harm here?” he asked. “How has Starbucks really suffered?”

Can Dumb Starbucks reopen?

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health shut down the establishment late Monday for not having a health permit, but Fielder said at the news conference that it didn’t need one because it was operating as an art gallery. A Health Department spokesman said Monday that a hearing would be scheduled.

How about Dumb Starbucks, Brooklyn?

Fielder said he plans to open a second location in Brooklyn, N.Y. But the store in L.A. has already done its job by greatly increasing the comedian’s profile and public awareness of his show. A Brooklyn opening would make a much smaller splash. If he’s serious, he’d better get those permits figured out.


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ryan.faughnder@latimes.comTwitter: @rfaughnder