Monday, January 28th, 2013

The Great NYC Standup Debate

There's been a debate raging across the internet this weekend about the UCBeast Theatre in New York's practice of not paying stand-ups who perform there. The whole thing started last month when comedian Kurt Metzger, in his words, "trashed UCBeast" on Facebook for not paying comedians for a sold-out $10 dollar-a-head stand-up show called "If You Build It." Here's some of Metzger's Facebook musings:

"So last week I trashed UCBeast for packing a 120 seat theater at 10 bucks a head for a standup show in NY on a Saturday night, and then not having the decency God gave Jerry Sandusky to peel the performers off a twenty. I'll say again, this is not like Whiplash, which is an awesome show on a WEEKNIGHT that takes donations. I've got no problem with that. Just don't make people pay to see comics and then not pay the comics…

I'm not telling anyone to boycott UCBeast or anything stupid, but I will say if you need to run an alt show, there's this great place called the Creek and the Cave where the owner loves standup and standups, and doesn't treat them like young college suckers she plans fleece out of trust fund money for bullshit Harold lessons. Also, she doesn't feel entitled to run shitty little power trips on a new comic just because she listened to Amy Poehler queef over a speaker phone once."

Metzger's Facebook rants went viral and spurred a huge debate, with the conclusion being that UCB is running stand-up shows the same way they do their improv and sketch shows, which conflicts with New York stand-up culture. Kurt Metzger's still posting about it on Facebook and talking down to the improv scene a ton and painting the UCB as a heartless corporation hellbent on taking advantage of stand-ups in doing so. A ton of comedians are weighing in all over the internet, including Nick Turner, Mike Lawrence, and Adam Conover, who all make some pretty strong cases for paying stand-ups for shows with a cover. Chris Gethard, a stand-up and improviser who's involved in the theater but also in the rest of New York's stand-up scene, also shared his thoughts on Tumblr and here's a bit of it:

Anyone who gets good enough to make money consistently should stop doing things where they don’t make money, unless they opt in to do so for creative satisfaction. If you can make money, and you want to make money, you should do the things that make you money. If you for some reason don’t want to make money, or are not at a place to make money yet, the UCB does a pretty fine job of affording a hot stage to get your work up and running. I don’t begrudge Bobby Moynihan for not stopping by the Sunday night shows anymore. The dude is too busy being on Saturday Night Live these days. That’s awesome.

I personally have not been up at UCB as much as usual lately? Wanna know why? I’m real busy with my IFC development deal. The non-moneymaking endeavors can take a backseat to the money making endeavors for the time being. But believe me, when I have a new project I want to work towards, UCB is a stage I know I can figure out material on in front of a smart comedy crowd who is willing to let me fail because they only paid five bucks and are drinking cheap beers that they aren’t forced to buy.

Gethard's is a fair and even-keeled argument that hears both sides out and pushes for compromise and agreement while debunking a lot of the bullshit surrounding this debate. Give the full thing a read!

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  • Weevil

    I didn't think Gethard's argument was fair or even-keeled. I could see arguments on both sides but his was obnoxious BS. First off, he is obviously someone who hasn't needed money in a long time. People aren't looking to live off of that act. His whole thing about only earning $60,000 over twelve years is ridiculous because that is a lot of fucking money to a comic working two jobs and struggling to stay afloat. Twenty dollars is food money. $60,000 over twelve years isn't enough to live on but it sure as hell helps.

    His point about not everyone being good enough? Intentionally missing the point. In the original rant, the distinction was made between weekday shows and the sold out weekend shows. I am sorry but UCB is not putting on people who are just plain awful on their weekend sold out shows. Those people are going on during the weekdays and getting their experience and, in exchange, the audience pays less (or nothing).

    UCB helped the stand-up community? So what? Apple helped the economy so I should be grateful and work for them for free? Didn't I benefit from an improved economy.

    He came off like a clueless entitled prick.

  • Johnny

    If a performer thinks that they can make money no matter where they put the show on then go find another venue, many shows have changed venues, the ucb has always been a community thing, people go watch the shows and take the classes, the money ucb makes from them goes to keep the theater running, it sounds like metzger is afraid the crowd wouldn't follow him to a club where you have to pay 40$ for a show, the ucb has always been about giving performers time and place to hone their crafts to a audience who understands and love comedy.

    • steve

      I don't think Kurt Metzger is afraid an audience won't pay to see him.. He performs at clubs all the time. I think he's afraid comics get nothing while the club keeps everything.

  • Larry C

    Please post an update on this tomorrow, thanks

  • steve

    Does the person (usually a comedian) who produces these shows at least get paid for booking and promoting? There's certainly no joke development being put forth in booking comics.

  • Juan

    What about the shows were comics have to PAY to perform? Many comedy clubs have this for open mics. If you are a comic that is not from New York, maybe even getting payed outside of it, and you want to get some work in the city, sometimes you have to do those. When you are starting, you need exposure. UCB not only gives you that, it let's you put your own show they way you absolutely want it without changing a thing (with a full profesional infrastructure at your disposal) and you don't have to be accountable if you don't fill the room. You don't lose money. They do. Also, they don't even hold the right to your show. If it builds an audience and you want to take it someplace else were you can monetize it, you can totally do that. UCB might not be for everyone but it doesn't have to. If it works for you, good. If it doesn't, you can choose to go some place else.

  • Nathan Smart

    I don't really know what we're arguing here. Is the UCB asking the comedians to perform and then getting mad at people who ask for pay and blacklisting them or something? Are these comedians being told they'll be paid and then when they get there they aren't being paid? I thought it was general knowledge that the UCB theaters aren't profit-generating venues.

    I thought everyone knew that you weren't going to get paid at UCB, whether or not it's a special show or a workshop or an open mic. What are people getting mad at (especially when there are plenty of places in NY to do a show where you can get paid – or why don't you just open a theater yourself and you can pay all the comedians as much as you want)?

  • Mitch McTardelson

    Wow, Great article. I see both angles, but it seems to me that if this UCB show is full of open mic'rs, then yeah, you don't pay the wannabe comics.

    But if you are taking money at the door, and you have good comics, well, yeah, you pay them. You don't have to buy them a phantom, but like, a little inhaler money at least shows them respect.

    This whole Improv Culture doesn't pay talent excuse seems kind of lame to me. It's like you see an add for a restaurant; they need a fry cook. So you take the job, do the work, but on pay day, instead of getting money, the manager comes out and gives you an awkward back rub. He puts his mouth to your ear, says that in his culture, this is how employees get paid. You're like, "wut? This is America bro. Every restaurant pays their workers in cash."

    The manager just shakes his head at you, as if you are a child who needs to learn one of life's lessons. "In my culture, which has a long and proud tradition, we pay our workers like this. The fact that you want money, that is so…vulgar. The act of working is it's own reward. You're learning things here, you can't learn anywhere else. Like how my fingers can work magic on your supple shoulders. Few will ever feel that experience, so you should feel lucky."

    So you are distracted by the his hands probing your back, but you ask "well wait, if money is vulgar, why do we charge at the door, how much do we make, and why can't I get a small piece?" He grabs you by the hips, and sternly says. "Do you know how much I've sacrificed to open this restaurant? I've lost body organs. I've sold children. How dare you ask about money! Never shall you bring it up again!" You want to see the scars, ask about the struggle, but his demeanor will brook no questions. And if he did explain, would he show proof? Would he show you the current books? No, you realize.

    So now you are released, and you worry that this restaurant owner may stifle your attempts to work at other restaurants. You could continue to work for him, but his method of nonpayment makes you feel exploited and creeped out. You see his other employees watching you from the curtains, half jealous that you received a fondling, half angry that you would dare question how this manager does business. As you exit the door, you see them flock to him, like piglets hungry for milk, and suddenly you realize that nothing in the world would taste better than a bacon cheeseburger.