What clubs and comedians can learn from the raging UCB pay war
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Stand-up has evolved far beyond the clubs of yesteryear, known for stuffy and stingy club owners: Theaters have become viable places to watch cheap, vibrant comedy shows. But old perceptions linger. Last week, the Internet exploded when comedian Kurt Metzger took to Facebook to chastise the Upright Citizens Brigade theater after doing a set on his friends’ show, The Great Debate. His set, at UCB’s East Village outpost UCBeast, ribbed UCB for not paying its performers. Then, according to the show’s producers, the show was canned. Many other stand-ups joined in the conversation, populating social media with their disgust. If comedians are performing a service, they said, then they should be compensated for it, and anything less is exploitation.
Many rushed to UCB’s defense, most notably and eloquently Chris Gethard. He argued that the theater has given him far more worth over the years than a piddly $20 per show would allow: the chance to find his voice and take unfettered risks. To him, the issue is less about money and more about respect—feeling like comedians’ art is worth something to someone. He also claimed The Great Debate wasn’t canceled because of Metzger’s comments, but because of poor attendance. The plot thickened.
Thankfully, the situation is on the mend. Metzger did a set late last week at The Great Debate’s new home, The Stand. He mentioned that UCB’s own Matt Besser called him and promised to give the matter some serious thought. But that isn’t the real issue. All this has happened before (in one notable case, with a group of New York comics banding together in 2002), and all of this continues to happen at other theaters. Gethard is right: This situation is about respect, but both sides have a dearth of it.
One thing, unequivocally, right off the bat: There is very little money in live comedy performed in theaters. I say this as a producer for the Montreal Just For Laughs festival—one of the biggest comedy fests in the world—as well as a pavement-pounding producer and host of my own little shindig in Brooklyn. I’ve been lucky enough to see, first-hand, how the other side operates.
I can’t get too into the fiscal nitty-gritty of JFL, due to the risk of breaching my nondisclosure agreement, but while the organization itself grows to new cities every year and books cooler and cooler guests, like The Muppets, its staff shrinks. Paychecks fight inflation with fixed decimal points. Welcome to the club, right? What doesn’t change is the perception that JFL is a greedy fat-cat. Comedians and theaters consistently want more money, and they insinuate we are lying when we say the loonies and toonies just aren’t there.
This is a large-scale example, so let’s talk about a single show, at a single theater. As comedian Sara Schaefer pointed out, there is some math at play. The Great Debate had 120 people at the show in question, and UCB was charging 10 bucks a head. That’s $1,200 right there, and Schaefer wondered how it could be so hard to give a small fraction of that to the performers. But the math isn’t that simple. Subtract the cost of the tech—both the people working that night and the operating costs of past shows, i.e. replacing expensive light bulbs and hiring a cleaning crew. Subtract staff payment and utilities. A fee for the webmaster and UCB’s promotional efforts. Rent in lower Manhattan. The mystery of the vanishing money has been solved.
And those are just a few of the expenses a particular show might incur when it’s afforded the luxury of working in isolation—when it’s a one-off that forever exits the stage upon completion. If it’s a long-running affair, the show might have had a really small house last month (in fact, The Great Debate’s producers claim a different attendance number than Metzger, a much lower number), and some of that money would go to recuperating those losses. If it takes place somewhere like UCB, some of that money might subsidize a show the night before that had the same costs, was only charging $5 a head, and only pulled in half a dozen people. Point is, It’d be surprising if anyone walked away with more than two figures at a theater show where patrons aren’t gouged and don’t have a two-drink minimum.
Theaters have a valuable commodity in the form of stage time. And in UCB’s case, it’s quality stage time with a reputation in the community and a built-in audience. There’s a catch for people who want to perform at places like UCB, or the People’s Improv Theater, or iO in Chicago: They have to agree to tacitly support the theater and what it stands for. That means “paying” for someone else’s flop in the hope someone else will someday “pay” for theirs.
There are options for people who don’t find that an appealing prospect. Namely, one particular option that has barely been touched on in this debate: self-promotion. One of the best examples was the founding of the UCB theater itself. Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh created a place for their distinct renegade humor, and allowed likeminded friends to join them. Obviously, it worked, as evidenced by Poehler’s massive success on Parks And Recreation and Walsh’s recent appearances on Veep, as well as Besser’s podcast prolificity and Roberts’ writing/producing prowess on Key & Peele. It just so happens that along the way, the UCB mentality spoke to budding comics, who started coming to New York to study there. Any of those new comics who feel the slightest bit of entitlement could remember those UCB roots, and follow its model themselves, by finding a willing venue and working out a door deal—thus creating a means to potentially make money and raise their own profiles until places like UCB would be remiss to ignore them. They should just be ready to pay the tech guy, or maybe even find one. And a webmaster, unless they want to build a site themselves. There’s also marketing, taxes, press, and so on.
It’s surprising that Metzger and the other comics directed their comments toward UCB, and not The Great Debate’s two hosts. It was the hosts’ choice to put on a show at a place with a policy of not paying its performers. Perhaps they weren’t in the mood to create their own TicketWeb links.
That’s totally fine, though! The great thing about 2013 is that there are options. This particular kerfuffle is about comics like Metzger being fairly compensated for their art and craft—namely those whose name carries some marketability. Metzger is a great comic who doesn’t need UCB to put him on anyone’s radar, and plenty of others fall in the same category. But there are many ways to show respect and to demonstrate an understanding that it’s the comics who make shows great, not merely the venue name on the door. The buck doesn’t stop with financial compensation. Theater management might go out of their way to treat comics reasonably and graciously. Perhaps afford them unlimited creative freedom and be patient as an esoteric, conceptual show finds its footing. And once that footing is found, the industry may be waiting in the wings.
But UCB and other theaters remain inconsistent about respect and courtesy. If the Facebook explosion against UCB is to be believed, comics are occasionally given attitude by staff and aren’t allowed to use their lone drink ticket until after they’ve actually gone onstage. Performers are dropped from teams, and shows from rosters, without much explanation. Perhaps there’s a financial deal waiting to be worked out with UCB, so long as it doesn’t bankrupt anyone. But really, it’s simply a matter of venues demonstrating their appreciation of the work comics are doing—that sets aren’t thrown up for one night. Stand-up acts and improv nimbleness take years to hone, and individual performances should be priced with that in mind. After all, they’re raising the reputation of the theater. If there’s simply no money to share, then perhaps an openness in communication is the answer. Comics might appreciate UCB’s financial struggles if they were allowed a more accurate sense of where that money is going. Not that anyone should feel obligated to be as overt as musician Amanda Palmer, who raised a very public amount of money via Kickstarter and then initially failed to compensate local musicians who joined her onstage at tour stops. There’s a middle ground between showing a dollar amount and remaining totally silent. Knowing might make something nebulous, like opportunity and freedom, a more promising surrogate for dollar signs.
There’s more than respect at the center of this issue. It’s also a matter of trust. While theaters might seem like money-printing machines, they’re vulnerable. Comics can be understanding and compassionate to the plight of other community members, and value theaters’ investment. I have been a performer, a producer, a journalist, a member of the industry, and a fan. I have rarely encountered someone working in any facet of comedy that is not rooting for its success and doesn’t want to elevate the art. Both sides want the same thing, and both sides are willing to talk. Let’s remember that Internet chatter makes things feel like the norm, not the exception, and that it’s only in working together that both theaters and comics can make people laugh.