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 theatre’s history—that they receive no money from it. Here's Besser, per a HuffPost description of the now-paywalled episode:

“[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.” [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 Robertses’ 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 UCB’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 that’s happened in recent years—the move from Chelsea in part over an expected rent hike, layoffs, the closure of UCB East over rising rent and property taxes, more layoffs—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 isn’t like her production company. It isn’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 theatre’s central irony, how it’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. Appel’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 O’Neill had the job for four. Still, this is a noteworthy shakeup in a long line of noteworthy shakeups, including December’s layoffs and the closure of UCB East. Whoever assumes the mantle next will face existential questions about the theater’s future.

Appel, who told the community she is leaving to pursue other opportunities, will stay aboard until UCB finds her replacement. I’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 Crunch™ 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.

Coming soon

I have some good news. In the next month or so I will be relaunching this newsletter with more regular content, including a paid subscription tier. The good news is related to some bad news. A week ago I learned the copywriting job that's paid my bills for the last four years is ending. I knew this would happen sooner or later and prepared for it; I'll manage. For now it means I have much more time to devote to the work that matters to me (posting). 

More info soon on the particulars of the paid subscription. First I want to spend some time figuring out what I can do with this newsletter that readers will care about and cannot get elsewhere. We'll still focus on comedy and labor, but hopefully a broader and more granular set of issues than my current beats. 

To that end I said on Twitter yesterday: if you are in Los Angeles and doing comedy in any capacity—indie sketch, corporate improv, bar shows, PAing, making web videos for yourself or some massive corporation, writing funny tweets for a brand—I'd like to talk to you about your experiences, challenges, concerns. I'm starting with LA because I just moved here (lol) for at least the next three months, so I might as well take advantage of that. But I'll also extend that call to everyone on this list, now, wherever you are. What issues are you dealing with in your comedy scene or workplace? What stories aren't being told? What problems aren't getting the attention they deserve?

Please let me know what comes to mind and let's chat. 

A Few More Thoughts on UCB

And some news.

Hello!

I had a story out in Slate last week detailing UCB’s recent troubles and its possible futures. I am very excited to bring these issues before a wider audience. I am also fearful more bad news is around the corner. Earlier this week UCB laid off Alyssa Cohen, its LA-based Director of Human Resources, per internal sources who received an email announcing her departure. The LA theater’s Director of Finance and Procurement, Brittany Palensky, has left too. Finally, current and former employees tell me Alex Sidtis, UCBTNY Managing Director, has been let go, although UCB has yet to acknowledge it. When I called Sidtis last week to confirm, he said he was not at liberty to answer questions; UCB’s publicist did not respond to multiple emails. 

If major changes are afoot, I suspect we will hear more about them after the Del Close Marathon this weekend. In the meantime I wanted to expand on a few threads in the Slate article that I think merit expansion.

Yes, It’s Discriminatory Not To Pay Talent

In the piece I quote David Mack, a Los Angeles theater administrator who’s spent years fighting for equity in small Los Angeles theaters. He told me: “When you’re making a choice to not pay the artists, you are actually making the choice to discriminate against people of color and women and people with disabilities.”

What he said next won’t shock anyone who’s been following this issue. But I think it is worth reiterating whenever possible: “If you have the opportunity to get an unpaid internship or an unpaid performing opportunity that may lead to another, maybe, later, performing opportunity, there's less likelihood that a person of color is going to be able to afford to take that unpaid opportunity than someone that's not. Because chances are they are working at least one job, or they're working two or three jobs or they have caretakers that they need to support, or they have discrimination that they're dealing with, so they're making less than their counterparts.”

“So if you're financially benefiting a company and you're not getting compensated for that, and you can't afford to not get compensated, then you're not going to be able to take that opportunity.” Mack said. “That's really a problem, especially for a performing arts community and performing arts leadership that prides itself on being so progressive—especially here in Los Angeles—and so democratic and valuing diversity so much and cultural equity. It really surprises me that they don't realize that they are complicit in and advancing, in my opinion, a systemically racist and sexist and ableist system.”

This is where pay intersects with the issues raised by Oliver Chinyere and Dominique Nisperos. Institutional racism, sexism and ableism cannot be staved off with free classes, sensitivity training and a human resources department alone in an institution predicated on free labor. Pay is essential to creating equity in the people teaching, the people on the teams, the people coaching the teams, and the people choosing all those people.

Theaters Like UCB Are Vital

One common response to my writing on UCB is that I “have it out” for the theater. I don’t. I think the theater is a vital part of the comedy ecosystem, one whose leaders don’t fully recognize that vitality. UCB is in a unique position to create a more vibrant, equitable, diverse industry; it has been in that position for more than a generation of comedians. But it has left the brunt of that work, systemic work, to individual workers. 

Milly Tamarez is a New York-based UCB performer who co-founded Diverse as Fuck, an independent comedy festival highlighting underrepresented voices. DAF was born from a commitment by Tamarez and her co-founders to book only people of color on their shows. “It was so easy because no one was asking all these people; they would say yes immediately and confirm immediately and it would be a great show,” she told me. “So we were like, you know what? I bet you we could do a whole festival like this.” They did. It was a success, and will return this weekend.

Still, producing the festival is basically a second job for a group of comics who already have careers and dreams. “It’s not fair that for people who want to be seen onstage or want to see people like themselves onstage, they have to create a whole ecosystem of performances and workshops,” she said. “And I fear one day that it'll just be everyone building their own stadium, and then one day it's just going to be a street full of stadiums and we're not really working together to create something.”

There will always be a need for centralized institutions like UCB, at least so long as there are underserved artists without the time or resources to be their own managers (and bookers, publicists, mentors, etc.). Their value is not just in their stages but in their institutional knowledge. Late last year Nicole Silverberg, a UCB alum and late night writer, organized a series of free workshops for underrepresented comedy writers. They focused on what she described to me as “targeted training: what goes into a late night packet? How do you write monologue jokes or a headline script?” The workshops, held in February, were attended by 525 people, out of about 650 who originally signed up. “At the beginning of each workshop, I shared my philosophy: that when we reach a certain level of success we have a moral imperative to blow the doors open behind us and be transparent about how we got to that point,” Silverberg told me. “Information is not precious, and should not be hoarded. If having a famous parent or being an alum of the Harvard Lampoon isn't cheating, neither is telling someone that a monologue joke should end on the joke word.” 

Like Tamarez, Silverberg said she does not have the bandwidth to run a larger and more sustained training operation. (Although she does plan to produce another round of workshops, and said she’d happily share her process with other organizers.) But the point is she shouldn’t have to: the transmission of institutional knowledge is the job of institutions. UCB does this job pretty decently for those who can cough up, say, $900 for notes on a pilot. Clearly there is a vast population of artists who cannot. It’s time for institutions like UCB to prioritize them.

How? Go Nonprofit

UCB is a for-profit limited liability corporation, even though its owners (purportedly) take no income from it. Were they to restructure UCB as a nonprofit, they could raise funding from public and charitable institutions, while reaping potentially substantial tax breaks. At an all-theatre meeting in December, the owners were asked why they don’t restructure. Their answer was twofold: Amy Poehler responded that converting from an LLC to a nonprofit would require them to “dismantle” the business, “which isn’t what we’re capable of doing.” Ian Roberts added that donors would impose creative restrictions. “You also run the risk of your content being controlled,” he said, which would undermine UCB’s mission as an alternative comedy theatre. 

One point has more credence than the other. “It’s not that hard to convert an LLC to a nonprofit corporation,” Steven A. Bank, a professor at UCLA School of Law, told me. “But it’s not trivial and it could open up some issues depending upon the circumstances,” for instance if some debt is non-transferable without the lender’s consent. 

As to Roberts’ point, you need only visit any nonprofit comedy theatre to see whether it’s truly a restrictive model. “I have never made a single change to the programming I’ve assembled because the board didn’t like it,” Allison Page, artistic director of the Bay Area nonprofit sketch theatre Killing My Lobster, which pays talent, told me. “As far as donor demand goes, I’m not aware that we’ve ever not done something because we thought donors wouldn’t like it. We try to do new work that challenges us in different ways as much as possible, and that’s what our audiences have come to expect, so they’re on board with that.” 

David Mack, who has spent years in the nonprofit theatre world, believes grant-givers would be eager to support a theatre like UCB provided it pays talent. “There are a lot of major donors who would be very attracted to these types of companies, and who stay away because they don't know if their money is going to be spent well,” he said. “And how can you blame them when they're not even aware of what the law is, much less be in compliance with it?”

This is not to suggest going nonprofit would solve all of UCB’s problems. Far from it. UCB’s cultural issues, including its owners’ perverse view of their labor force, transcend any particular business model. There are plenty of exploitative nonprofit theaters; there are fair and sustainable for-profit ones. But I think in UCB’s case, conversion to nonprofit status would be an important first step toward sustainability. It would open up avenues to vast resources UCB could use to address its many other problems, such as the need for its training center to subsidize the theater. The removal of a profit incentive would allow writers and performers to make risky work for less-than-sellout crowds. And it would enable the theater to make money without doing branded shows like “The Lyft of Gab: Rideshare Conversations,” which strike me as wholly antithetical to its mission.

Why Does This Matter?

There is one former UCB performer I spoke to, Joe Hartzler, whose story starkly illustrates the industry-wide radiations of UCB’s labor practices. 

For many years there was a steady pipeline from UCB to digital comedy sites like Funny or Die, College Humor, Super Deluxe and Above Average. This pipeline has lately dried up as these companies, whose work is generally not governed by union rules, contract or vanish. In its infancy, Funny or Die recruited staff writers from UCB, who farmed their contacts for unpaid acting talent. “As the younger generation at UCB, if anyone with seniority asks you to be in a Funny or Die sketch, you drop everything to do it,” recalled Hartzler, who once had a speaking role in a political sketch that got hundreds of thousands of views without paying him one cent. Funny or Die eventually implemented day rates, and cheap appearances would occasionally lead to more lucrative union commercial work—a compelling reason to keep doing the cheap stuff. 

One day, Hartzler recalls, “Funny or Die got caught passing around a sales deck. It was a card with images of eight different actors. On the top half of the card were four celebrities from 90’s sitcoms. It listed their fee as $300,000-$400,000. Then below the celebrities were four more actors. They were labeled, ‘Funny Or Die All-Stars.’ My picture was one of the four listed… I was free. If they wanted Urkel, it’d be [almost] half a million dollars. If they wanted me, I was free. Worthless. This was my reward for playing ball.”

Funny or Die

Years ago Hartzler made several unpaid appearances on improv4humans, Matt Besser’s podcast. He had to sign a release giving Earwolf ownership of whatever he improvised. “In the early years it was fine,” he said. “I figured I was paying my dues, lucky to be there. I got to improvise with Amy Poehler.” A while after one appearance, he learned from a friend that Earwolf had repurposed his appearance—his voice, his improvised material—into an animated short without notifying or paying him. 

More recently Hartzler accepted a role in a new media company’s web series, only to learn on set that it was also a Chevy commercial. “I was getting paid a garbage rate,” he said. “I didn’t walk off set and I’ve regretted it every day since.” Some time later he was invited by a “famous comedian” to perform in a sketch. When he received the script days before the shoot, he discovered it was sponsored by Amazon Visa. “I emailed the producer and the famous comedian and apologized,” he said. “I regretted to tell them I couldn’t do the Amazon Visa script for $150.”

Hartzler’s experiences point to a bleak truth about the modern comedy business. Where there is paying non-TV/film work, it is often because some massive brand is paying for it. Yet somehow very little, if any of that money goes to talent. (In 2015 EW Scripps bought Earwolf’s parent company for $50 million; Earwolf has only recently begun paying podcast guests.) Increasingly, the TV work is little better: I spoke to one performer who recently auditioned for a SquareSpace commercial and a TVLand demo, both non-union.

To say what goes without saying, this is a system whose doors open primarily to those who can afford to work for free or cheap. Like UCB, it is also a system that discriminates on multiple axes. This matters because the fight for equity in the bigger ecosystem starts in smaller ones. UCB could teach its workers to value their labor; it could teach them to demand what they’re worth, to walk off sets that don’t meet their demands; it could close its considerable mailing list to potentially exploitative casting calls, rather than simply saying “Don’t Be Exploited” at the top of each email. It could pay them for labor.

But it doesn’t do any of this. Instead it teaches its workers that all these exploitative practices are normal. It tells them they are not worth anything until opaque market forces opaquely decide otherwise. It tells them they’re on their own. 

They don’t have to be.


Header image via Travis Wise 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.

No Ethical Late-Night Under Capitalism?

I read with great interest Miles Klee’s piece in MEL about the many problems with contemporary network late-night comedy (and The Daily Show). If you subscribe to this newsletter then I imagine you have already read the article, or read about the article, so I won’t rehash it here, except to say I agree with the central premise: that these shows’ liberal, anti-Trump politics are overwhelmingly superficial, a costume to delight and comfort the viewer rather than a set of values, and that below the costume is a cynical, corporate behemoth with a vested interest in the status quo. 

More revealing than the article, to my eye, is the reaction by late-night workers. On Twitter and in private conversations, I have encountered two common responses. One is that it was poorly reported, using overly narrow, anonymous sourcing (one current late-night writer and one current non-late-night TV writer) to ground asymmetrically broad critiques. The other is that it fundamentally misunderstood the role of late-night and the duties of late-night workers, who must every day create a brand new show that appeals to a vast, heterogenous audience—so vast and so heterogenous, in fact, as to render truly challenging political comedy a pipe dream. 

I think there is some fairness to the first. A piece with more sources from more shows might have reflected more clearly the breadth and depth of late-night’s systemic failures. It would have reduced the exposure of each individual source to accusations of bad faith, though granted these accusations are themselves in bad faith and probably unavoidable with any piece like this. (Cough, cough.) But I also know how difficult it can be to get people to open up about their workplaces, especially when those workplaces are run by an industry’s most powerful (and often power-hungry) people. And in this case I’m not sure how much it matters that the piece only had one source in late-night, because what that source said obviously rang true. It wasn’t even all that controversial: 30 Rock covered pretty much all these issues ten years ago, and The Larry Sanders Show before that. Obviously neither spoke to the race-to-the-bottom when it comes to Trump jokes, but that seems to me the least controversial critique of them all. You need only watch a few minutes of any network late-night show to see it. (Credit where due: I think Seth Meyers is miles ahead of the pack on just about every front here.)

The second response is trickier. One late-night worker I chatted with yesterday told me he wished it were possible to do more innovative, varied material, but that executives simply aren’t interested. Late-night is corporate and sanitized by nature, he said, and ratings reflect a sharp disinterest in what ambitious content occasionally does get past the suits. Meanwhile the former Late Late Show writer Sean O’Connor argued in my mentions that all political comedy is bad; and current Late Late Show head writer Ian Karmel caustically remarked that he was “Trying to figure out the perfect joke to get Trump arrested and get sent to the Hague”—a straw man suggesting Klee and his sources were making outrageous demands of late-night, rather than fairly narrow and reasonable ones.

These arguments make the piece’s point. It is true that the corporate nature of late-night is antithetical to risky comedy that speaks truth to power; that’s the whole idea. I understand why late-night workers may think it’s unfair to call their comedy lazy or hack when they are simply working as hard as they can within systemic constraints. But Klee’s critique—and it’s important to separate his argument from his sources’ individual grievances—is of that system and those constraints. It is not written in stone that late-night comedy must prioritize ratings over good, weird, daring work. It is not written in stone that every late-night show must appeal to the widest possible audience. It is not even written in stone that every late-night show must happen every night. These are decisions made by bosses—bosses who fill their workplaces with homogenous voices, who limit their workers’ artistic freedom, and who reap the greatest profits from the performance of politics they do not hold. If O’Connor is right that all political comedy is bad—and I don’t think he is—he is wrong to suggest this is a fundamental problem with the form, rather than with the form’s stagnation under late capitalism. 

Because capitalism is the problem here. At its cold cynical heart, late-night is a shovel used by media conglomerates to deliver eyeballs to advertisers to make money for shareholders. It is also a massive branding apparatus for the rich and powerful, though this function is conveniently softened by all the jokes. If I may quote myself writing in Paste about a Funny Or Die sketch—penned by Robert Klein and Colin Jost—about Paul Rudd goofing around with Harvey Weinstein:

It does make you ponder all the ways this industry works in service of power, and by extension those who abuse it. So many of comedy’s institutions are, at their core, PR machines. Branded content is Funny Or Die’s bread and butter. Every week SNL promotes someone’s new movie or TV show or album. Late-night talk shows, with few exceptions, use jokes to bookend celebrity press tours. Comedians host awards shows because otherwise we might see them for the rituals they are—the wealthy and famous celebrating their own wealth and fame. Comedy normalizes power; it’s so successful at normalizing power that it feels weird to even write that as a criticism. Well, what’s wrong with normalizing power? Lots of things, but to start it lets monsters play the straight man in comedy sketches. It makes them relatable, which makes them less threatening. But power is always a threat, even more so when it seems innocuous, even more so when it seems… funny.

The late-night worker I spoke with yesterday argued that it’s unfair to hold the first act of a show (sketches, monologues, other original content) accountable for the sins of the third (interviews with celebrity guests). I’m not sure the line is so clear. The former reflects light on the latter: a viewer who watches an anti-Trump sketch and then a chummy interview with James Comey will necessarily associate Comey with anti-Trump politics, though Comey is a Republican who helped give us Trump (after overseeing some of the worst excesses of the US criminal justice system). And I suspect the viewer who sees their favorite liberal talk show host palling around with Eric Holder is more likely to walk away pining for the good old days of the Obama Administration than fuming about Holder’s (and Obama’s) refusal to prosecute those responsible for the financial crisis, though this is Holder’s greatest legacy. You cannot separate this effect from the “comedy” part of the show. It’s all one show, and the show’s politics frame the viewer’s. Karmel is right that no joke will send Trump to the Hague. This does not mean, however, that comedy bears no consequences on the real world—think Jimmy Kimmel keeping the spotlight on Congress’s negotiations over the Children's Health Insurance Program—or that comedy writers have no duty to consider these consequences.

This is not to begrudge any comedian their choice to take a good door-opening job with health insurance in late-night, fucked up as the system may be. But it is important for us to speak honestly about late-night’s role as a tool for the powerful to sanitize and preserve their own power. It has only been a few months since Lorne Michaels invited rascally conspiracy theorist Dan Crenshaw to goof around with a contrite Pete Davidson; since SNL ran interference for Jeff Bezos; since it lamented how hard it is to talk about Aziz Ansari; only a few years since Lorne suspended Katie Rich for telling a joke about Barron Trump; since he told his writers to go easy on Donald Trump, knowing he would eventually ask the candidate to host; since Trevor Noah accused antifa of helping the far right; since James Corden shot an (unaired) episode of Carpool Karaoke with R. Kelly; since Jimmy Fallon patted the poofy hair of a Trump who had long since called Mexicans rapists; since Stephen Colbert did a Super Bowl commercial for Wonderful, whose billionaire-owned mega-farms are plundering California’s shrinking aquifers as they transform the Central Valley into one giant company town. Comedy is wrapped up in all of this. It makes the pill go down. It turns oligarchs and CEOs and lawmakers and prosecutors and presidential candidates into fun silly sketch characters. It seats them on a couch or in a chair or at the Weekend Update desk and says they’re just like us. But they’re not. If they were, they wouldn’t need late-night. 

I understand the impulse to respond to criticism like Klee’s with a simple “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.” (Or write for it.) But this sort of criticism ultimately isn’t about the people who don’t like it. It’s about those who do. Every night millions of people turn to Kimmel and Colbert and Fallon and Corden and Meyers for sustenance. It’s worth questioning the structures that deliver this sustenance; it’s worth questioning what it actually sustains. I think most of us know the answer is little good—hence the air of resignation in so much of this discussion. And maybe it’s just not possible to reform the system in a way that allows for bold, truth-to-power comedy, at least on huge networks owned by huger corporations. But as that late-night worker told me yesterday, there are many smaller changes within the realm of plausibility: namely, a renewed commitment to diversity onscreen, behind the camera, and in the boardroom. This was the sort of commitment FX made after Mo Ryan pointed out its failings in 2015; today it has the most interesting, challenging programming slate on TV. If a little self-reflection helps spur similar reforms in network late-night, then I say let the reflection begin. 


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.

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