NYC stand-ups, UCB theaters try to find a compromise

If you’ve been following the discussion regarding stand-up comedians, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theaters in New York City, and the issue of whether a comedy community can be communal and eschew capitalism whilst also trying to make money to pay bills and employees, too…

Or if you haven’t, brush up on the debate that happened online this year when stand-up comedians questioned about performing on UCB shows that charged audience members $10 to see the performers on Friday and Saturday night shows, without paying any of the performers.

Did the UCB decide to scrap stand-up shows on the weekends to avoid paying the comedians? No. Is there a compromise solution? Maybe. Depends upon which comedian you ask.

Adam Conover, who co-hosts a Thursday night stand-up showcase, Fresh Out, at the UCBeast theater, sent out this update to friends and followers Tuesday via Facebook:

Hello to folks interested in the issue of UCB compensating standup comedians! I have some news for you.

A group of us who care about this issue, standups and UCB performers both, have spent the last two weeks putting our heads together to try to resolve this disagreement. Here’s how things have shaken out.

First off: UCB is not going to pay comics to perform. It’s simply not their philosophy or business model, and as that model has proven to be an incredibly successful way to incubate comedy over the past 15 years, it doesn’t make sense for them to change and risk damaging it in order to accomodate a few standup shows. The case for paying performers was made, and was heard, but after much discussion, the decision by the management was that if comics aren’t comfortable under any circumstances with UCB charging a cover but not paying comics, then the business models simply aren’t compatible, and UCB should retreat from the standup arena entirely rather than totally change the way the theatre works. That, of course, would be their right.

BUT: I think a lot of comics would agree with me that this is a result we’d hate to see. These shows provide much-needed quality stage-time in front of large, psyched audiences, and make that stagetime accessible to a large swath of standups who are not yet getting up in other venues. If my and Kara Klenk’s shows left (or were switched to late night, free shows that pulled less audience), that would mean two less quality showcases a WEEK available for comics of all skill levels to perform at. That’s not a win for anyone.

So: we made the case that a big reason standups felt shorted was that they were not being supported by the UCB system in the way that improvisors and sketch performers are. Sketch and improv performers receive tons of professional (and yes, monetary) benefits from the theatre, which is why they are happy to perform for free. So, UCB is going to start extending those benefits to standup performers as well, including the following:

• Starting immediately, ALL PERFORMERS on every UCB show, at both theatres, will receive two free drinks that are usable at any point, before during or after the show. (At UCB Chelsea this will be done via drink tickets; at UCBeast you just tell the bartender you’re on the show and you’ll get your drinks.)

• Standup comics who perform regularly at UCB will be added to the UCB Performer Page. This has a lot of perks: The big one is that you are added to the UCB auditions/gigs mailing list. (Casting executives and others frequently reach out to UCB to find performers for commercials or other spots — I’ve booked more than one paying gig myself this way). UCB Performers also get into any show at the theatre for free.

• UCB is going to start booking industry showcases for standup comics. They’ve done this for improv and sketch performers in the past, and the result has been UCB performers getting hired for shows like Fallon. Now they’re going to start doing the same for comics — the first showcase is tentatively planned for March. And moving forward, they’re going to try to book four a year.

• The UCB Touring Company is an arm of the theatre that sends performers on the road and pays them to do so. Starting soon, TourCo is going to start bringing standups on the road as well. Yes – this will be an example of comics being PAID for performing with UCB. This is one means through which UCB has historically put money in its improvisors pockets; now it’s going to extended the same opportunties to comics.

• The cover price of If You Build It is being lowered to $5, and starting in April it will move to Sunday nights at 8PM. While not a $10 slot, this is still a timeslot in which the show can grow and flourish. Fresh Out! is staying at Thursdays at 9, and Adam Newman’s “Big Long Sets” is staying put as well, as are the open mics. So the UCB is going to continue booking awesome, packed-out weekly standup shows that book a wide variety of comics, including up and comers, putting them in front of a great audience that often includes industry, and charging cover prices for them where the theatre breaks even financially rather than making a profit.

The hope is that by giving back to the standup community in this way, UCB can keep hosting awesome standup shows, and that we as performers will feel genuinely supported by the theatre in return. It’s my hope as well. This may not be everyone’s best case scenario, but it’s the best one that we were able to achieve, and is the product of a genuine good-faith effort on the part of UCB’s management to do right by standup comics.

I’ll be honest — on a personal level, I’ve never been happy with the “if you don’t like it, then don’t perform there” argument. If you’re a venue offering stagetime to people who need it, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you’re supporting them and treating them with respect, be that monetarily or otherwise. And as a comic who believes that deeply, I genuinely feel that by taking these steps, UCB is doing right by us here.

Finally: Nate Dern, the Artistic Director of the UCB Theatre in New York, has been absolutely terrific and is a true mensch. He has listened with ears wide open to everything comics have said, and has done literally everything within his power to address our concerns. Everyone who reads this should feel comfortable emailing him [redacted] if you’d like to discuss any of this further, or if you’d just like to get more involved at UCB. Have a great idea for a weekly/monthly standup show? Need to record your CD or work on your half-hour? Want to put together an open mic? Email Nate — that’s what he’s there for. UCB wants standup comics who perform at the theatre to think of the theatre and its community as just as much of a resource as improvisors and sketch performers do.

If, for any reason, you don’t feel comfortable talking to Nate, please feel free to get in touch with me instead, and I’ll relay your concerns or questions along. But the folks who work at UCB are good folks, and you can talk to them.

Again — I know that not everyone will be 100% happy with this result. But after a lot of discussion, and a lot of time and effort spent, I feel strongly we’ve come out of this in a better position than we started, and that the New York comedy scene I love is better for it.

Thanks for reading guys. And please share this post, to help get the word out. See you at the open mics!

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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