Nathan Fielder: The Man Behind Dumb Starbucks, and the Internet's Smartest Jokes

PHOTO: Comedian Nathan Fielder comes forward as the brainchild of "Dumb Starbucks," a parody store that resembles a Starbucks with the word "Dumb" attached above the Starbucks sign, Feb. 11, 2014.PlayNick Ut/AP Photo
WATCH 'Dumb' Starbucks Closed for Health Violation

Nathan Fielder, the host of Comedy Central's "Nathan For You," revealed on Monday that he was behind a parody coffee shop that opened in Los Feliz, Calif., which drew large crowds.

Fielder, whose program focuses on creating outlandish marketing campaigns for real small businesses, said naming the store Dumb Starbucks, fulfilled "the minimum requirements to be considered a parody under U.S. law." The store, which was legally opened as an art gallery, was soon shuttered by the California Department of Health.

ABC News profiled Fielder following the conclusion of the show's first season. A version of this article originally ran on May 31, 2013.

Parody coffee shop in Los Feliz, Calif., takes donations for its free coffee and pastries.Play
'Dumb Starbucks Coffee' Draws Crowds

If today is like most days, somewhere in West Hollywood, Calif., Nathan Fielder, a Canadian comedian on his way to reshaping reality television and testing the limits of what it means to make something go viral on the internet, is taking a walk.

"I walk around the neighborhood a lot. I like side streets. I do a lot of thinking," says Fielder, 29, writer, director and star of Comedy Central's "Nathan for You" and the man responsible for introducing the world to "poo-flavored" frozen yogurt, among other marketing innovations.

The show, which just concluded its first season and was picked up for a second, was conceived by Fielder and co-creator Michael Koman. According to Fielder, the two friends "sat in a room for a lot of hours trying to find a way" to make a show in which the comedian, whose deadpan delivery makes him a natural straight man, interacted with real people.

Despite that history, the show feels like American huckster PT Barnum and Canadian nebbish Rick Moranis were forced to watch episodes of "Undercover Boss" on an endless loop and then pitch a television show.

Fielder has found a niche few people laughing at his jokes likely realized existed before he came along to fill it. He points a high-powered microscope at American consumerism, finding humor in the everyday totems of American commerce – pizza delivery, the clothing boutique, the gas station – the way Andy Warhol found art amid supermarket shelves.

If the concept for the show was born in a room with his co-creator, the ideas for each are born out of those daily walks, past the shops and restaurants that become not just the backdrops, but the writers' room and casting agency for each episode.

Along the way, Fielder has also earned a reputation as a prankster prince of the internet, pulling the wool over the eyes not just of unsuspecting small businesses but the national news media.

Just this week, one of his signature Twitter bits, he doesn't like to call them "pranks," again went viral.

You may never have heard of Fielder or seen his show, but if you're dating someone who this week texted you "I haven't been fully honest with you" and then didn't reply for an hour as you went nuts, sending him or her multiple and increasingly erratic text messages in response, then you're more familiar with Fielder's work than you know.

You also might know him if you've watched that viral video of a baby pig saving a baby goat, or if you emailed that video to a friend. If you broadcast the video during a network television newscast as both ABC and NBC did, well, then the joke's really on you.

In each episode of "Nathan for You," Fielder approaches a real business with an outlandish marketing gimmick. In the first season, he convinced the managers of a froyo shop that selling "poo-flavored" yogurt would result in media attention and ultimately more foot traffic.

It worked.

He talked a filling station owner into selling gas for $1.75 a gallon, half what the competition was charging, but only "after rebate." The rebate came with a hitch. It was redeemable only after a two-hour hike up a mountain, answering a series of riddles and camping out overnight.

People actually did it.

If all of this seems a bit squirm-inducing, watching a well-meaning, hard-working businessperson hand over the reins and reputation of his company to a comedian for the sake of an eight-minute gag, well, that's the point.

"There are very specific situations that people can be put in that reveal things about their personalities in a very short moment," Fielder says. "When people are on camera or just going through their life, it's in a controlled state of how they choose to present themselves to the world."

"My favorite moments are when they can't put that mask on because the situation is so different," he says.

Those situations -- like convincing a sweet old diner owner to market her business as the only restaurant with bathrooms "not" for customers only -- can come off as mean, a charge which Fielder adamantly denies.

"'Mean' and 'difficult to watch' are two different things," he says. "A lot of people get uncomfortable watching difficult social situations. My aunt can't watch the show. She gets so uncomfortable she has to leave the room."

Not only is his show not mean, he says, it is actually nicer than most reality shows.

Reality shows typically prey on their participants, he says, forcing people to be mean, or more often portraying them as stupid.

"We focus on people you wouldn't normally see on reality shows. The nice sweet people. Sometimes [reality shows] will bring out the nastiness in people, I like to bring out the kindness in people.… [Most reality shows] joke that people are stupid."

The essence of Fielder's sense of humor, he says, is all part of a lifelong struggle to "figure out my personality."

Fielder says he was a shy kid growing up. He learned magic, and worked birthday parties in high school, all in an effort to break out of his shell.

The only son of two Canadian civil servants, Fielder really does have a business degree from a leading Canadian university, a point he makes on the show and when pitching the program to real business owners.

After college he began doing standup and making short videos he would post to the Internet. Those videos landed him a spot on "This Hour Has 22 Minutes," Canada's answer to the "Daily Show," in which he honed his talking-to-real-people shtick.

That Fielder started his career on the internet might not come as a surprise to those who only know Fielder from the internet.

In addition to his television program, he has pioneered making comedy on Twitter beyond the obvious 140-character one-liner.

Fielder nearly broke the internet last month, when he asked his mostly college-aged Twitter following to text their parents "got 2 grams for $40," a reference to buying drugs. Then immediately text them again with "Sorry ignore that txt. Not for you."

His followers, thousands of them, then took pictures of the text message exchanges parents had with their kids, believing they had stumbled on a drug deal.

"Say goodbye to college," wrote back one mother, clearly not amused.

In a similar prank Fielder had kids ask their parents if Dollar Store condoms were any good.

The internet pranks stem from the same impetus as the television show, finding the humor in putting real people in familiar but otherwise uncomfortable situations.

Fielder says he is preparing the show's second season. Already he has in mind a bit in which a mattress store lets people stay overnight in order to field test their sleeping experience.

But for now, he's going for a walk.