The Parody Artist Is Present

Hillary Hubley

Comedian Nathan Fielder is known for pushing buttons and boundaries. His Comedy Central show, Nathan For You, is a cult classic beloved by many for its wacky and often cringeworthy humor. The show’s premise is simple. Fielder, a graduate of “one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades,” endeavors to help struggling small businesses in LA by offering them one gamechanging idea. These ideas are without exception patently ridiculous, and often legally ambiguous. Fielder’s understanding of the law seems to extend solely to the protections it provides against getting sued, and will at times go to great lengths to indemnify himself and the business he is helping. In the show’s most watched episode - Dumb Starbucks - Fielder uses “parody law” as this shield. 

The episode revolves around Elias Zacklin, owner of a struggling third-wave coffee shop called Helio Cafe. Fielder suggests that Zacklin rebrand to render his cafe indistinguishable from Starbucks. He explains that the fair use doctrine (articulated throughout the episode as “parody law”) allows them to use all of Starbucks’ intellectual property so long as they do so in jest. To Fielder, this provides the ability to replicate a Starbucks store with one alteration - the addition of the word “dumb” in front of every item for sale. 

Fielder recognizes that more may be necessary to bolster the legality of Dumb Starbucks. He consults with a lawyer (the two engage in a humorous struggle over a contract) who advises him to develop a reputation as a “parody artist.” Fielder follows his advice to hilarious ends. First he and Zacklin perform at an open mic night to an utter lack of acclaim. Next Fielder rents out an art gallery to display visual parody art - low-hanging jabs at famous trademarks. This seems to garner more approval, although there are no takers on the $2500 “Woodfellas” poster. 

Finally, when Dumb Starbucks opens, Fielder registers it as an art gallery. Those that patronize Dumb Starbucks are part of the exhibit, and their purchases represent an art sale. He is very up front about this to all comers, and places a Legal FAQ on the wall.

Within the episode’s universe, there is a weak argument to be made regarding parody. That - among other things - is what makes the episode funny, and why it’s worth a watch for any practicing attorney in this space. However, stepping outside of the episode and looking at Fielder’s show as a whole results in a different analysis. 

Nathan For You is a parody program. Its structure is not dissimilar to many reality TV self-help shows. Fielder goes to great lengths to embody an awkward, uncomfortable personality, complete with cheesy voiceover about what he has learned. His show works so well because his subjects remain oblivious to this parody. In fact, the relationship Fielder develops with the people on his show is perhaps the greatest parody (see aforementioned contract tussle).

The “Dumb Starbucks” episode parodies not just Starbucks, but consumer culture. Dumb Starbucks becomes an overnight hit. People start queueing outside, hypothesizing someone like Banksy is behind it, and lauding its sharp criticism of corporate America. It makes local and then national news. TV legal experts endeavor to justify the business’ weak legal footing. The media blitz culminates with Fielder appearing on Jimmy Kimmel. Are all these people blindly following a trend? Looking for meaning in the meaningless? As Fielder posits, “It was cool that people could draw their own meaning from a business that was just there to make money.” The parody at hand is multi-layered and extends far beyond the scope of the Starbucks trademark. Any cogent legal analysis of the issue necessitates a deeper understanding of Fielder and his MO.

This concept is illustrated best earlier in the episode. At Fielder’s parody art exhibit, a patron approaches him about his “Tank of America” piece. He offers up a predictable interpretation - something along the lines of a nexus between war and big business. Fielder retorts that “the meaning of this is actually just like, you know, you put your money in the bank. It’s really safe, like a tank.” No one can make a parody of a parody better than Nathan Fielder.