Nathan Fielder’s Business Theater: ‘Dumb Starbucks’ Wasn’t a Prank
Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder is fixing small businesses, one brilliant idea at a time. Just don’t call what he’s doing pranks.
Nathan Fielder is the only television host willing to admit he watches reality television.
When asked what reality shows he watches, he named The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
“They are the ultimate reality concept,” Fielder says in a steady, customer service voice. “They take an absurd premise, but they dress it up in a straight way. They communicate that romance is at the core, but it’s really a circus. That’s why it's gone on 20 seasons. It’s fascinating to watch. The conflicts are amazing. Clearly it is not an efficient method to find love, yet people convince themselves it is.”
Fielder is the host of Comedy Central’s Nathan For You, now in its second season. The format features Fielder, in the role of business expert (“I have a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Victoria [in British Colombia, Canada]”) consulting with the owners of various small businesses and presenting innovative solutions.
Always conservatively dressed in suits and sweaters, Nathan Fielder’s button-down camouflage is an essential element in his subversive comedy. Behind any customer service counter, he would look perfectly suited to helping you rent a car, or open a new bank account. With a straight face and a deadpan delivery, his comedy style lays bare the fallaciousness of oftentimes oversimplified business “strategies” taken to their ridiculously logical conclusion.
In the first episode of the second season, that included helping a real estate agent rebrand her business as “100% Ghost and Demon Free” after performing an exorcism to clear the dwelling of any lingering spirits. Unlike other reality shows, Fielder swears by his integrity. “We put stuff out there that interacts with the real world in an unpredictable way,” he says. “We embrace that, and weave it into the story. The goal is to embrace reality.” Since the taping of the episode, there have been no reports of demons or ghosts in any of the real estate agent’s homes.
America’s small businesses are frequently trotted out as the backbone of the U.S. economy, but approximately 25 percent close after a year or less in operation with as many as 70 percent closed after a decade. A recent StatisticBrain study showed that 93.1 percent of small businesses earn revenues less than $250,000 per year, with 51.7 percent earning less than $25,000. “There is a promise that you can make a successful life running a business,” Fielder says. “There’s a lot of optimism and hope in that area. But it’s difficult.”
The most frequent cause of business failure, according to StatisticBrain.com? Incompetence.
“It seems like the game in the American Economy is to find tricks and loopholes to give you an advantage,” Fielder says. “It’s not about a strong product, but what kind of tricks will make more money. If you look, a lot of people are subconsciously influenced by that mentality.”
Fielder’s first job for Comedy Central was on the sketch comedy show Important Things with Demetri Martin, where Nathan For You producer Michael Kamen was head writer. “We got along well. He got my sensibilities. I got his,” Fielder says. “We wrote a lot together. After I pitched Nathan For You they picked up a pilot. Michael came on board and it changed from the original version.” An early iteration of the show had Fielder in more of a consumer advocate role like the show from which the host drew inspiration, the acclaimed Canadian series This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
“I didn’t want to say anything negative about a business,” he says. “The show changed to me helping businesses.” In Nathan For You’s current form, Fielder acts in the capacity of a consultant.
While several reviews have described the style of Nathan For You as “pranks,” the host doesn’t agree with the term. “I can understand why people would call it that, but I don’t really see the stuff I do that way,” he says. “Pranks are more hidden camera. Our show uses very little hidden cam. It’s closer to a social experiment. Everything is visible. Pretty much. The only thing we do hide is people don’t know what the pitch is, but that’s standard for a reality show. They never let people in on the full context.”
The most recent episode of Nathan For You featured the host’s most attention-grabbing idea yet, when they opened a “fake” coffee shop under the name “Dumb Starbucks.” A “fake” coffee shop was set up at 1802 Hillhurst Avenue in Los Angeles that resembled a standard issue Starbucks restaurant in every way except the word “dumb” appeared before everything. A “non-fat, grande, soy chai latte with a half-shot of espresso and no foam” became a “dumb non-fat, grande, soy chai latte with a half-shot of espresso and no foam.” The taping created such a stir that late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel had Nathan on to discuss the idea.
“There are no accurate numbers for the amount of customers we had, but my guess would be thousands,” Fielder says. “In a way it exceeded anyone’s expectations. A lot of things happened we didn’t foresee. It was the best episode we’ve ever done. People lined up around the block.”
To avoid copyright infringement, “Dumb Starbucks” was technically a parodic art gallery and not a coffee shop. Before filming, Fielder sat down with a copyright lawyer to discuss the legal implications of using the Starbucks name and logo on the series. “The scene with the lawyer is one of the craziest ever on the show,” he says. “One of the things [the lawyer] said is that it would help if I had a history of making parody art. So part of what I had to do was create other works of parody art in case Starbucks came after [us].”
He filmed that part, too, with the host performing parody songs around Los Angeles to establish a precedence of parodic works.
Eventually, the Los Angeles Board of Health shut down the art project.
At the time, a number of media commenters assumed the “stunt” was meant to generate publicity for the series, but Fielder insists that was never his intention. “It starts off similar to other episodes. There’s a pitch, an idea for a business, but then it sprints in another direction. When it gets to such a big scale sometimes it feels like things have gone out of control. We tried to embrace that as well.”
Fielder aspires to the likes of past business entertainment like the previously mentioned Canadian series This Hours Has 22 Minutes, but he also models his style after BBC journalist Louis Theroux. “I love his stuff,” he says. “He incorporates himself into the stories and he is very good at what he does. People really open up to him. He's trustworthy and a nice guy. It's amazing the access he gets. He did this thing at a Miami jail where he got free rein to talk to anyone.”
“It’s more about authentic moments,” he says. “The interactions being authentic in some way that reveals something about the person. I’m after moments between people.”
“When I watch TV,” Fielder says, “I’m aware that there’s a crew there. A lot of shows try to hide that fact.” Reality television shows, even when they overcome the frequent complaints of passing off actors as “real” people or scripting and rehearsing scenes, try to minimize the production aspect of their performances. Nathan For You incorporates that into the show by the host pretending not to notice his subject’s reaction to the camera. “A lot of the show revolves around an awareness of cameras being present. Because it’s not a hidden camera show, the context incorporates that there’s a camera on the subject into the show. You definitely feel the influence of the reality show because of that.”
“Reality exists on so many different levels that it’s about what comes out of the person,” Fielder says. “So, these people are aware of the cameras but it’s still an authentic moment.”