A Word on the Recent Internet Controversies Surrounding the UCB Theater
This blog is geared towards disseminating information about The Chris Gethard Show and the world related to it. Fans of TCGS, please pardon me as I post something that’s more geared towards the NY comedy community in particular.
I haven’t been around the UCB Theater much in the past few months. I’ve largely gone on hiatus from improvising as I face burn out in a number of other projects and areas of life. That being said, I’ve been performing at the UCB Theater since I was 19 years old and consider it my home away from home. The UCB community is one I believe in strongly - so strongly, in fact, that I have opted continuously to stay in New York and take my chances on this coast rather then head to Los Angeles where I’m pretty confident I could clean up as a character actor who gets all the weird Clint Howard roles.
Recently, a controversy has brewed online coming from the stand up community. It largely revolves around this - shows an audience is charged for do not result in the performers being paid at the UCB Theater. Because I haven’t been around the theater much, I hadn’t really heard about all this online chatter. Last night, I read up on all of it. My opinions are below:
I’d like to think that my reputation in the NYC comedy community is pretty trustworthy. As a UCB guy, I’m pretty sure I’m regarded as one of the veterans at this point. On top of that, I’ve spent the past five or so years doing my best to really become a part of the stand up community as well and have done my fair share of mics in the backs of bars, Brooklyn shows, and have even dabbled slightly with appearances in clubs. I have been a part of the “do a paid stand up show and get 20 dollars for it” scene for a few years.
I’d like to think I’m someone who has a pretty well rounded opinion on both sides of this coin. As that person, please allow me to go to bat for the UCB Theater. I think the UCB 4 (no one ever calls them the Big 4, by the way - people call them the UCB 4 to note that they’re the members of the sketch group that had a show on Comedy Central, while often referring to the theaters themselves as the UCB) have had to defend themselves personally a lot, but I’d like to offer the forthright opinion of someone who isn’t them but who came up in their system.
I’m not trying to fight anyone. I just want to put a different perspective out there. All I ask is that you read this and consider which points you agree and disagree with, and maybe if there’s things you think ring true you can reblog this or link to it as much as some of the nastier stuff has been spread around.
First off - I don’t think the UCB Theater is without fault in this situation. Fundamentally, the UCB runs theaters. They do not run comedy clubs. They run theaters that house comedy. There is a difference in the logistics of how those things work. I remember when the UCB East was opening with more of a focus on stand up - I personally vocalized the thought that stand up runs differently as a culture and the people organizing the theater would be well served to know the differences between the stand up culture and the improv/sketch culture. Stand up shows start late. They run long to allow for drop ins. And yes, sometimes people get paid. None of those things happen in the UCB theater’s system. And yes, even as a total homer who came up in the UCB’s system, I think the people who organized the UCB East could have done a better job at that. In particular, telling people when they can and can’t drink is pretty silly. I bet a lot of this controversy could be averted if there was something as simple as “Performers get three free drinks a night”, which at most bars totals about 20 dollars, no? And just give the person running the show enough tickets for all their performers and let the performers come and go as they please. My guess is that right there, 90% of this settles down pretty fast. Because that 20 dollars comes down to respect, and there are a lot of ways to show respect and I think people on both sides would agree with that.
That being said - all faults aside - it is wildly unfair to paint the UCB and their theaters as some corporate monster looking to suck up money from the New York comedy scene. It’s just not true. Here are some points I have regarding that:
1) It’s a stage that allows your audience to not get price gorged. I recently did a spot a club and put it on my twitter. Two fans of mine came out. I wound up going last on the bill. They had to stay for close to three full hours to see me. They had to pay over twenty dollars for an entry ticket. They had to buy two drinks. Each of these college aged girls wound up spending over 40 dollars to watch me do a ten minute stand up set. UCB is a stage that makes things free, five dollars, or ten dollars. In New York City, that is a bargain. As a performer, I see a lot of value in being able to do material in front of an audience that is not expecting a forty dollar show. It helps them relax, it allows them to cut me some slack, and especially when I am building material, it goes a long, long way.
2) Not every performer is good enough to earn money. UCB is a stage that accommodates hundreds of performers around the city in every imaginable type of comedy. You want to improvise? Do stand up? Put together some weird hybrid talk show? Do a one man thing that is a rambly forty minutes? As long as the work is of a passable quality, UCB will put it on one of their stages. They will allow you to find your footing and give you breathing room in doing so. You don’t need to have a booking agent or a resume showing your late night spots to do so. They support up and coming performers.
3) The successful shows support the unsuccessful shows - When I was coming up, I did a ton of bad shows. Shows for 30 people. Shows for more people where I shit the bed. Nowadays, I have had the pleasure of performing at the UCB Chelsea theater every Friday and Sunday. That’s been a situation I’ve been in for six or seven years now. The money made from those shows supports the shows of the up and comers. The breathing room I was afforded as a young performer is something I get to help give back. Maybe there is a self-lessness to that some people don’t agree with. I get that. I personally agree with it.
4) If you are good enough to make money consistently as a performer, you don’t have to perform at UCB - Kurt Metzger is a good comedian. I’ve seen him and met him and I think he’s a funny dude and seems generally like a good dude in the few times I’ve been around him. He’s good enough to make money performing. I think that’s really awesome. I’m fully in support of it. He doesn’t need to perform for free. Some people do. Some people would really like that opportunity.
Another aspect of this point is that the battle lines are being drawn between stand ups and improvisors on this, but I think a lot of IMPROVISORS also don’t perform on the UCB stage once they can make money - you know who I don’t see too often on the UCB stages anymore? Bobby Moynihan, Ellie Kemper, Zach Woods, Donald Glover, Jack McBrayer, Rob Riggle, Rob Corddry, and a whole bunch of other people who are now too busy making money to get up on the UCB stage to find their voice and workshop their material.
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.
5) On the topic of finding my voice, let me reiterate and expand on some things I’ve already mentioned -
- I started taking classes at UCB when I was 19 years old. I’m 32 now. I also look back and can say I was regarded as a kid who came out of the gate strong. I was looked at as a solid comedic performer pretty early on.
- That being said, I think it’s fair to say that it took me a full seven years to really find my voice as a comedic performer. After countless improv shows, sketch shows, and solo performances, I can honestly say - and I think anyone who has followed my career can say they were there for it - I didn’t really round out my voice as an individual for seven full years.
In those seven years, I did some good shows. I also did literally hundreds if not thousands of shows - both as a part of a group and as an individual - that were truly awful. Just bad, not funny, not well thought or executed endeavors.
If there is another stage in America that you know of with the clout of UCB that is willing to put up a kid from the ages of 19-27 over and over and over again because they believe in his voice and appreciate his potential to contribute down the line to their community, I’m all ears.
Honestly - name me a comedic institution besides UCB that would do that.
Which leads me to -
6) Money. It seems like a lot of this comes down to money. In fact, last night I was texting with a guy I consider a good friend who is a stand up and who has been very vocal in this debate that the UCB is fucking people over for money. I don’t agree that getting paid is the end all be all. But even if you do believe that, let me foolishly air some of my financial standings to the world, so you can see my opinion: I don’t get paid for shows at UCB, but my involvement as a member of that community has gotten me a lot more money than I EVER thought I could get being a comedian. If money is really your concern, this should be eye opening -
Let me just put this perspective out there -
I am one of the go to performers at UCB NY these days.
Let’s go ahead and say I got 20 dollars a show for literally every single show I ever did.
Let’s estimate that I’ve done 250 shows a year for all twelve years I’ve been at UCB. That’s assuming I’ve done around 5 shows a week every week for 12 years. That is more shows than I’ve actually done, but just to put this point out there emphatically, let’s say I did that many.
Let’s say I got 20 dollars for each of those 250 shows.
Each year, at UCB, I would have made $5,000.
Five thousand dollars.
I earn more each year doing comedy than $5,000 and the foundation that allowed me to find my voice and make that happen is the UCB theater.
I get health insurance through acting. I have every year for I believe the past seven years. I would not get the auditions I get if I wasn’t allowed to find my comedic voice at UCB.
I sold a book. The book was a chronicle of true life stories. I spent over a year telling those stories in a solo show at UCB. Before that, I spent three years telling them at a monthly storytelling show UCB allowed me to organize. UCB had never had a storytelling show - they let me organize it, knowing that people would be charged five bucks, I would get no money, and if the show sucked they could cancel it.
It wound up not sucking.
I sold a book.
I made a lot more than $5,000 off of that book.
I got a commercial agent after being scouted on the UCB stage. I have booked national commercials where for ONE DAY of work, I have made over $50,000 after they aired during football season.
I got an IFC development deal after first being noticed years ago by one of their development executives while telling stories at UCB. I am now developing a TV show script based on the book I wrote that was based on the stories I told at UCB.
I booked the lead in a sitcom in 2010. I made six figures off of that, the first time in my life that happened. How did I get noticed for that sitcom? Adam McKay and Will Ferrell liked me and asked me to audition. How did I first meet Adam McKay? He was running a series of auditions in New York and asked my agent if there was anyone with improv experience who could attend the auditions as a reader, to make sure that if actors wanted to improvise they had the option to do so. My agent recommended me and told him I had been on the UCB stage around ten years at that time. He liked my ability to improvise and it put me on his radar.
All told - if I thought of my time in comedy as a twenty dollar a pop endeavor, I would have 60,000 dollars total to my name if I did 250 shows a year after 12 years.
I have made significantly more than that. Significantly more. And I am FAR from the most successful person to build their career off of the UCB stage.
If it really is about money, I think I just opened some eyes.
I suspect it’s more about respect - I agree that money is one way to show respect. There are probably other ways to do it as well. Like I said above, I think the UCB team could have done better about being mindful of that. They weren’t.
But if it really is about money… see above.
Now - that’s not going to happen for everybody. I GOT VERY LUCKY. But so does any stand up who makes his living off of stand up. No one on either side of the coin will disagree - 90% of the people who try comedy aren’t good enough to make their living off of it.
But I would argue that if your goal is to make a living and that’s what you’re hung up on, maybe UCB isn’t fucking you - maybe it’s just a different route to that end goal. In the same way that musicians can try to get a major label deal, an indie deal, or release their own stuff online - maybe there are a number of routes to making a living in comedy, and people should be finding their own path through all those existing routes to make their rent. I don’t begrudge your ability to make club money or book college tours as a stand up - don’t scoff at my ability to work out my voice on a stage that allows me to land acting gigs, sell books, and wind up in movies and tv shows.
7) UCB helped the stand up community. I remember a time when there was a severe division between improv and stand up.
Places like Riffifi, shows like Whiplash and Big Terrific, Invite Them Up, Totally JK, Oh Hello, those types of shows really bridged a gap and for a long time there was way more crossover than there used to be in those scenes.
I did shows at Riffifi. I do not remember getting paid for shows at Riffifi.
I didn’t do all the shows. Maybe some of them paid. I did dozens of shows there - I did not get paid.
That particular stand up scene also showed up a lot at UCB. They organized stand up shows there, they translated meatier parts of their stand up acts into one man shows there, they staged sketch shows with their stand up partners there in venues that would be more accommodating to that type of work than a stand up venue would.
In my opinion, the links between the UCB scene helped Riffifi build out, and the cross pollination allowed a lot of stand ups breathing room to expand shit onto a stage that had industry focus and allowed a lot of UCB performers, myself chief among them, to try their hand at stand up for the first time.
I do not hear those stand ups complaining about their associations at the UCB Theater - they are too busy debuting their Comedy Central shows, selling multi-cam sitcoms, co-starring opposite founding members of the UCB in network sitcoms, writing for those sitcoms, etc.
On top of that - UCB has a touring company that has sent out stand ups on the road. These are stand ups not yet at a place to have their own booking agent or college connections. My guess is that those comedians had an easier time getting those things after going on tours and being able to tell those booking agents and colleges that they had experience on the road and a built in resume.
UCB has never been the enemy of the stand up scene. They have misunderstood the stand up scene. The stand up scene has also misunderstood the improv scene.
8) Here’s where I’ll be a little bit petty -
A lot of that initial story of why the show at UCB East got canceled is based very much on misinformation. It seems from my vantage point that one of the organizers of that show lied.
That show was canceled because it was poorly attended.
I have said worse things about UCB on stage than Kurt Metzger did that night. I’ve heard dozens of other comedians say worse things too. None of those people caused shows to get canceled or got blacklisted.
That show didn’t get canceled because of what Kurt Metzger said.
That show got canceled because no one was going to see that show.
My honest guess - and this is only my opinion, and only a guess - is that the organizers of this show are giving a lot of people, including some stand ups who are sticking their necks out and standing up for themselves in a public way while potentially burning bridges, some severe misinformation to get themselves more attention.
Kurt, I like you a lot - I don’t disagree with all of what you say. I disagree with some of the potshots you took at the improv scene along the way, but I think you have some honest gripes. With that in mind, I think the dudes who gave you that info fed you some bullshit and you went to bat for them. At the end of the day if it gets discourse going and causes positive change I’m all for it, but I don’t think those dudes should have lied about how the theater treated them just to get the press they got.
9) I hope Matt, Matt, Amy, and Ian will not be pissed at me for this. I could see them being pissed and if they are, I apologize ahead of time. Those four people did more for me than anyone in my whole life and I don’t want to burn the bridge with them AT ALL or out their personal business to the world. But I do want to step up and defend them personally, because they’re taking it on the chin as far as being called this corporate profit mongering gang, and they don’t deserve it. At all.
So I don’t want to out anybody’s business. BUT - I worked for them at their school for a long time. I have seen the financial structure of the UCB.
The four owners of the theater do not take money from the theater. They make their money off of their own creative endeavors. In the same way that they ask us to perform for free and let the theaters be the physical locations of a strong community, they perform for free and participate in that community.
The money made by the schools and theaters goes back into the schools and theaters. End of story. Employees who run the day to day operations of those things are paid for their services. I was one of those people. I wrote the curriculums for their improv school. To my knowledge, for the years I was totally on the inside, the owners of the school and theater allowed the money generated by the schools and theaters to support themselves, and those individuals hustled on their own to build and survive off of their own successful careers separate from that.
The UCB 4 let the theaters and schools build and grow by putting the money they make back into them.
In other words, the four people who have taken a lot of shit and been called greedy corporate overlords throughout this public debate built stages to offer stage time to at this point thousands of up and coming comedians.
They built the stages so people could go on the stages. They did not build the stages so they could make money.
They can’t say that. It would be tacky for them to say it.
I will say it, even though maybe it is not my place to say it. They have looked out for me and I’m doing my best to look out for them - no one wants their money talked about, but a lot of other people have put their assumptions about the money on this one out into the world - I have some inside info and I’d like to put that into the world too. A thousand apologies if I crossed any lines talking about the financial workings of the UCB system.
I hope the UCB 4 (not the Big 4) are not mad at me, but I’ll say it so they don’t have to - they built these stages for us, not for them. They are doing a selfless thing with their theaters, and they absolutely do not deserve to be called greedy or exploitative of their own community.
They enhanced the entire NYC comedy community and a lot of people have made a lot of progress in their careers at least in part due to what those four people built. If you want 20 dollars a pop, fight for it - but don’t claim that the 20 dollars you should be getting are going in their pockets. I can tell you that’s not the case, and it is hurtful towards the individuals in question to accuse otherwise.
They are punk rock to the core with these things. I’ve been a part of it and I know that for a fact.
End of story on that one.
I am a huge part of the UCB scene. I am an active and grateful participant in the stand up world. I remember when these scenes came together. A lot of people wound up doing a lot of great work when that happened. And a ton of people are making their living in comedy now because of the combination of their talent and the momentum that created. Let’s not splinter NYC comedy now. There are already hundreds of the most talented people from all corners of the NYC comedy world leaving for LA each year.
Those of us staying in NYC should be united in the fact that we are the city of artists, not the city of industry. We are the city where the real innovative work happens. We are the city where surviving is harder, but the act of surviving reflects true and undeniable talent.
Let’s not split into pieces again. All of us will suffer for it. Creatively, financially, and karmically.