Brew ha-ha: Comedian Nathan Fielder is the man behind Dumb Starbucks
Speculation brewed for days over the origins of Dumb Starbucks, the seemingly rogue coffee shop that opened in the Los Feliz neighborhood in Los Angeles over the weekend and was suddenly shut down Monday by the health department.
Frothy curiosity and furious Twitter queries were finally satisfied at a news conference at the Hillhurst Avenue location, where comedian Nathan Fielder of the Comedy Central show “Nathan for You” revealed that he’s the man behind the faux cafe.
The store, which had out-the-door lines for several days, attracted crowds to its mini-mall storefront with a nearly exact copy of a legitimate Starbucks Corp. chain store. Its menu featured Dumb Iced Coffee, Dumb Frappuccinos and Wuppy Duppy Lattes, and its shelves stocked “dumb” music CDs.
Dressed in a green Dumb Starbucks apron, an in-character Fielder told the crowd he’s always wanted to open a small business.
“There have been lines around the block, and very few small businesses get that from the start,” he said, noting that capitalizing on Starbucks’ name helped the business take off.
He did not elaborate on his plans for the store, except to say he hopes to open a second location in Brooklyn, N.Y.
That was shortly before the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said it had shut down the establishment for operating without a health permit.
Fielder’s “Nathan for You,” which was renewed for a second season last year, was the subject of much of the chatter before the disclosure. The series follows Fielder as he gets business owners to try absurd schemes. In one episode, he had a gas station owner offer extremely low prices — but only through a rebate that customers must deliver to a mountaintop.
“Nathan for You” is produced by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s company Abso Lutely Productions, which had acquired film permits for the Los Feliz location, according to the nonprofit Film L.A. Inc.
Heidecker and Wareheim are the duo behind “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,” a surreal low-budget sketch series that developed a cult following.
Although Fielder is known as a comedian, he said his Dumb Starbucks enterprise was “no bit, or joke,” despite the fact his employees were giving the coffee away — not selling it.
“This is a real business I plan to get rich from,” he said in a YouTube video.
Customers curious about the establishment, and asking how Dumb Starbucks could legally trade on the Starbucks brand name, logo and look, were handed copies of a “Frequently Asked Questions” printout, which claimed that “fair use” and laws protecting parodies exempted them from legal action.
Starbucks has said that the fair use argument does not work in this case but that the company is taking the parody with a sense of humor.
“We are aware of the store,” Starbucks said in a statement. “It is not affiliated with Starbucks. We are evaluating next steps, and while we appreciate the humor, they cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark.”
Aaron J. Moss, a partner at Los Angeles law firm Greenberg Glusker, said Dumb Starbucks “is copyright and trademark infringement on steroids.”
“Simply calling something a ‘parody’ does not provide some kind of magical protection against infringement,” he said. “You can’t just take a famous logo and trade dress, call it dumb and use it to sell the very same products in competition with the company you’re making fun of.”
The “dumb” baristas kept mum throughout the buildup. A Times editor asked a Dumb Starbucks employee early Saturday morning whether the store was part of a TV show, but the person declined to comment except to say: “Well, there is a security camera over there.”
People who guessed — or hoped — that the store was an art piece by the secretive trickster Banksy were probably disappointed. Banksy was considered a possibility by many on social media, probably because he has targeted several cultural institutions in the past, including Disneyland and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Though this would be an unusually elaborate example, high-profile publicity stunts by entertainment personalities are a well-documented tradition in Los Angeles. Last year, comedian Kurt Braunohler used money raised from a crowdfunding site to send a plane over Los Angeles to write “How do I land?” in the sky. Stand-up comic Brendon Walsh installed a phony sign on a former Circuit City building in Silver Lake announcing a new Whole Foods grocery store.
Braunohler said that he liked the idea as a parody of copyright law itself.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “It can almost be interpreted as pro-corporate protection, which is fascinating.”
Emily Gordon, a comedy producer who lives nearby, speculated before the revelation that whoever was backing the Starbucks “parody” has deeper pockets than the typical satirist.
“I know a lot of pranksters but none with enough money to open a store,” she said.
Customers waited in the long lines hoping to get a Dumb Starbucks cup to sell on online auctions. EBay users have listed “venti” and “grande” cups on the site, asking for hundreds of dollars. As of this writing, there weren’t any bids.
Times staff writers Richard Verrier, Tiffany Hsu and Deborah Vankin contributed to this report.
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