Last year when Elias Zacklin went to Nathan Fielder to help his struggling coffee shop, Fielder had the idea of taking advantage of parody law to trade on a major competitor’s brand recognition. When Zacklin pulled out of the plan, Fielder went ahead anyway — and Dumb Starbucks became a huge sensation.
To all comers, the Dumb Starbucks looked almost exactly like a normal Starbucks, except for two things: First, the word “Dumb” was in front of everything — logos, menus, hats, aprons, cups — and all the coffee was free. The question of who was behind it — was it Starbucks themselves with some strange advertising campaign or a disgruntled ex-employee or Banksy or what? – was the talk of Los Angeles for a couple days, until Fielder came forward and took credit.
“Dumb Starbucks” was later revealed to be a segment on Comedy Central’s Nathan For You (Thursdays at 10 PM and on Hulu). Nathan For You is a hilarious satire of business-expert reality shows like Kitchen Nightmares or Bar Rescue. Star Nathan Fielder visits local businesses and uses his business expertise to increase sales, but unlike Gordon Ramsay or Jon Taffer, Fielder doesn’t have decades of experience, only “really good grades” (mostly Bs) from “one of Canada’s top business schools” (the University of Victoria). Instead of common sense advice like “make food that isn’t disgusting” or “make sure your bar isn’t infested with insects“, his suggestions are a bit odder — like taking advantage of parody law to legally trade on Starbucks’ brand recognition. But Fielder’s sights aren’t on taking the piss of reality TV; Nathan For You is an indictment of the corporate system.
Anti-corporate comedy is nothing new. Mr. Show not only had sketches about deeply unethical, fictional mega-corporation GloboChem, their unproduced screenplay Hooray For America! showed GloboChem rigging the Presidential election to elect a patsy, allowing them to steal dirt from the Earth to make a smaller, exclusive Earth just for rich people. The Kids In The Hall’s severely underrated feature film Brain Candy, satirized the pharmaceutical industry’s greed. And Better Off Ted‘s Veridian Dynamics made faulty products, experimented on its employees and also rigged an election.
Unlike these, however, Nathan For You rarely directly interacts with corporations — instead, Fielder’s suggestions are often reducio ad absurdum versions of actual corporate policies. In one episode, he convinces a small gas station to offer insanely cheap gasoline – $1.75 a gallon. The catch: It’s only that cheap after rebate… and to claim that rebate, there’s a three-hour car ride to the middle of nowhere, a series of scavenger-hunt style clues, and an overnight camping trip involved. While most other companies don’t quite go to this extreme, rebates often are contingent on arbitrary rules designed to throttle the amount of money the company actually has to pay out.
Similarly, Fielder’s idea to help a struggling toymaker is a strange advertising campaign. The commercial he produced actually calls children “babies” and says no one will respect their age unless they purchase a ball called a “Doink-It”. While Fielder’s approach in advertising is a bit more direct, it’s just the other side of the coin to campaigns telling kids they need a particular product if they want to be cool or popular.
This is by design – in an interview, Fielder said he got the idea from watching the mortgage crisis of 2008, and how it represented a “culture of corruption… just legal enough to squeak by”. And it’s that concept of “legal enough corruption” that’s what Nathan For You is all about. None of Fielder’s ideas are illegal — and he even has a legal expert for that! — but Fielder’s not afraid to lie or stage things, either. For example, like this video that (legitimately) went viral, showing a hero pig saving a goat at a petting zoo — in order to give that zoo a “star animal” people would travel especially to see.
The brilliance of Nathan For You, though, is not just the letter-of-the-law trickery, but Fielder’s niceness. Even aside that you generally expect someone pitching barely-legal scams to be a slimy creep, Fielder puts the lie to “nothing personal, it’s just business”. His character on the show genuinely wants to be liked; his attempts to make friends beyond business acquaintances is a running gag of the series. By doing this, Fielder makes everything personal: He’s not coming up with these ideas to merely make money, he wants to help — and, ultimately, make a friend in the process. (Unfortunately, his attempts at friendship are about as successful as his plans.)
In the same interview, Nathan talks about combining these two goals:
If you’re putting yourself in that mindset of someone who’s just out there to make money and doesn’t care about [ethics], at the end of the day they’re probably doing it because they have some vague idea that it’s going to bring them closer to people, or give them the life they want. In the show, I try to [convey] that general sense that yes, you’re talking business with people, but there’s this need for connection that goes beyond what people are saying.
We’re currently at the halfway point of season three of Nathan For You and this season has seen him launch a new clothing line offering jackets alongside Holocaust facts to compete with a brand that supported a Holocaust denier, launch a fitness craze so people will pay to work for a moving company (and get an Amazon bestseller in the process), and skirt anti-smoking statutes with “theater law” by declaring a dive bar an avant-garde theater. And here’s hoping for many more seasons of Nathan For You, and, hopefully, a more responsible corporate world. (Okay, that last one’s not gonna happen.)
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