Dumb Doorman

A few weeks ago comedian Brodie Reed tweeted the following:

To my eye this was an uncontroversial if ill-acknowledged assertion true of most cultural institutions, and one borne out by recent data. But naturally it triggered a bunch of snowflake comics: 

As pile-ons go, this was pretty tame. Still, it struck me how immediate the resistance wasโ€”how predictable; how obtuseโ€”and I thought of it as I listened to the latest episode of the Comedy Cellar's podcast. Noam Dworman, the Cellar's owner, and comic Dan Naturman hosted author Meghan Daum to discuss her new book about the culture wars. Early in the episode (around nine minutes), Dworman launches into a complaint about the New York Times' 1619 Project. He recently read a historian's critique of the project, he said, and was appalled by Nikole Hannah-Jones' dismissive response to it on Twitter. (Dworman said the critique was by historian Gordon Wood, but Hannah-Jones' tweet was in response to James McPherson's critique in the same publication.) That response was, "LOL. Right, because white historians have produced truly objective history." Here's what Dworman had to say in return:

You see this over and over again. The idea now is that you can dismiss anybody's argument based on the color of the skin that it comes out of. And you don't even have to be embarrassed... What I find astounding about where this has gone is that once you start criticizing people, dismissing people for the color of their skin, or attributing characteristics based on the color of their skinโ€ฆ you have two possible realities. One could be, white people actually do have these qualities based on the color of their skin, but no other group does have characteristics we can comment. Or, you have your characteristics, therefore I must have my characteristics. And if I can talk about yours, then logically you can talk about mine. And that's just simple logic, right? My seven year old daughter could understand that logic. 

Daum responds by explaining the notions of intersectionality and punching up/down. She suggests that in the contemporary discourse people think it's acceptable to make fun of white people because that counts as punching up; and women think it's acceptable to make fun of men for the same reason. She finds all of this objectionable because it assumes that the target of the punching "has power that they may or may not have." She says she finds the notion of toxic masculinity to be similarly offensive because anyone complaining about it is just "handing [men] power that they don't really have." Dworman jumps in to resume complaining about the 1619 Project, specifically Hannah-Jones' explicit framing of the endeavor as a subjective telling of history (because no telling of history is objective, as she said on Twitter, but which Dworman elides). Quote:

We have all these lessons that we've learned in science about bias and that's why we have double blind experimentsโ€ฆ 'cause we know that the closer you are to something, the less likely [sic] your judgment is. And now we reverse it to say "No no no, we only want to hear from the people who might be so emotionally close to this that they have no objectivity." And that people who might be disinterested, their opinions are worthless. But it makes no sense. And intersectionality is just racism. Yes, there is a different effect when you punch up, it's hard to hurtโ€”you can punch up at Michael Bloomberg all you want and it doesn't affect him. But that doesn't change the fact that what you might be saying about his whiteness is foul, and immoral, and anti-intellectual, and wrongโ€ฆ Just because I can do this, because it won't hurt you, doesn't mean I should give myself license to do it, because it's still wrong. Martin Luther King didn't give himself license to do that.

There's a lot to unpack here, but when you unpack nonsense you just end up with more nonsense. The important thing is that Dworman evidently has no idea what racism is. This becomes clearer later in the episode (around 55 minutes), when he gripes about his daughter coming home from school with some insidious liberal notions in her head:

My daughter in first grade came homeโ€”my wife is Indianโ€”so my daughter comes home, says, "Dad?" And she had never even had any concept of color. She says, "Daddy, you're white, right?" I'm like, "Yeah." She goes, "Do you treat people badly?" I'm like, "No honey, I don'tโ€”did you ever see Daddy treat anyone badly?" She says, "Well, did you used to? 'Cause we learned at school that white people used to treat people badly." So they're getting this stuffโ€”

Daum interjects, disapprovingly, that these days they're even teaching the 1619 Project in schools. Dworman huffs that his daughter also recently asked him if it's true Donald Trump wants to build a wall to keep immigrants out and make Mexico pay for it. To Dworman these anecdotes are evidence that his daughter's teacher is trying to "inculcate" her with liberal ideology she is not yet able to regard critically. Naturman points out that Dworman's not being totally fair: Trump did say those things. But: 

NATURMAN: She is wrong, by the way, about white people used toโ€ฆ insofar as [the teacher] didn't say, "People treat each other badly." By singling out white people, she was wrong. She was not wrong about Trump wanting to build a wall.

DWORMAN: No, she was right, white people used to treat black people badly. 

NATURMAN: By saying white people used to treat people badly, it is a lie by omission. People have been treating people badly for centuries, of all races, colors and creedsโ€ฆ if white people were the only people in history that did that, she might have a point.

DWORMAN: They're trying to impose a certain worldview onto my daughter. I'm a very political guy, I never discuss politics at home because I understand how powerful my words can be to her. And I want her to think for herself. I don't want to start brainwashing her. However, I became so nervous about this trickle-down intersectionality that I decided I wanted toโ€”I do want to brainwash them about race and the evil of racism. 

Then he asks if Daum thinks it's okay for him read his kids books like Tom Sawyer and say the n-word when it appears. 

This is all very funny because Dworman's daughter indeed came home from school that day with a facile, sanitized understanding of racism as white people being mean to people of color. But apparently this is what Dwormanโ€”a middle-aged manโ€”literally thinks racism is, so he got upset that her teacher exposed her to a concept her young brain wasnโ€™t ready for. And because her teacher centered the evils of white people, he sees the whole lesson as somehow an example of woke culture gone too far. They're teaching children about white supremacy? Why, that's not history, it's politics. It's trickle-down intersectionality. The man thinks he can teach his first-grader about race better than her history teacher, but his understanding of race is barely a first-grader's: it's closer to that of a first-grader who spends recess mainlining Ben Shapiro and Sam Harris, whose podcasts Naturman and Dworman respectively extol later in the episode. Also in this episode: Dworman's strident defenses of Louis CK (because he asked Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov for consent and never blocked the door) and Brett Kavanaugh (because Christine Blasey Ford's friend was skeptical of her story); his refutation of the axiom that rape is about power, not sex ("As a man, I understand being overcome with lust. And yeah, I could see if I was some kind of sociopath, Iโ€™d be like, well Iโ€™m just gonna take what I want. That wouldnโ€™t be about power, that would be about taking sex. Now, maybe some guys do it for power."); and his lamentation that whereas in the past it was only unacceptable for men to coerce women into sex, society has gotten so puritanical that these days it's even off-limits for male bosses to date female employees. 

I wish Dworman were a comedian and I could simply write off all these impassioned arguments as just jokes. Alas he is a businessman who inherited the Cellar from his father and we have no choice but to assume his ramblings in fact reflect his beliefs. 

One thing you learn very quickly writing about show business is that the suits really are as stupid as theyโ€™re made out to be. The whole industry is a confidence game run at every level by dumb, incurious, boring assholes so dazzled by the improbability of their success that they can only apprehend it as proof of their own goodness and intelligence. More likely they are lucky and persistent; more likely they are lucky and mad. Noam Dworman is obviously not the only comedy club owner who thinks "racism" means "individual actors acting racistly" rather than "a web of socially and politically entrenched structures that enforce and reproduce racial inequalities irrespective of whether I myself have used the n-word." If he were, club comedy would not be so overwhelmingly white and male and straight and cis and able-bodied, because gatekeepers would understand that they live in an unequal world and cannot wait for equality to passively materialize around them. But they don't get it; they don't care to get it; they see themselves as lights of reason in a world sliding backwards into chaos. In reality they are desperately clinging to the fading relevance they were born into and have spent their careers convincing themselves they deserve. I think deep down they know they donโ€™t, and they live in fear of this knowledge, and this fear is what makes them short-circuit anytime their worldview comes under threat: you unfunny hack, don't you know comedy is a meritocracy and good jokes are all it takes to succeed and you're only complaining about the system because you haven't succeeded within it and how can it be racist when I know all these black comics and equality means everyone of every race gets made fun of equally and if you think punching down is a real thing then you're admitting you think white people are superior, aha, if you think I'm wrong then why won't you come on my podcast and debate me?

It's easy to forget that in addition to saying bonkers shit online, these people also have real power in the world. I generally don't go to clubs or follow club comics. Few people in my social circles do either. (I did go to the Cellar a few weeks ago, and as I grabbed a drink at the barโ€”this is trueโ€”I overheard someone at the famed Comic's Table complaining about my tweets. Timing!) The comics I know and follow spend their nights performing in bars and bookstores and backyards and theaters. Every so often news from the club world bleeds into ours and someone says, "Oh rightโ€”that all exists right next to us." You don't see it if you don't look, and there's rarely any reason to look. But like any entrenched structure it's there all the same, visibly and invisibly exercising its influence on the culture. To state the obvious: clubs, like improv theaters, form a pipeline. Comics who succeed within them go on to write for SNL and Fallon and make sitcoms and specials. They cultivate national audiences by touring and podcasting. They perform, if they're lucky, the social function of humor, which is to construct social groups through assimilation and alienation. Jokes can be many things, but one is a means of assuring people their beliefs are good and right. The story of comedy in the 2010s, like so much else in the 2010s, is the story of fandoms consolidating around those assurances into raving hordes willing to do anything for the people who provide them. See: Dave Chappelle's transphobic jokes. See: podcasts it is simply too perilous for me to identify by name. See: what happens when someone, just hypothetically speaking, loses a high-profile job for saying racist and homophobic slurs. 

This is why it matters, unfortunately, that Noam Dworman is a moron. Structural inequality reproduces itself in part through cultural institutions like comedy clubs. Fighting inequality requires us to root it out of those institutions, which is impossible if the people running them have no idea how inequality works. They may say their clubs are neutral platforms; they may say they have no values other than giving audiences what they want. This ignores both the embedded nature of inequalityโ€”the invisible hand of the market is white and maleโ€”and the fact that every booking decision is a value statement. You needn't look very far to see that Dworman's particular value set is not the exception but the rule. Last year an unrepentant Louis CK returned from his brief hiatus to venues like Zanies and Yuk Yuk's and the Cellar; now he's touring the world with a rotating cast of Cellar comics like Joe List, Kevin Brennan, and Keith Robinson as his openers. TJ Miller has been performing steadily since he was accused of sexual assault thanks to clubs that don't believe or care about the accusations. Jeremy Piven responded to the assault allegations against him by rebranding as a club comic; he has a spot at the Hollywood Laugh Factory tomorrow. Jeff Ross parlayed his talent for tepid insults not only into a steady touring career, but also an apparently standing invite to make racist, xenophobic and pro-cop propaganda for Comedy Central. The Stand gives a home to comics like Aaron Berg and the Legion of Skanks, who regularly traffic in racism and violent misogyny. Chris Hardwick's current tour includes the Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia, the Tacoma Comedy Club, and the Columbus Funny Bone. Every one of these bookings could have gone to underrepresented artists, or even to well-represented artists who havenโ€™t, you know, hurt people. It takes an affirmative decision by a human being to give them instead to accused predators, admitted predators, and proud bigots. 

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We are in a period of intense organizing around racial equality, gender equality, and sexual violence. (These are obviously all interconnected but I like to say three things at a time.) In Hollywood we have seen this reflected in Timeโ€™s Up, #PayUpHollywood and the current Writer's Guild action against talent agencies, among other efforts. The movement has not yet reached the American standup world in any comparable way. I suspect this is in part due to the form's individuated natureโ€”it's difficult to organize when everyone is a freelancerโ€”and in part because, as I argued recently, the comedy boom has bifurcated standup: the people in spaces that most need reform don't give a shit, and the people who give a shit created their own spaces. Much as improv theaters self-select for workers who can afford not to care about getting paid, comedy clubs self-select for workers who don't care if their bosses hire Louis CK, program majority-white and male lineups, or go on podcasts and say that rape isn't about power, it's about taking sex (!!). The rot, it turns outโ€ฆ is structural.

I donโ€™t know what it will take to change any of this. Or if it can be changed. I think often about that episode a couple years ago when the New Yorker Festival booked Steve Bannon. A group of other panelists, including comics Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, John Mulaney, and Patton Oswalt, swiftly threatened to drop out if Bannon was not dropped first. Their demand was met within hours. My feeling is that any structural reform in comedy would require similar coordination by headliner-level comics threatening to steer clear of clubs that donโ€™t uphold certain standards of conduct. Obviously there are plenty of compassionate, progressive headliners who give a shit about equality, but it also seems increasingly clear that clubs can get by without them. The New Yorker has liberal cred to maintain and a liberal audience to serve. The Stand does not. 

Maybe thatโ€™s underestimating the power of professional thinkers to change the way people think. And the capacity of dumb cowards to buckle under public pressure. Itโ€™s certainly tempting to think that if we just continue building a healthier and more equitable ecosystem outside comedy clubs, they might eventually regress so far into the past that they stay there. But that wouldnโ€™t be right. These places matter. What they put into the world affects it. We canโ€™t just avert our gaze. Any working comedian who cares about the art formโ€”who wants it to prosper and evolve, to grow more inclusive and more daringโ€”owes it to their colleagues and audiences to call out the rot at its core. Perhaps they can start with the Comedy Cellar.


Header image via Comedy Central.

Hello! Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, please consider sharing it. This newsletter is free for the time being, but any support you can offer will go toward more comedy industry news and analysis. Comments, tips, corrections, and other stray thoughts are always welcome here or on Twitter, where my DMs are open. Bye bye.

Business as Usual at the Upright Centristsโ€™ Brigade

"Everyone I know at the theater is saying 'This shit sucks.'"

On Tuesday Variety reported that Kamala Harris will hold a โ€œfireside chatโ€ fundraiser at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre next week, on November 13th. UCB co-founder Matt Walsh will host and interview the candidate at the theatreโ€™s Sunset Boulevard location, with tickets starting at $100 and capping at $2,800. Variety suggested the fundraiser is part of an effort โ€œto regain momentum with less than 100 days to go before the Iowa caucus.โ€ 

The news was met with some skepticism.

UCB did not announce the event itself, nor notify its sizable bicoastal community ahead of Varietyโ€™s report that their theatre would be rented out for a political fundraiser. Talent I've spoken with were by and large caught off-guard: one New York-based performer told me that when his teammate broke the news during rehearsal Tuesday night, the group fell into a stunned silence. A Los Angeles-based performer reacted similarly. โ€œItโ€™s shocking how UCB management always finds new ways to be out of touch with their performers,โ€ they told me in an email. โ€œI don't think they should have any politicians doing rich people Hollywood Weinstein-y fundraisers at UCB, let alone shit centrists like Harrisโ€ฆ Everyone I know at the theater is saying 'This shit sucks' and 'This shit is embarrassing.โ€™"

A pair of New York-based house performers decried the fundraiser in an email they sent me Tuesday night, pseudonymously signed Daniel Larsen. (UCB talent are generally reluctant to speak on record for fear of retaliation; the theatreโ€™s management prefers to keep dissent internal, and has a history of personally requesting that people take down critical social media posts.) โ€œA number of us feel slighted by the public use of our institution to raise money for a tool of the racist, oligarchic carceral state,โ€ they said. โ€œThe issues and concerns of the Hollywood elite are, in our opinion, antithetical to the diverse, pluralist values we've tried to build in the UCB community in our limited wayโ€ฆ This, like many other maneuvers of the UCB 4, just go to show 1.) How little we're valued, 2.) How far their โ€˜punk ethosโ€™ have strayed, and 3.) How their short-term thinking jeopardizes our ability to build back the theatre they've endangered.โ€

On Wednesday, the theatre announced in an email to Los Angeles talentโ€”but not New York talentโ€”that it had actually reached out to every Democratic primary campaign about using the UCB space, and was working to secure events with two other unnamed candidates:

Hello UCB Community! 

As some of you may have heard, Kamala Harris is going to be at UCB Sunset for a brief Q & A next Wednesday night, Nov 13th. We are also in the process of confirming similar events with two other candidates on Tuesday Nov 12th and Thursday Nov 14th. The option of using our theatre was extended to all Democratic candidates, and we are excited to potentially have these three. 

We would love to offer our community the opportunity to attend for free. As it stands now, the candidates are scheduled to do a Q & A in the Sunset theatre around 6pm, and it will be live-streamed to the inner sanctum. However, given that this is a private rental, each candidate's campaign is responsible for ticketing in the theatre. 

If you are interested in attending in the Inner Sanctum, please fill out THIS FORM [link removed] to indicate which date you'd prefer by this Friday 11/8 at 12 PM PST.  Admission is not guaranteed, but we will do our best!

One caveat --  Due to the nature of politics and the fact that this falls within one week of the next democratic debate, it is very possible that any or all of the candidates may have to cancel with very short notice. So, ya know, don't hold your breath! Or if you do, only hold like 50% of it. 

Cheers!

Christine [Bullen, UCBTLA Artistic Director]

I asked the theatre if that โ€œoptionโ€ was extended to all Democratic candidates before or after the Harris event was announced and derided, and if the theatre has any policy governing the rental of its spaces to political campaigns. UCB did not respond. When I asked the pair of New York house performers about the Wednesday email, they said in part: โ€œThe fact that we have to hear about this pivot (catering to two additional candidates) from a journalist and not the powers that be themselves only strengthens our criticisms of an extremely wide gulf between the owners of the theater and the theater/community itself. Not to mention that you'd think an organization that predicates its operation on unpaid labor would want to stay away from โ€˜politics.โ€™โ€ 

I asked UCB for a response to this statement. I did not hear back. 


If UCBโ€™s owners still believe in the anti-establishment values they use as a front to violate labor laws, the fiery response to this weekโ€™s announcements should come as no surprise. Career politicians are the establishment. $100-a-head fundraisers are for the establishment, in the furtherance of establishment interests. Kamala Harris in particular is a former prosecutor who made her name putting people in jail: she represents exactly what is wrong with the establishment, the entrenched power systems that unaccountably decide who gets to live freely and who does not. She is, to use terms familiar to UCBโ€™s management, not punk rock. 

Itโ€™s been almost a year since UCB laid off a slew of staffers and closed its East Village theatre, citing financial issues the UCB 4 had only just become aware of. Multiple sources within the New York theatre tell me that the latest word from up top is itโ€™s doing fine: the theatre and school are both making money. No one whoโ€™s heard this has seen any documentation to support it, and UCB has not answered my questions about its financial health. If itโ€™s true, though, itโ€™s great news. Last winter, UCBโ€™s owners said they couldnโ€™t think about matters like paying coachesโ€”let alone talentโ€”until they righted the ship. Now that itโ€™s righted, if itโ€™s righted, they can finally start sharing UCBโ€™s value with the workers who create it. 

Obviously thatโ€™s not going to happen. As talent have pointed out here and elsewhere, the fundamental problem is not UCBโ€™s finances. The problem is still UCBโ€™s owners. Itโ€™s impressive how few shits these people give. Take the Harris event: Matt Walsh was the only owner absent from last winterโ€™s crisis meetings, in which workers made clear demands for a more transparent, reciprocal relationship with management. (UCB addressed this concern in New York by creating a Talent Board with representatives from each class of house teamโ€”Harold, Maude, Lloyd, and Characters Welcomeโ€”that serve as liaisons with management. They established no equivalent group in Los Angeles.) Now he pops back up to host a fundraiser for someone with politics at odds with UCBโ€™s ostensible values, organized without the workforceโ€™s input. Amy Poehler showed up at those meetings, delivered reassuring platitudes about how important it is for the workforce to be heard, then went back to enriching her friend and manager Dave Becky, the Hollywood power player who reportedly pressured Louis CKโ€™s victims into silence. Roberts, meanwhile, did not bother responding to my reporting that he took a $200,000 loan from UCB in 2010, contradicting longstanding claims that the UCB 4 have never taken money from the theatre. 

And Matt Besser? Oh Matt Besser. I recently listened to an interview he did with comedy journalist Sean L. McCarthy to promote his new special, Pot Humor. Heโ€™s really proud of the special, which he thinks is unique and innovativeโ€”how many specials have you seen shot in front of an audience thatโ€™s all high?โ€”and he chafes at questions about UCB. "When you're asking me about how does the business of UCB run, be in my shoes,โ€ he says. โ€œI'm all proud of some creative thing and you're asking me about the thing I don't enjoy doingโ€ฆ It's more like you're asking me about my car. I don't know how my car runs. What do you want to know about my car? Yes, I got in a wreck.โ€ So McCarthy asks why Besser even bothers to be in the theatre business:

'Cause I'm not really. And we haven't been. We've tried to make it run itself all these years. So we really haven't been. We've had people running it for us and when they come to us and go, "We think we should do this that and the other," we go, "Okay, that makes sense, that sounds good, that sounds fair." And that's how we've run it. So when we come into financial problems and people on the internet who've never run anything more than a lemonade stand, if that, are criticizing us, I don't care what they have to say, because I know they have no idea what's going on.

What is this guy talking about? Oh, right: the most important comedy theatre in the world. He founded it, he owns it, he teaches there, he performs there, he regularly puts its talent on his podcast, he uses its prestigeโ€”his prestigeโ€”to justify the decades-long systemic exploitation of its workforce. His workforce. No one is making him do this. He could stop whenever he wants. They all could. What do they get out of it? A vanity platform to help politicians raise money? The bottomless disdain of students and workers paying thousands of dollars for entry into a shrinking entertainment industry? What could be worth all the drama, all the toil they apparently take such little pride in? 

I feel crazy writing the same things about this place over and over again. But what else can you call the UCB 4โ€™s consistent disregard for the unpaid workers who actually sustain the business they want nothing to do with, yet refuse to let go of? At a certain point you have to wonder if thereโ€™s something bigger theyโ€™re not letting on. 

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Header image via the Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Hello! Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, please consider sharing it. This newsletter is free for the time being, but any support you can offer will go toward more comedy industry news and analysis. Comments, tips, corrections, and other stray thoughts are always welcome here or on Twitter, where my DMs are open. Bye bye.

Yeesh

So. 

Iโ€™m glad SNL fired Shane Gillis. I hesitate to call it the right decision because the right decision was not to hire him. But it was the better of two options. 

I agree, as many have suggested, that he is likely to spin his ouster into a lucrative career as a [gag] #CancelCulture martyr. He will probably make tons of money from standup gigs and a much larger podcast audience and whatever sinecures the reactionary grievance apparatus is doling out these days. His star may rise higher than it would have had SNL squirreled him into a corner for the season then cut him loose. But this is still the better option, the option where he is not working in close quarters for long hours with people for whom he holds demonstrable hatred. 

I have many thoughts about the last few days that mostly arenโ€™t distillable into anything but a long primal groan. It makes me very sad and angry to think Gillis is only one small product of a thriving subculture in American comedy. I spent most of the weekendโ€”and this was just a terrible call by me, do not recommendโ€”listening to his podcast and appearances on other podcasts, namely the Legion of Skanks. The truth is his language on the clips that went around is not exceptional. They are so standard as to be banal. Fake accents, slurs, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, misogynyโ€”thereโ€™s a Skanks episode where, cackling with glee, the group watches a clip of a woman with cerebral palsy performing standup. Thereโ€™s one where a co-host gleefully leads a chant about raping their producer; he sees her nodding along and riffs that it constitutes consent. Itโ€™s obvious why so many comedians got so furious at the possibility Gillis would face any consequences for what he said. This is normal for them. As my friend Charlie Walden once put it, thereโ€™s a whole class of comics that treat comedy as an ethical framework in which to say reprehensible things.

What does not seem obvious to me is why SNL would be unaware of Gillisโ€™s โ€œprior remarks.โ€ The showโ€™s statement said he was hired in part on โ€œthe strength of his talent as a comedian.โ€ But as best I can tell his toxicity is a consistent, defining part of his comedy. (Granted, I cannot speak to the totality of his corpus because he pulled it from the internet, hmmmm.) The representatives who put him forward to SNL were certainly aware of it; their job is to get him jobs heโ€™s suitable for. And it just does not stand to reason that SNLโ€™s producers would be blind to the realities of contemporary standup: that a guy with a show on Anthony Cumiaโ€™s podcast network might share some traits with Anthony Cumia. Incompetence may be the simplest explanation for many great blunders, but in this case it doesnโ€™t sit right. The Occamโ€™s Razor scenario is not that NBC skipped the cursory background research on someone destined for intense publicity (and NBCโ€™s money). It's that they did the research, and they knew who he was, and it was what they wanted, and they thought they would get away with it, because SNL is the show that gets away with it.

I think to myself, this is cynical. Then I think how itโ€™s only been four months since a former SNL cast member made a credible allegation of sexual harassment against the showโ€™s creator. He published it in a book and it went unremarked upon for weeks; NBC made a meaningless three-word denial and the story faded away. A month before that, one of the showโ€™s head writers said critic Steven Hyden fucks dogsโ€”just one of many critics, including myself, heโ€™s commandeered his sizable Instagram following againstโ€”and faced no apparent repercussions. This is the same show that suspended one of its writers over a harmless tweet she swiftly apologized for; the same show that had Casey Affleck host years after he settled allegations he sexually harassed and verbally abused production staff on one of his films; the same show that had Donald Trump host months after he said Mexicans are rapists; the same show that swatted down an extraโ€™s complaint about noted womanizer Chris Farley, a complaint made during what is widely considered one of the showโ€™s golden ages. These are all institutional failures of varying natures and degrees, but their effect is to paint a portrait of a workplace where toxic people thrive: in other words, a toxic workplace. Sure, you could look at the Gillis hiring and see a long series of people dropping the ball. You could also see a company hiring an employee because it likes his work and thinks he's a cultural fit. 

If indeed a process failure took place, however, the next step is not to forgive and move on. Itโ€™s to ask what the processes are and if theyโ€™ve failed before. SNL has been around for almost 45 years. It has employed hundreds or thousands of people, including interns who were not paid until this decade. It has vaulted many of its current and former employees to positions of near-unassailable cultural power. Only a very small fraction of these employees are ever exposed to meaningful public scrutiny. If a proud bigot could slip through the cracks and land one of the most coveted gigs in show business, who else has slipped through into less visible positions? What damage have they done? Who knew about it? Where did they go next?

These questions matter to those of us on the outside because SNL matters. Love them or hate them, pop cultural institutions help set the terms and limits of cultural discourse. (See: the last few days of people debating whether hate speech is bad.) SNL does not have a particularly inspiring record in this respect, and it's worth asking why. TVโ€™s oldest and biggest sketch comedy show does not make basic diversity strides 45 seasons in by chance. It does not cater to the reactionary right by chance. It does not spout transphobia and run interference for Aziz Ansari and nix jokes about Harvey Weinstein's downfall by chance. These values reflect the people running the show; they are the showโ€™s values. Yes, good funny people who make good funny comedy work there too, and the reason their sketches dominate weekly conversations about SNL is that they are departures from the norm. These people deserve to work on a show where the norm is good comedy. That SNL is not this showโ€”and is instead a show that regularly subjects the nation to Alec Baldwin as Donald Trumpโ€”and that accidentally or knowingly hired a gleeful racistโ€”then waited four days to decide what to do about himโ€”is also, say it with me, not by chance. 

One of the strangest parts of the last few days has been the widespread refusal by comedians and fans to acknowledge that comics mean what they say. But they do. It's very simple. Shane Gillis said all the cruel and ignorant things he said because he believes them. Thatโ€™s who he is. This is true on the larger scale too. SNL has shown us again and again, through everything Iโ€™ve mentioned and more, what it is: the plaything of an unaccountable reactionary millionaire who suspended Katie Rich immediately after she made fun of the presidentโ€™s family, and spent a weekend deliberating over the hateful ramblings of an unfunny bigot. Maybe now itโ€™ll get the scrutiny it deserves. 


Header image via the George W. Bush Presidential Center on Flickr.

Hello! Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, please consider sharing it. This newsletter is free for the time being, but any support you can offer will go toward more comedy industry news and analysis. Comments, tips, corrections, and other stray thoughts are always welcome here or on Twitter, where my DMs are open. Bye bye.

UCB's $200,000 Loan to Ian Roberts

The long debate over the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre's policy of not paying talent reached its most feverish pitch in the winter of 2012 and 2013. A group of standup comics, including Nick Turner and Kurt Metzger, publicly blasted the for-profit theatre over its use of free labor, with Turner going so far as to quit the standup show he hosted. A New York Times article covering the firestorm quoted Matt Besser saying UCB cannot "maintain" its "creative vibe" while paying talent. The theatre held a town hall in which Besser demanded UCB workers push back against criticism of the pay model, setting the defensive tone that would define the conversation for years to come. In an episode of his podcast addressing the debate, Besser and co-founder Ian Roberts reiterated a point the UCB4 have made again and again over the theatreโ€™s historyโ€”that they receive no money from it. Here's Besser, per a HuffPost description of the now-paywalled episode:

โ€œ[The founding members], in the 15 years the theater has been open, have never taken any money,โ€ he says on Improv4Humans. โ€œSo even when the Chelsea theater finally did get into the black [due mostly from paying improv students] ... at that point, we couldโ€™ve taken the money the school was making and put it in our own pockets ... all the money weโ€™ve been saving went to opening a theater in Los Angeles.โ€ [Bracketed phrases are HuffPost's, except this one.]

That was not the whole truth. One of the UCB4 had, at that point, taken money from the theatre. According to Los Angeles county records, in 2010 UCB's corporate entities gave Roberts and his wife, Katie, a loan of $200,000. This happened a few weeks after the couple took out two mortgages from Wells Fargo, totaling $936,000, on their new house in Agoura Hills. That house was collateralized in the loan from UCB. Records indicate they paid UCB back by October 2012, three months before the Improv4Humans episode was released. 

The document recording this loan is a deed of trust, the equivalent in California of a mortgage. Signed in January 2010, the deed lists the Robertses as trustor, or borrower; Fidelity National Title Company as trustee, a neutral intermediary holding the legal title to the property; and Upright Citizens Brigade, LLC as the beneficiary, or lender. The deed pledges the Robertses' home as security for a principal sum of $200,000. It does not mention any interest or maturity date, though this does not mean it had neither: the promissory note specifying its terms is not a matter of public record. Additionally, that the loan was secured by the house does not necessarily mean it was for the house, though this is a sound assumption based on the sequence of loans, and the use of trust deeds for home loans more generally. (UCB did not respond to multiple questions about the loan.)

That was in 2010. UCB was eleven years old. Five years had passed since it opened its first venue in California, four since it opened the training center in New York, one since it began a two-year process of renovating and readying UCB East for a 2011 opening. Classes at the time cost $350 to $375; tickets, $5 to $10. Roberts was executive producing and starring in Players, a Spike TV sitcom created by UCB co-founder Matt Walsh. He was working steadily as an actor and writer, with a recurring role in the final season of Reno 911 a year earlier, and would soon serve as executive producer of Key & Peele. According to transaction records, he and his wife bought the Agoura Hills home for $1,170,000. Today its estimated value is $1,895,400.

It is important to be clear about what the $200,000 was and was not. It was a perfectly legal loan, and we can reasonably conclude from a 2012 deed of reconveyance that the Robertses paid it back. (There is room for doubt here: a deed of reconveyance releases a debt, but released does not always mean repaid. It just tends to when lenders are not owned and controlled by their borrowers.) The transaction was not, strictly speaking, profit. It was not salary or a distribution or a bonus or a fee for services rendered. UCB did not pay for the Robertsesโ€™ house. It simply gave them a loan of $200,000, a sum infinitely greater than anything UCB has ever paid its house talent, and a sum they were able to pay back in two years. It did what any bank does every day. 

Is that so bad?

Had Besser said on Improv4Humans that the owners never made a profit from UCB, I do not think it would be fair to call that a lie. But he didn't say they never made a profit. He said they never took any money. The reality is that Roberts took quite a bit of money, money it turns out UCB could stand to part with for two years. In 2010, minimum wage was $8.00/hour in California and $7.25/hour in New York City. Going with the higher figure, $200,000 could have funded 25,000 man-hours of the work UCBโ€™s audiences pay for: not just performance but also rehearsal and sketch writing. UCB could have used that money to pay coaches rather than outsource the cost to talent, as it still does today. It could have covered more than 500 classes for students from underrepresented backgrounds and/or in financial need. It could have paid a regular wage to its sales representatives, who until 2016 worked on commission. Perhaps UCB could even have done all this and lent Roberts the money. A company with $200,000 to spare is generally a company with more than $200,000 to spare. Remember, this was years before UCB reached its cultural and institutional zenith. Defenders of its business model have long argued that pay would devastate the theatre, that there is simply no money for it, that it would require radical restructuring. Maybe that's true now. Obviously it was not then. Looking back at all thatโ€™s happened in recent yearsโ€”the move from Chelsea in part over an expected rent hike, layoffs, the closure of UCB East over rising rent and property taxes, more layoffsโ€”it is difficult not to wonder what might have been if the UCB4 invested all that money in their workforce rather than in real estate.

At an all-theatre meeting late last year, one UCB worker argued that it was unfair of her peers to ask about the company's finances. She owns a production company, she said, and would herself be insulted by such questioning. The thing is, UCB isnโ€™t like her production company. It isnโ€™t like most other companies. The majority of its employees are not paid. The people in charge describe it as a collective, a family. One of them is a multimillionaire TV and film star whose brand rests in no small part on her liberal politics, though these politics contain a substantial carveout for the business she built on free labor. It's true the questions may be insulting; the UCB4 have no legal obligation to face them. Their obligation is moral. They can afford to weather the insult.

Talk to almost any UCB worker about UCB and they'll eventually point to the theatreโ€™s central irony, how itโ€™s become what it originally opposed: the Man, the system, the status quo. The irony of the irony is how quickly this actually happened. It took only a decade for the punk rock alt-comedy theatre to become its owners' personal bank.


Hello! Thank you for reading. If you got anything out of this, please consider sharing it. This newsletter is free for the time being, but any support you can offer will go toward more comedy industry news and analysis. Comments, tips, corrections, and other stray thoughts are always welcome here or on Twitter, where my DMs are open.

Cover image via Marco Verch/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

UCBTLA Artistic Director Beth Appel Announces Resignation

Some news: UCBTLA Artistic Director Beth Appel is leaving the theater. Below is the email announcing her resignation, sent a little after midnight Thursday morning (PST).

Appel has served as Artistic Director since 2016. Her resignation follows the recent departures of UCBTNY Managing Director Alex Sidtis, UCBTLA Director of Human Resources Alyssa Cohen, UCBTLA Director of Finance and Procurement Brittany Palensky, and Elise Yen, the Chief Financial Officer who was hired in December and resigned in May. 

To be sure, the role of artistic director is a job with relatively frequent turnover. Appelโ€™s predecessor held the position for two years before resigning, and his predecessor for a little over one year. Before current UCBTNY Artistic Director Michael Hartney took the reins last year, Shannon Oโ€™Neill had the job for four. Still, this is a noteworthy shakeup in a long line of noteworthy shakeups, including Decemberโ€™s layoffs and the closure of UCB East. Whoever assumes the mantle next will face existential questions about the theaterโ€™s future.

Appel, who told the community she is leaving to pursue other opportunities, will stay aboard until UCB finds her replacement. Iโ€™ve reached out to UCB and Appel for comment, and will update this post if they respond.

Hello UCB Community,  

I am writing to let you know that I've decided to move on from my job as Artistic Director. Being AD was a dream of mine for a very long time and I've truly loved doing it! BUT, exciting opportunities outside of UCB have been coming up for me more and more and, because of that, it's time to hand over the reins.

I'm extremely proud of the work I've done as AD and I'm grateful to be able to continue on as a UCB performer, teacher, and fan. I wanna extend a big old thanks to all of you -- the talented and weird performers, writers, staff, teachers, and more who help make UCB cool (and the home of the best comedy in the world). It's been a pleasure working with all of you. And a special thanks to two people, without whom the Artistic Department could not possibly have operated -- Susan Hale and Arik Cohen. Please treat them both to a Cheesy Gordita Crunchโ„ข next time you see them.

As far as who will be taking over, I will continue on as AD with everything operating as usual until we find the perfect replacement. If you are that perfect replacement, email me and/or keep your eyes on boards.ucbcomedy.com for info on how to apply! 


Cover image via Ed Kwon/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

Hello! Thank you for reading. If you got anything out of this, please consider sharing it. This newsletter is free for the time being, but any support you can offer will go toward more comedy industry news and analysis. Comments, tips, corrections, and other stray thoughts are always welcome here or on Twitter, where my DMs are open. Bye bye.

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