Missing the Forest for the UCB Tree
If you are a comedian or friends with comedians on social media then you have probably read about the “controversy” involving the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB). By way of quick background, I believe the issue began when comedian Kurt Metzger commented on social media that the UCB was charging covers and not paying performers after he performed on a show at UCB. As a result, the entire show he had been booked on was kicked out of the UCB (whereas the more reasonable or at least understandable approach might have been to not allow Metzger to perform at their venues).
In full disclosure I just started co-producing an already existing show at UCB East called Unmanageable. In fuller disclosure I have been nothing on this blog (and on my podcast) if not willing to burn bridges in the furtherance of what I believe is in the good of the art and business of comedy. So feel free to question my integrity given my unpaid dog in the fight, but I think it would be foolish to think I am kissing ass.
What followed in the wake of the UCB “controversy” was (and is) one of the most myopic and self-congratulatory discussions I have seen in ten years doing comedy. I have spent considerable time on this site over the last 4 years writing about things I have observed first hand as problems with the business of comedy, on a national (or at least relatively large) scale, that I believe are hurting, or will hurt, the art of comedy. However, in the last couple of years in New York (and from what I have been told, but cannot speak to, Los Angeles) has become centered around alternative rooms that provide a nurturing clubhouse of comedy. The same comedians I used to see trashing new or weak comedians from the shadowy backs of comedy club basements are now the high priesthood of this alternative-dominant scene. Although some of these comedians are talented and working their craft all over, many of their acolytes are just people whose comedy is crafted for and supported by a very specific and unique scene. However these folks do not seem able to accept that with that nurturing, narrow environment comes some limitations. I really think that the UCB debate is truly a great example of losing the forest for the trees. Allow me to pause the UCB discussion for a different problem in comedy.
Feature work, as Atlanta’s Punchline Comedy Club owner recently said on one of the podcasts I operate, is the Triple A (baseball, not automotive analogy) of comedy. It is the best way to develop the next wave of headliners. You work with headliners, you work different parts of the country and you get exposed to different crowds and different styles. You become conditioned to work longer sets. You are the bridge between the emcee and the headliner. It is an integral part of both the comedy show and the comedy business. But there is a real problem here. Features are still being paid in 1988 money, and in some cases less. I once had a discussion with a comedy club manager on the road and we talked about what a good feature should be paid and he said $1000 plus a room (travel is on the comic). But what are comedians on the road being paid for feature work? Usually around $600 with a room, most of the time. When you factor in travel this is really not a livable wage, especially when most features are not working 40+ weeks a year. But where is the outcry from the comedy community? It is no where because most comedians are concerned about their local clubhouse because that is where they have friends and support and have no idea what is happening outside of their own backyards. Lots of the heroes of this scene are bypassing this middle stage of a comedy career because the business is currently enamored with this scene and elevating people to headliner status quickly (I am NOT saying undeservedly, so do not take quickly to be some comment of derision). So they report back to their admirers how great and wonderful comedy is and that bitterness and anger are not needed. The priests have spoken; the followers cheer and the tortoise-like middle group struggles to improve their craft the old-fashioned way.
I spent three years working the Cleveland Improv as an emcee. I was booked 3-4 weeks a year and despite featuring nationally at every other club I worked, I was not getting elevated. The Cleveland Improv is a generally urban crowd (not meaning “black,” though that is the main demographic of the audience members, but stylistically the headliners are often those most known for BET and Def Jam appearances) and it took me a while to work those crowds. But the club knew I was good so I kept getting booked to emcee (two weeks at a time which was a nice way to minimize travel hits) and I became better at working the crowds, until 2012 when I was really killing out of the emcee spot. So then I was set to feature. So thanks to the Cleveland Improv, although I was not always happy about it, I developed the skills to work urban rooms, honed emcee skills (you never know when you will need them) and developed a great relationship with a club and a small group of fans. And then I got the word this month – the Cleveland Improv would not be booking their own features any more (they were one of the few that still independently booked features). Instead the central booking office for many of the features of the Improvs and Funny Bones would take over.
I was passed to feature at the Improvs and Funny Bones in 2009 (after not being passed in 2007 – I agreed with both the 2007 and 2009 decisions). I was and have been treated fairly by the chains (and the central booking office) and received complimentary messages after 2010 and 2011 when I started to get feature work. And then in 2012 I received zero bookings. I do not think there was any personal reason for this I just think that between headliners bringing their own features and more clubs using local talent (for hotel costs) the amount of work for independent features trying to work the road is drying up. So now I look at the Cleveland Improv and realize one of the dozen or so A road clubs I’ve earned the hard way is no longer going to work me, at least not nearly with the consistency they had been.
This is only a theory on my part but as I see national clubs starting to charge ticket fees (because stand up was definitely missing a Ticketmaster feel), more and more of the feature booking taken out of the local hands and the consolidation of talent and clubs on Laughstub I feel like the national comedy scene is going to become more monolithic and closed to independent performers. Could I be wrong? Maybe, but when in our history has big business not passed on the opportunity to become bigger business without checks, balances and regulations?
But what’s that independent, alt rebels? Alternative venues and other such things are giving comedians a chance to bypass the traditional gatekeepers? Louis CK proved that right? No he didn’t. CK spent decades working WITH the gatekeepers until he could become the one man corporation that he is today. Clubs are still the gatekeepers for the vast majority of clubs. So maybe we can all boycott clubs and bring them to their knees, but there is no alternative to creating sustainable, successful careers in stand up comedy outside of the clubs. Please do not point to examples of people who used the clubs as their springboard. And do not give me examples like Rob Delaney, who may have gained notoriety through Twitter, but is now working the clubs just like every other headliner. So maybe in twenty years it will all be different, but I do not want my career and the careers of my peers to be martyred to a seismic change that may never occur, or to become a lost generation of headliners passed over because we were too young when we entered at the turn of the millennium and too old when Comedy Central and MTV decided that youth trumps all. And if you want UCB to pay you accordingly then they will have to start charging more money and instead of an alt-scene darling you will have what many of you have been avoiding: another comedy regular comedy club.
This UCB debate to me is about a nice venue that charges low or no cover for their shows and no drink requirements for its customers. They have made a business decision to sacrifice the level of talent they may attract for the chance of drawing larger audiences. I am not sure why this is such a tragedy. I am always looking for places to perform. Some open mics charge money. This may suck, but if a bar wants to be compensated for use of the space where they pay rent then they are not villains for doing so. Similarly, but to a greater extent, the UCB provides a very nice venue to work out material and expose your art to potential fans. They do not pay performers, but they also ask very little of the audience. It is a trade-off they made and I see no problem with it. But that may be because of my experiences as a comedian.
I have travelled for a $400 gig on a $408 flight in the hopes of building a relationship with a club. I luckily sold 17 CDs at $10 a pop to clear some kind of profit, but I did it to work my comedy and to enhance my career for the long haul. I am working road gigs this year where I am not provided with rooms and in one case, am being paid well below the established market rate for feature work because I am working with quality headliners and hope to network and build a fan base. These are the choices I am making and I do not blame anyone but myself for the choices. But there are a lot of talented people who may not fit into the Comedy Central demographic who are trying to hone their skills in the trenches of road work and cannot afford to work for peanuts. And they cannot compete against managers and a system that have chosen to squeeze the feature class for cost cutting. And I believe THIS is a devastating problem for comedy. Feature work was never going to make anyone rich, but now for many talented people it is not even a viable or available option, which is a shame because of how vital quality features are to the future of comedy. Perhaps some comedy clubs are in trouble and really need to be careful, but there are many who treat comedians like the oil industry treats the Earth. “Sure, the next 30-40 years of comedy depend on a thriving and well-honed feature class of comedians, but the next 5-10 years of my bottom line will be better if I scorch the earth and only use lesser local talent and/or crush the livelihood, or at least incentive, of features.”
So while I appreciate the sentiments of some of the people who complained about UCB, because no one likes to feel ripped off, I feel like complaining about the UCB in spite of what is really happening to working comedians is like asking who left the TV on while the rest of the house is on fire. The UCB is providing a space for (local) people to perform in front of an audience that they cultivate through their marketing, the rent they pay and the cheap cover they charge. I do not see a problem with that. But outside the small world of alternative venues in NYC there is an entire country that is slowly, but surely, gutting the training grounds for tomorrow’s headliners. And that is something to be upset about.