There’s been a controversy brewing in the comedy community, particularly in New York City, over the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s policy of not paying performers. It started last month when comedian Kurt Metzger started calling out UCB, both on his Facebook page and eventually at UCB’s East Village theater, for charging audiences between $5 and $10 a head while not paying the performers on those shows.
As Metzger wrote on his Facebook page on Dec. 14, “I don’t know who the f— runs UCB but you have tremendous improv balls to charge money for a Friday night show and not pay the comic anything.” On Christmas Eve, he charged that UCB didn’t have “the decency God gave Jerry Sandusky to peel the performers off a twenty.”
Those on Metzger’s side argue that it’s a sign of disrespect to not pay performers, while those more on the UCB side have been arguing that the point of performing at UCB is developing material rather than just making money, that not paying performers allows for cheaper ticket prices and that it would be difficult with UCB’s business model to pay all of its performers.
Here’s Kurt Metzger detailing some of his points at a live show (warning: contains adult language):
Metzger said he talked with Matt Besser from the UCB, and said that this may lead to either some or all stand-up shows at UCB’s East Village theater paying for shows, or getting rid the door price and making those shows free.
Comedian Chris Gethard offered a long article largely defending UCB, while acknowledging that Metzger had some good points. He offered one of the best summaries of the problem.
“Fundamentally, the UCB runs theaters. They do not run comedy clubs,” Gethard writes. “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. … Yes, sometimes people get paid. None of those things happen in the UCB theater’s system.”
The Comic’s Comic also provided a breakdown of some of the economics behind live comedy, as well as rounding up a lot of the opinion around this debate.
There’s no word yet on whether this controversy will have any effect on the UCB’s Los Angeles theater. One of the other big indie comedy venues in L.A., NerdMelt at Meltdown Comics, explained to the Comic’s Comic that they offer gift certificates to Meltdown Comics and a poster of the art used to promote “The Meltdown” stand-up show to the comics who perform there.
The UCB’s founders are also set to record a special episode of Besser’s podcast “improv4humans” at SF Sketchfest in San Francisco to “lay out our whole philosophy and our history” with regard to the situation, the Comic’s Comic reports. (UPDATE: That podcast has been posted here.)
In a comment to KPCC, Besser said, "We are incorporated. It's just that the four owners have chosen to not take any of the profits made from the theater and instead have funneled it back into theater." UCB does pay managers and techs.
In comments to the Comic's Comic, Besser also cited their popular Tuesday night stand-up slot here in L.A., and noted that it, like much of the rest of the theater, is about developing material.
“What I’d invite them to do is not do the same 15 minutes when they’re at our theater,” Besser told the Comic’s Comic. “If they’re doing their club material, they’re wasting their time. That’s a waste of time at our theater.”
The battle is a sign of a cultural difference between UCB, which comes out of the improv and sketch world, and the stand-up community, which has a greater connection with making money and getting paid being a real sign of value.
What do you think about the controversy?
Full disclosure: I’ve taken classes with the UCB Theatre and regularly improvise around Los Angeles.
RELATED: VIDEO: Improv Begin! At UCB Theater
This story has been updated.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the theater was a nonprofit, which is incorrect.