Dumb Starbucks and the Art of Parody, Comedy, and Coffee

This fake coffee shop doled out free 'dumb' drinks in L.A. over the weekend—and hordes showed up to be part of...something.

((Photo: Dan R. Krauss/Getty Images)

Feb 11, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

And the joke’s on whom? That was the big question swirling around a mysterious pop-up coffee shop that opened in an otherwise unremarkable strip mall a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles on Saturday. Its name? Dumb Starbucks.

Grouchy folks have long scoffed at the ability of the original Starbucks to persuade Americans to pay $5 for their morning (and afternoon…and evening) caffeine fix. But over the weekend, this “parody” shop led hordes of social-media-savvy Angelenos to wait in block-long lines for what was reportedly less-than-Starbucks-worthy (albeit free) coffee.

Facebook and Twitter lit up over the weekend with reports of the strange new coffee shop sandwiched between a down-at-the-heels coin-op laundry and a deli. It looked like a Starbucks, except for the word “Dumb” appended to both the sign and the trademark logo.

Considering the elaborateness of the ruse (those signs really look real), the detailed approach pointed to something more substantially financed than just a couple of bored, probably stoned pranksters hoping to score hits on YouTube. Indeed, Comedy Central's Nathan Fielder, star of the show Nathan for You, held a very real press conference in front of what he revealed to be his fake coffee shop yesterday afternoon. The entire affair will be fodder for the upcoming second season of his show. A Brooklyn location of Dumb Starbucks is in the works too.

Early reports—and there were so many reports!—suggested that employees of the mock shop didn't know why they were hired or who was paying them. A sign on the counter reportedly stated: “Although we are a fully functioning coffee shop, for legal reasons Dumb Starbucks needs to be categorized as a work of parody art. So, in the eyes of the law, our ‘coffee shop’ is actually an art gallery and the ‘coffee’ you're buying is actually the art. But that's for our lawyers to worry about. All you need to do is enjoy our delicious coffee!”

The uncanny resemblance extended to the interior, according to accounts from the likes of The Hollywood Reporter. Green-aproned baristas hustled beneath a close simulacrum of a Starbucks menu board (complete with calorie counts) that advertised “Dumb Iced Espresso,” “Dumb Brewed Coffee,” “Dumb Tea”…well, you get the picture.

Alongside (nonoperational) cash registers were CDs such as Dumb Norah Jones Duets and Dumb Jazz Standards. Coffee was served in familiar white cups bearing the Dumb Starbucks logo, some of which were promptly sold outside for upwards of $20 as “collector’s items.”

The pop-up had been set to run through Friday, but the Los Angeles County Health Department shut it down shortly after the big reveal yesterday—it was operating without the proper permits. But without the air of mystery surrounding Dumb Starbucks the whole enterprise feels that much more, well, dumb. It was commerce by way of television, after all, that was the driving force behind Dumb Starbucks, not an artistic criticism of American corporatism. The idea of a replica Starbucks operating like an actual Starbucks, modified only by the descriptor "dumb," is more compelling as social commentary than it is as comedic stunt.

Either way, the real Starbucks has assumed an air of cool corporate bemusement about the whole thing, with company spokespeople variously asserting that Starbucks “appreciates” the humor, according to the Washington Post, but the use of its logo is a legal no-no (can’t you just picture the tight-lipped smile accompanying that statement?).

That's not rattling Fielder at all. "They're smart in not pursuing a case they know they can't win," he said, dressed in a Starbucks-green apron, during the press conference. "If they keep the pressure up, they do risk losing me as a customer."

Although it failed as conceptual art, Fielder's comments help cement Dumb Starbucks' status as a hugely successful publicity stunt—because someone eventually had to fess up to what exactly was being publicized.