Upright Citizens Brigade and the Case for Paying Improvisors

Comedy Features UCB
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Upright Citizens Brigade and the Case for Paying Improvisors

This week a Variety report revealed that the Upright Citizens Brigade is launching a new business partnership in which it will provide workshops and training for advertising companies. The skills covered will include storytelling, ideation and the fundamentals of improvisation. “If you start to notice funnier, more timely commercials in a few months’ time,” the article concludes, “perhaps UCB had something to do with it.”

This isn’t exactly a new enterprise for UCB, which has long offered training to businesses and other organizations through its corporate arm, UCB Industries. The announcement seems more like a deliberate PR push to drum up business, which is perfectly reasonable. UCB recently moved into a new theater in Manhattan’s pricey Hell’s Kitchen district and shortly thereafter raised its ticket prices; I wouldn’t be surprised if the company is taking steps to beef up its margins. But the announcement is also something more important than a solicitation of new business. It’s an acknowledgment that improv is valuable.

UCB’s very existence, of course, is an acknowledgement that improv is valuable. Every night audiences at its four theaters pay up to 12 bucks a head—$13.50 if they book tickets online—to see improv, sketch and stand-up. And every day students at its training centers take classes that cost as much as $500, taught by teachers who are paid for their time and expertise. Members of UCB’s touring company, who perform at colleges, theaters and other venues around the country, are compensated for their work. So are the performers who conduct corporate workshops of the sort detailed by Variety. All of these examples point to a simple underlying truth: The teaching and performance of improv are both forms of labor. Even more than that, they are marketable services. People will pay for them. It follows that the individuals who render these services deserve compensation, which is why everyone I’ve just mentioned receives it.

I say all this because I think it’s important to bear in mind when considering the substantial subset of UCB that doesn’t get paid for its labor: the improvisors, stand-ups and sketch comics who perform nightly at its theaters. All of them work for free, and often at a loss. To perform on a UCB house team, you must complete UCB’s core curriculum, or four courses at $450-500 apiece. You must also be approved for study in an Advanced Study course—another $450-500. (Through its diversity scholarships, UCB waives these fees for 175 students each year). That’s at least $2,250 and at most $2,500 simply to be eligible to audition for UCB’s flagship Harold and Lloyd teams. If you make it, which you probably won’t, the costs continue to accrue. Members of UCB’s house teams are required to pay their coaches, and many also pay for rehearsal spaces and props. They do not recoup these costs.

Let me put this in other words: UCB runs on free labor. It might not profit very much, I don’t know, but it runs off it all the same. The company’s founders, officers and denizens have offered various justifications for this. Rationalizations, really. I will discuss several, but I want us to return first to what I said above. Improv is worth money. UCB runs on this principle, too, the principle that improv is worth paying to see and to learn, and that it is even worth paying others to perform—for some audiences. Any good-faith argument against paying UCB performers must reckon with the fact that UCB has already ceded this ground. The nature of the labor may vary by context, but the fact that improv is labor does not. If you hold this belief, you cannot rightfully withdraw it when it becomes inconvenient to argue or logistically difficult to execute.

Nevertheless, let us entertain some of the arguments against paying UCB performers.

It’s not labor. In a 2013 interview with the New York Times, Matt Besser, one of UCB’s founders, said: “I don’t see what they do as labor. I see guys onstage having fun. It’s not a job.” This we can dismiss on its face for reasons already established. It is labor, and UCB treats it as such in every context but on the main stages. The implication that performers are not working because they’re having fun is disingenuous, and insultingly so: Many UCB performers work very hard to have that little bit of fun each week.

It would kill the vibe. Most of UCB’s shows are performed by relative amateurs taking great creative risks. By “great creative risks” I mean the work is often not all that good. Sometimes it’s extremely good and only a few people see it. Sometimes lots of people see it and they’re all UCB students who get in for free. UCB gives these relative amateurs a stage, an audience and some degree of promotion that elsewhere might cost hundreds of dollars. Were the company to pay performers, the argument goes, it would have to be more discriminating about what shows it selects, which in turn would diminish the level of creative risk-taking its current model allows. “There’s a creative vibe at U.C.B., and to maintain it, we can’t pay people,” Besser said in that same interview. “If you pay, then you have to assign worth to shows, and then people will resent that.”

This argument is first and foremost a counterfactual. Absent a business plan that includes compensation, it is impossible to say what creative decisions UCB would have to make to accommodate those costs. As a hypothetical, though, it’s hardly disagreeable. Assigning worth to shows is a normal part of running any theatre company. Making decisions based on potential risk is a normal part of running any business. UCB is a theatre company and a business. If the cost of justly compensating performers is that UCB’s artistic staff must make some difficult decisions, or that some performers might find themselves making less for a Tuesday show than they would for a Friday show, that seems fine to me. As a writer, I make less for a short blog post than I do for a long reported feature. I don’t always make as much as I think the work is worth—in fact, I make most of my income copywriting for a law firm, and very little of it as a journalist—but I understand the economics and appreciate the opportunity to do work I enjoy. And like many of my friends who perform at UCB, I do hope that my current work will lead to more lucrative opportunities later.

All of that said, I would challenge Besser’s notion of the theatre’s creative vibe. It is true but incomplete. UCB is a place where people can take creative risks in search of their voice—but only certain people. As I’ve written before, if one must pay thousands of dollars to perform at UCB, then only those with thousands of dollars to spare will perform at UCB. This limits the talent pool to the financially comfortable, who are, not coincidentally, largely white. By limiting the experiences and points of view reflected onstage, UCB in turn limits the nature of risks taken and voices found. This has far-reaching ramifications. As UCB is fond of mentioning, it has launched countless performers to successful careers in television and film. The widespread racial and gender inequity in show business is by no means UCB’s fault, but inequity at the base of the pyramid necessarily contributes to inequity at the top.

If UCB truly cares about the doors it opens to comedians, then it must recognize that those doors only open for a select few. And if it truly cares about giving artists creative freedom, then it must recognize that right now this freedom comes at a steep price, a price that will only rise as rents climb and wages stagnate. UCB can mitigate that price by paying its performers.

UCB would have to raise ticket prices. UCB offers scores of cheap comedy shows every week to hundreds, likely thousands of customers in New York and Los Angeles. This is an indisputable public good. Were UCB to pay the comedians who put on these shows, it would have to take steps to cover costs, and one of these would likely be an increased price of admission. If tickets prices go up, UCB’s shows will be accessible to fewer people, especially people with lower incomes.

Yes—I expect that if UCB starts paying its performers, it will have to raise ticket prices. I also expect that if it doesn’t start paying its performers, it will have to raise ticket prices anyway. The same economic forces that make it difficult to pursue improv make it difficult to produce improv. UCB raised its prices in December, for instance, citing rising costs of doing business in New York City. The theatre’s previous price hike was less than a year earlier. Those costs aren’t going down anytime soon.

That’s why it’s important to remember what ticket prices are for. In an email announcing the last hike, UCB’s New York artistic director, Shannon O’Neil, explained that admission fees go toward “rent, maintenance upkeep, reservations, paying theatre staff (managers, box office, line control, tech’s).” Obvious as it is, that last item is key: UCB charges admission in part to pay the people who work at UCB. Only through intense mental gymnastics are UCB’s performers excluded from this category, even as they’re the only reason anyone buys a ticket in the first place.

If indeed prices must go up to help pay performers, then the fact is they are already too low. They fail to cover the minimum costs they exist to cover—if you grant that performing improv for paying audiences constitutes labor, that is. If you don’t, then I suggest you ask yourself why operating the lights for an improv show is work, but performing below those lights is not. And if you believe that improvisors should get paid but for the fact that rising prices will make UCB less accessible, then I would question how much you truly care about accessibility. UCB is already inaccessible to many who would study and perform there. Reasonable people may disagree, but it is my view that inequities within should be addressed before inequities without. Otherwise the only thing made accessible to the greater public will be a dull, privileged and increasingly irrelevant art form.

I would finally note that there are many ways a business like UCB might keep admission prices down. I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of UCB’s business, but I will offer a few observations. One, as I mentioned earlier, is that UCB operates two profit-seeking arms: a training center and a branded content unit/production studio/touring company. While the theatre purports to operate at a “subsistence level,” these other segments aim higher. Another is that UCB has a vast alumni network of show business professionals. Let’s not mince words: Many of these individuals have lots of money, too much money, far more money than they could ever need, and UCB takes great pride in claiming them as graduates. One wonders whether they could be persuaded to spare a few bucks to help create a more equitable industry.

Notably, UCB is not a nonprofit organization. It cannot, as many theatre companies do, raise institutional grant money. Nor can it enjoy certain tax exemptions granted to many nonprofits, such as those from sales and property taxes. UCB is a limited liability company, a for-profit entity that allows income and losses to “pass through” to its owners’ personal tax returns. An LLC’s allocated profits are only taxed once, on its owners’ returns, rather than incurring taxes on both the company’s profits and the shareholders’ dividends. I mention all this because UCB’s owners famously do not take a salary from the company. This means they do not reap one of the chief advantages of operating as an LLC—the flexible allocation of profits that are only taxed once—while suffering one of its chief drawbacks, that is, UCB’s losses become their individual losses. Again, I have no special insight into UCB’s financial situation, but the Times reported in 2013 that UCB ran up $1 million in debt renting its East Village space. I would imagine that the opening of two new locations since had similar results. Debt, to be clear, is a normal part of doing business, and especially of growing a business. Still, UCB’s owners presumably have substantial personal interests in keeping that debt down. I wonder whether this affects their judgment when it comes to the question of paying performers. I also wonder why they don’t file for nonprofit status, though when I asked a representative whether they’ve ever considered it—as well as why UCB is an LLC despite these circumstances—the company declined to comment.

There is one other advantage to operating as an LLC. In general, as an LLC owner, if you lose more money in a year than you make, you can use that loss to get a refund on past tax bills, or carry it forward to reduce future tax bills. For instance, many suspect that when Donald Trump lost $916 million in 1995, he used that loss to reduce or eliminate his tax liability in the years following. I bring this up not to suggest that UCB’s owners are playing dirty tax tricks with UCB money; carrying losses back or forward is hardly even a trick. My point is to illustrate the complexity of doing business, and that losses are not the end of the world. In arguing that UCB should pay performers, I often encounter the knee-jerk reaction that it would cripple the company. And I’m sure it would result in short-term losses. But this is a normal, necessary and very far from fatal sacrifice, a sacrifice UCB has asked of its performers since day one.

None of the other theaters pay. You’re right—as a rule, neither the Magnet nor the Peoples Improv Theatre pay their performers (although the PIT does give performers a cut of the door in certain circumstances). They should. They don’t because UCB doesn’t. UCB is the biggest and the best and it sets the standard. If UCB doesn’t pay, that puts pressure on every other company to do the same. Conversely, if UCB did pay…

Some of the other theaters pay and they suck. You’re still right—Second City pays, and it produces far fewer and much less interesting shows. What’s your point? That’s one model. If UCB doesn’t want to follow it, the path is simple: Create a new model. It’ll be hard; suck it up. It’s already hard for everyone struggling to make art in a world that punishes them for even trying.

UCB is like grad school: You hone your craft for a while before you go out and do it. No, the training center is like grad school. UCB is where you do the thing you learned, and people pay to see you do it. Also? It’s generally understood that graduate education is unjustly, prohibitively expensive, and many of the best programs—the UCBs of post-secondary education, if you will—pay their students to attend. Can I get a “yes and”?

I don’t mind working for free. That’s great, but, no one asked you? And, why don’t you at least be honest about what you’re saying: “I don’t mind working for free, so nobody else should mind, either.” The thing is, other people do. Other people can’t afford not to mind. Others still can’t afford to move to New York City or Los Angeles and then not mind. And it really doesn’t matter whether you mind or not: The principle exists outside of your personal preferences. Either performing improv for paying audiences is work or it isn’t. Either improvisors should get paid or they shouldn’t.

Sure, maybe things worked out fine for you. You worked one or three day jobs for years while toiling late into the night on insane shows nobody else would give a chance. You found your voice, met your closest artistic peers and made truly great, fearless work. Now you’re on a TV series or in a writers’ room or you have a beloved live show and it’s the best thing that ever happened to you, you couldn’t have done it without UCB. That’s wonderful—I’m really happy for your success. And there are two other things I want to tell you:

1) The conditions that produced you no longer exist. They’re gone! The costs of living in New York and Los Angeles only move in one direction. The number of people training at UCB moves in the same direction. The odds of any one person breaking through, which were never all that high to begin with, move in the opposite direction. UCB is not the punk-rock community for rejects and outsiders it used to be. It’s a national business that serves thousands and thousands of paying customers each year. It just launched a partnership with ad agencies, for Christ’s sake. That doesn’t mean it’s not still a vital, unique artistic community; it absolutely is. But to pretend it’s not a large company with serious obligations to everyone in it—students, performers, teachers, personnel, audiences, the greater ecosystem it supports—is delusional. People come to UCB to find entrance into an industry scarred by devastating inequality. UCB is a part of that industry and complicit in that inequality. Inequality is the status quo; it won’t change unless we change it. If your argument is that the status quo worked for you, then you’re arguing for that inequality to persist.

2) This isn’t about you. It really isn’t! It’s about everyone who didn’t get the chances you got, or who got them but couldn’t take them, or who took them and had to give them up. It’s about everyone who toiled until they couldn’t afford to toil anymore and everyone who couldn’t afford to toil in the first place. That’s actually a whole lot of people! Your example is not proof that anyone can do it, but proof that someone in your exact circumstances could do it—nothing more. I’m not saying you didn’t earn your TV gig, but that right now UCB grads, your peers, are going out for roles in sketches and web series and commercials produced by web companies who will pay them far less than they’re worth. They’re taking these roles because they’ve been taught to devalue what they do. They’ve been taught that if they work for less now, they’ll get more later from an industry built to exploit them. Do you really think their sacrifices will pay off? I don’t—I think they’ll work for pittance after pittance until most of them give up the dream entirely. It’s bad out there. Don’t you get that? And if you do, and if you want it to get better, which I know you tell people you do, is it really so hard to accept that your precious improv club bears some responsibility?

That’s all I’m saying. Things are bad, but they can get better. UCB is flawed, but it’s important, and it can change the world, or at least the entertainment industry. That won’t happen unless it pays the people who give it a reason to exist. They deserve it; there is no honest argument that they don’t. The only true reason for UCB to run on free labor is that it’s never faced any consequences for doing so. But we must call this what it is: exploitative, unjust and unprogressive. It has to change. Time to stop talking and start doing.

This article has been updated to reflect that the Peoples Improv Theater does, in some circumstances, pay performers.

Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.