The first thing I thought of when I heard about Dumb Starbucks was the movie Idiocracy.
- Joe: Man, I could really go for a Starbucks, you know?
- Frito: Yeah, well, I really don't think we have time for a hand job, Joe.
In one of the most skeweringly intelligent movies of the last 10 years, Mike Judge rebranded Starbucks Coffee as "Exotic Coffee for Men," offering "full body lattes" for only $50,000. It wasn't really a dig at Starbucks per se; most of the corporations in Idiocracy's future have become sex-focused (FedExxx, Home Deep-Oh), which, in a way, was totally ridiculous, but also felt weirdly plausible.
At first, Dumb Starbucks offered a real-life portal into that mocking, satirical universe, a chance to self-knowingly wink at our venti decaf salted caramel mocha frappuccino-sucking lifestyles. Dumb Starbucks and its Dumb Americanos and its Dumb Nora Jones [sic] CDs would shine a mirror on our outrageous ways with this caricature of a caricature of a caricature of a coffee shop.
For two days, not knowing who was behind it, Angelenos dreamed. We waited in line for four hours. We dutifully Instagrammed the facade. We got emails from our parents in the midwest, asking what it was all about. We hoped and believed there was a brilliant explanation.
But it was not the Yes Men, providing scathing social commentary on the chain's policies. It was not a well-executed student project about copyright and trademark laws. It was not a carefully orchestrated promotion for the L.A.-based coffee company Tonx, which has been cleverly honoring Starbucks gift cards to purchase their coffees. It was not, as we'd really hoped, a visit from Banksy, putting us once again in the international street art spotlight. It was not James Franco. It was not even the work of another artist who "claimed" the project a few hours before the real creator stepped forward.
It was simply a comedian who wanted to do something funny to promote his show.
The most telling moment in the whole ordeal was during the press conference with instigator Nathan Fielder (wearing a green Dumb Starbucks apron), when a reporter attempted to remove her microphone and leave early.
This was not really the ending we wanted.
Almost 24 hours after Dumb Starbucks had been shut down by the health department, two dozen people stood in the parking lot posing for photos and peering in the shop's tinted windows. A security guard sat in a folding chair, speaking ambiguously about the project to the curious crowds. "It got shut down." "It was really popular."
Inside, three people stood having what looked like a serious conversation near the end of a convincing facsimile Starbucks counter while two young men swept the floor.
A young girl wearing a large neon-colored helmet maneuvered her scooter onto the sidewalk, trailed by a woman wearing workout clothes and a button that read "Ask me how I lost weight!" The girl rolled her scooter along the storefront, intrigued by the scene. "Why can't we go in, mommy?" "I guess it's closed," said mom, confirming with the security guard. When the mom suggested it was time to leave, the girl started to whine. "I want to go in."
One couple seemed to be in a hurry. They spent no more than a minute taking photos, then quickly got back into their car and pulled out of their parking space. Another car was already waiting to take their spot. Three people got out and took photos with their phones. When they got back into their car, another car was waiting.
Next door to Dumb Starbucks is an Armenian market with few labels in English and a surprising array of fresh produce. I asked the cashier if they'd had an uptick in sales over the weekend, assuming that they'd seen some overflow business due to the long lines. "No, not at all," the woman said, shaking her head. "It was less. People couldn't get into the parking lot." I hadn't thought of that. Did they even warn the other businesses in the strip mall, like a film shoot would have done? "No, nothing," she said. I bought some bananas. Behind her, a Dumb Starbucks cup sat atop their own coffee roaster, with a handwritten sign advertising French Roast beans for $4.99 a pound.
I wandered back outside just as a man with dark curly hair marched up to Dumb Starbucks' door with purpose and pulled the handle towards him. It opened! A few of us glanced around at each other; it had been open the whole time! One of the cleaning men with a broom tried to block him from entering. "We're closed, sorry." The man tugged at the door insistently, saying, "I'm the broker." The cleaning man shook his head: "We're not open." The man stopped and looked at him. "I'm the real estate broker." The man with the broom let the broker in and locked the door behind him.
No one else gained access while I was there. Still, they kept trying, a few people every few minutes. Some left very disappointed. "Is it closed?" "Oh man!" "Why is it closed?"
Others knew there was nothing to see, but they still wanted to see.
At first, I thought I should be grateful for Dumb Starbucks. It brought global attention to my neighborhood. It unified our population around one conversation, which doesn't happen that often.
But in a way I felt betrayed: It could have been so much better.
When I look at the parody brands in Idiocracy, the level of thought that went into each and every logo and tagline is truly impressive. The details are so thoroughly conceived that they hit us where it hurts: right in our bloated, over-commercialized guts.
Not that Fielder isn't a funny guy (we probably should have all guessed the man who created a poo-flavored yogurt was behind these antics). But even compared to some of his TV show plots, this idea packed none of that punch. He was on Jimmy Kimmel last night deadpanning once again that he was totally serious about his shop and was working with the health department to get the business reopened. I was totally rooting for this level of commitment.
But this wasn't actually true. By 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, right around when Fielder was taping Kimmel, the signage was dismantled and removed. It was over.
We are a city that is used to being punked. We invented the hidden-camera show in all its various iterations. Our streets are filled with production crews and film students staging gags. We enjoy laughing at ourselves. But this one didn't live up to our high standards. We deserve better. All those people showing up, hours after Dumb Starbucks closed? We were expecting more.
It didn't really matter. A few miles away, another stunt had caught our attention. Shia LeBeouf sat in a gallery issuing public apologies while crying and wearing a paper bag over his head.
People were lined up around the block, waiting for the punchline.