Controversy over Upright Citizens Brigade flares, but is it much ado about nothing?

By | January 30, 2013 at 11:56 am | 16 comments | feature slider, News, Opinion | Tags: , , , , ,

What started as one comedian’s off-the-cuff vocal displeasure over the way a well-respected comedy institution runs its business evolved into a needlessly divisive, hostile online battle fought via Facebook updates and Tumblr posts.

I’m not including screengrabs or quoting from those comments here, because, honestly, it’s not going to move the discussion further in any meaningful way— regardless of how poorly or well thought-out each opinion is. It’s enough to say that a great many comedians have something to say about the issue.

The whole thing started in December of last year when comedian Kurt Metzger (Ugly Americans, Comedy Central Presents) performed at a stand-up show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater on Manhattan’s East Side (aka UCBeast) and made some comments onstage about not getting paid (no performers are paid at UCB). And then we started hearing that UCBeast canceled the recurring show on which Metzger performed because of what he said. This was never verified and despite a Jan. 14 post on Cringe Humor from the two producers of the show, which stated, in part, “They were canceling us because Kurt had pointed out that UCB charges admission but does not pay performers,” sources yesterday told me this was untrue.

However, an email exchange between the Great Debate show (the show in question) co-producer Michael Shawki and UCBeast Artistic Director Nate Dern was posted on Tumblr today; at the end, in a message dated Dec. 23, it appears Mike Sapp, who, according to Facebook, works tech at UCBeast, intercepted a message from Shawki, explaining, “Just to let you know Nate is too busy to talk about this nonsense. Your show was cancelled because you couldn’t control your comedians.” This came after several polite, professional e-mails from Dern.

Regardless, the first wave of vitriol-filled Facebook posts in December of 2012, some of which expressed concerns over the not-paying-comedians model of business, was upon us.

This week the discussion resurfaced, due, to the live show returning — this time at recently opened New York City club The Stand — and the aforementioned Cringe Humor post. The show went down on Jan. 27. There, Metzger explained his beef with UCB. The full video is below.

In order to get a better understanding of this back and forth, I talked with both Metzger and founding member of UCB Matt Besser yesterday and I listened to a rough cut of an episode of Besser’s podcast Improv4Humans on which he and founding member Ian Roberts address the controversy. And here’s what I came up with: The major disconnect derives from the fundamental cultural differences between the worlds of stand-up and improv as well as the differences between comedy clubs and theaters.

Seasoned stand-up comedians in New York are quite used to getting paid for performing at well-established clubs during the week (approximately $25 a set) and especially during the weekend (approximately $75 a set). Most improv players, it seems, are grateful for the opportunity to perform in a well-run venue without taking shit from traditional theaters or comedy clubs, who aren’t into their props and sound cues and who aren’t interested in dealing with anything more than a comic and a microphone.

Besser and Metzger told me they had a productive phone call on Jan. 27 wherein they discussed these things. The upshot, Besser says, is that perhaps the UCB needs to rethink producing paid-ticket stand-up shows on the weekend or perhaps give drink tickets to performers during the show instead of waiting until after they perform (as is the current policy).

Metzger tells me he has no ill will toward UCB. “I’m more concerned that other clubs in New York might take a cue from this and not pay comics,” he says. But honestly, I don’t think it’s a concern, seeing as the UCB has been operating this way for 15 years (UCBeast opened in 2011) and it doesn’t make sense for a traditional stand-up club to take its cues from an experimental comedy theater who mostly produce shows that cost nothing or $5 or $10 to attend– which leads me to Besser’s explanation as to why UCB doesn’t pay talent.

“When a performer says, ‘I’m at this show that’s $10 and there’s 120 seats, so you guys are making $1,000 for the show, so, why can’t you give me $5 and show your appreciation for our performance?’” Besser says on Improv4Humans (full episode here). “Well, if we do that, how are we going to pay for the shows that are in the red— that aren’t as popular as that [$10] show?”

And that’s the difference between the UCB and a traditional comedy club. The UCB’s main charge is to provide a quality space with proper support staff for comedy performers of all types to experiment without the stress of selling out every show or bombing and never being asked back. And lest you think the four founding members, including Amy Poehler and Matt Walsh, are exploiting performers, Besser has something to say about that as well.

“[The founding members], in the 15 years the theater has been open, have never taken any money.” he says on Improv4Humans. “So even when the Chelsea theater finally did get into the black [due mostly from paying improv students] …at that point, we could’ve taken the money the school was making and put it in our own pockets… all the money we’ve been saving went to opening a theater in Los Angeles.”

Roberts explains the draw of the UCB is not based in monetary gain. And he understands if that’s a turn off to some performers. “If you’re performing at our theater, once you don’t see a benefit and you say you can go make more money that night, and be just as happy— well in that case, I’d say you’d be crazy to be at our theater,” he says on the podcast. “…but don’t try to change our business model that helps so many other people…If [not getting paid] surprises you after one time, I’d say go somewhere else. If you’re not surprised, then why did you show up?”

Will UCB’s payment policy change? Should it change? Tells us what you think in the comments section.

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About the Author

Dylan P. Gadino

Dylan is the founder and editor in chief of Laughspin. He launched Punchline Magazine in 2005 (which became Laughspin in the summer of 2011) with childhood friend Bill Bergmann. Dylan lives in northern New Jersey with his wife and two sons. He hopes the Shire is real.

  • Lenny Bruce Bruce

    So let me get this straight, The UCB guys decided to open a new comedy theater in New York, and it was to focus on Stand Up Comedy. But these UCB guys, decided not to look into the comedy club model before making such a financial investment? And they didn’t have anyone to tell them about the comedy strikes, and what it means for a comedian to get paid, even if only a pittance? Not one agent? Not one manager? not one performer told them these things before they opened up?

    …and all of that, in NEW YORK CITY, the Birth place of stand up Comedy? What was the name of the first comedy club again? Oh… wait… THE IMPROV? Sorry, I just don’t buy this whole excuse of a different philosophy from improv/Stand-Up comedy. Especially from a club manager in New York City. Maybe some bumpkin Club manager in Idaho wouldn’t know, but for a New York manager to say that, that is clearly bulls#!t.

    Comedy Clubs all over the united states pay stand up comedians, and those that don’t aren’t serious about comedy, and don’t really get respect as comedy venues. So to start a comedy club that is supposed to focus on Stand Up, and not abide by the customs already set up, well, that is a slap in the face of every comedian who ever went on strike. It’s also causes every club owner to re-evaluate the custom of paying comedians, thus endangering every starting comedian’s budding career and takes money out of their pocket.

    New York has a proud history of Labor Advocacy, and it’s a poor battle ground for any fight to exploit workers without pay. So yeah, the UCB may say that they are not making any money, (Like warner bros said that the Harry Potter movie never made any money. But I don’t buy it. We all shouldn’t buy it. UCB knows better than that. The lies and weasel like excuses insult our intelligence and erode the UCB Name. And if their central argument is that they don’t pay their improv artists, well, maybe they should.

  • Pingback: Connected Comedy Podcast Episode 29: UCB Butthurt()

  • claud

    The argument that the stand up show case clubs in NYC are getting “well seasoned” performers is invalid. The really well seasoned comics are on the rad. The comics in NYC might be working on their acts to get them on the road, but it’s not like they’re all Jerry Seinfeld. The NYC clubs that pay $25-75 do so after a long, hard fought battle in the late 70’s. At the beginning of the showcase comedy clubs, they were struggling. Stand up was new and the comics were willing to work for free. Once the clubs started filling up, and comics were finding it difficult to eat, they struck against the clubs. The clubs eventually agreed to pay. In Los Angeles, the strike was much worse, (especially since it was taking place in my living room while I was in high school. My parents were ring leaders in the strike) and Mitzi Shore (owner of The Comedy Store) took the stance that the clubs were a school, and the comics wouldn’t be able to experiment if they were paid. The comics position was that the clubs were making money, and since the club was benefiting from that, they should get paid something. Something being $25 (I can’t believe the price hasn’t gone up). I understand that UCB isn’t a comedy club. They charge less at the door, and there’s no drink minimum. (Though in NY they do sell drinks). It may be that improvisers and comedians come from two different worlds. A comedian does all the work on his or her own for their act. There’s not a whole group or cast to pay. Improvisers are fine with not being paid. Maybe they haven’t had their strike yet. But the rationale that some shows bring in more money than others isn’t enough of an excuse to not pay… the clubs already have a sliding pay scale based on attendance. It’s in UCB’s interest to get the best comics available. It doesn’t seem to me that $5 is out of line.

    • sheilaby

      It is not “in UCB’s interest to get the best comics available”. It would be in those comics’ best interest and not even the best interest of the audience. First of all, UCB is a school first and foremost and they are supporting their student body with performance opportunities. Secondly, if those future improvisers, sketch writers, comedic actors and comics do not have the opportunity to hone their material and skills, we won’t have many “best comics”. Secondly, any list of the so-called best comics available is subjective. A fan of the style of Chris Rock’s comedy might not like a Steven Wright-style and someone else might think that a Bill Burr approach sucks, etc. UCB absolutely does not need to pay the performers. This is a different business model, a theater is a different economic environment from a club, and it works. Additionally, no one is stopping any performer from augmenting their income by performing at a paying club or auditioning or putting up their own work and charging for it. If you don’t want to take one free hour out of your week to polish up some material in front of an audience where they are supporting new work and ideas you may have decided to debut, then don’t.

  • NativeSonKY

    Seems like an apples and oranges situation to me. A comedy club only needs a microphone and a room to pack people inside. An improv theater needs a lot more; props, lighting, sound equipment that the comedy club would not have available. These are two completely different genres of comedy. I’ve heard stand up comedians on podcasts jokingly rib people like Amy Poehler, saying “what you guys do is cute” and “with your hats and wigs and props”, so it is a completely different mindset. If I were an aspiring comedic actor I’d be very happy to see places like UCB where I would have time to build up my skills. If I wanted to be a stand up comedian I would expect a very hard time getting up in front of people, working live without a net, so to speak. I think there’s room for both business models and I’m sure the comics all know what they are getting into beforehand.

  • andrew

    i didnt realize that the last improv4humans episode was a reaction to all this bullshit. Im just glad to hear all that history, and hope to hear more. Ian explained the philosophy pretty well though when he illustrated how teachers/performers who had the ability to make money outside of ucb should do exactly that.

  • mike


    Up until now i haven’t bothered to write anything about what was said during the debate or its being cancelled. I didn’t need to, any point I would have made had already been made in a far more elequent and thoughtful way than I am capable of by performers and employees of the UCB that I respect and deeply admire.

    But now, Shawki has made me his deep throat in the ongoing fever dream he is having, about why his show was cancelled.

    Here is a copy of the fake email he made, and applied my name to, to put on his blog :


    Just to let you know Nate is too busy to talk about this nonsense. Your show was cancelled because you couldnt control your comedians.”

    Now lets break this down and see why its not only a lie but not a great one.

    right off the bat, in his previous blog entry, his first version of this fake email read:

    “hey michael, Unfortunately you were unable to control some of the things said by some of the comedians you had on your previous show”

    So there are some continuity issues. Sorry, sorry, I meant to say hes clearly making up things as he goes and forgets to check what the previous set of lies were.

    Now back to his current lie, How do I benifit from writng this email? Seriously I thought about it all day and i cant come up with a good reason why i would risk my job, or at the very least, angering my co-workers and people hire up then me. Shawki and I aren’t friends, which is not to say we are enamies but, I have only talked to him three times so I dont know why i would needlessly put my standing at the theatre at risk to send him an email that perfectly incapsulates the thesis statement for the history he’s trying to rewrite. Wait thats right, hes making this up as he goes.

    “Nates to busy to talk about this nonsense.” No, I am to busy to talk about this nonsense, I work three jobs, I produce a monthly, and a bi monthly show, I’m also writing two other shows as well as a web series. That combined with the fact that I don’t care if Shawki understands why his show was cancelled should tell you I wouldn’t have the time nor the inclination to hold Shawkis hand and tell him some made up bullshit. Also, I’m fairly sure that the “nonsense” must refer to shows being cancelled, which isn’t my job, but Nates. Who is fully capable of doing the job. All the shows that I tech now, have sell out audiences or are on there way to it. Nate isn’t discussing these things with me, I wasn’t even aware the debate was cancelled until i heard the rumor Shawki started about why. Nate makes those calls and hes good at it. I turn the lights and the music on and off.

    ” Your show was cancelled because you couldnt control your comedians” Again, as this isn’t why the show was cancelled, i dont know why i would write a guy i dont really know or care about that much to tell him this is why his show was cancelled after he had already been given the reason.

    I in fact find this to be the most obtuse part of the whole pile of bullshit Shawki is trying to sell. I have worked at all three of the UCB theatres, the one in LA and both here in New York and have seen and heard far worse things said on stage then a comedian complaining he didn’t get any money for doing a 7 minute set for 8 people at midnight. And i can’t think of a time the UCB took a show down for content, unless it was say, not very good and not drawing a crowd, but i don’t know, I’m not privy to that information.

    and besides, being one of a very few people who has made it through one of the debate shows i can tell you it has its problems, the least of which is a stand ups joke.

    If i were asked to make a list of the reasons i think the debate was cancelled, Kurts comment wouldn’t have made the list, and not just for the lack of room on the page.

    Late starts poor attendance, the show not making any sense, running long, and the show not ending(which isn’t to say it didn’t stop happening, it just had no ending)

    Shawki even points out the show ran long on the night in question in the previous blog post:

    “brought Kurt up there were about 20 people still left in the audience alittle after 1am in the crowd”

    The show is supposed to end at one. Also 20 (really it was 8-10) people still left in the audience? So Shawki is also acknowledging that people walk out of his show.

    My assumption is Shawki thinks making this bullshit up is a good way to advertise his show, and maybe it is, maybe it will get butts in seats, but if the show is the same show as before, half of them are going to walk out before the opening monologue is over.

    You’re loosing the debate Michael

  • Ben

    If you want the performers to get paid be prepared to pay $30 for shows at a very intimate venue. I was at UCBLA a few weeks ago where I got to see 3 shows for $13. I was 5-10 feet away from amazing comedians for a total of 4 hours. I have no problem with UCB. If you want money and are a comedian go play Chuck’s Chuckle Hut in Cincinnati.

  • @spotastic

    I highly recommend listening to the podcast. Matt Besser and Ian Roberts explain the theatre’s philosophy and economics. It does make sense.

    The UCB Theatre is a support system to help writers and performers experiment and hone their voice. Stand-ups are welcome to use their spots to work on jokes, they don’t have to bring their A material, they can test stuff out. Jim Gaffigan, Chris Rock, Louis CK Colin Quinn. They use the stage to work on stuff. Colin Quinn is doing a show right now to an audience that pays, but he is not making money, his payment is working his material out in a low stakes situation.

    Tickets cost $5 Mon-Thurs $10 Fri-Sunday. No drink minimum. Plus there are free shows almost every night. This also makes it easy for anyone to enjoy a comedy show.

    Listen to the podcast.

  • steve

    By charging an audience and not paying the comics it seems like UCB is getting a benefit over the clubs where those same comics do the same thing. Doesn’t seem right.

    • sheilaby

      As Besser says…it’s a different business model. If you prefer to be paid by a comedy club, which charges it’s patrons $25 and forces them to buy two things off a shitty menu so that you can get paid, then you are welcome to perform there. If you want to perform at a non-paying theater that charges $5 and offers beverages to buy…or not buy…to its patrons, then perform at UCB. If neither of those business models is to your liking, then find a space in New York, get the permits and insurance, and start your own performance space. Then spend five years of your life getting patrons, performers and a reputation so that you can HOPE to break even while rents sky-rocket.

  • ComedyVids

    Good interview, Dylan – thanks for sharing and trying to shed some light on the controversy.

  • Ben

    One note about the founders not taking money from the theater’s profits, it’s not like opening a theater makes that money just dissapear. Even if you don’t take money earned from the L.A. theater either, you still are buying up an expensive piece of land and theater which can be sold at a later time if you wanted…

    • Susannah

      They don’t “buy the land” or the theaters. They rent all their spaces. The money does disappear, into the hands of the landlords, just like 98% of businesses.

  • Steve Lubetkin

    May I suggest some light reading on another institution that was raking it in but didn’t pay its performers?,9171,1708834,00.html

    • Susannah

      Ghost of Steve Lubetkin: The vast majority of performers there support UCB’s business model. If a small (or even large!) faction of standups choose not to perform at UCB, that’s their right and no one will be mad at them for making that choice. Nobody will be blacklisted or forced to commit suicide off the roof of the UCB.

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