Business as Usual at the Upright Centrists’ Brigade

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

On Tuesday Variety reported that Kamala Harris will hold a “fireside chat” 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 theatre’s Sunset Boulevard location, with tickets starting at $100 and capping at $2,800. Variety suggested the fundraiser is part of an effort “to regain momentum with less than 100 days to go before the Iowa caucus.” 

The news was met with some skepticism.

UCB did not announce the event itself, nor notify its sizable bicoastal community ahead of Variety’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. “It’s shocking how UCB management always finds new ways to be out of touch with their performers,” they told me in an email. “I don't think they should have any politicians doing rich people Hollywood Weinstein-y fundraisers at UCB, let alone shit centrists like Harris… Everyone I know at the theater is saying 'This shit sucks' and 'This shit is embarrassing.’"

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 theatre’s management prefers to keep dissent internal, and has a history of personally requesting that people take down critical social media posts.) “A number of us feel slighted by the public use of our institution to raise money for a tool of the racist, oligarchic carceral state,” they said. “The 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 way… This, like many other maneuvers of the UCB 4, just go to show 1.) How little we're valued, 2.) How far their ‘punk ethos’ have strayed, and 3.) How their short-term thinking jeopardizes our ability to build back the theatre they've endangered.”

On Wednesday, the theatre announced in an email to Los Angeles talent—but not New York talent—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 “option” 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: “The 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 ‘politics.’” 

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


If UCB’s owners still believe in the anti-establishment values they use as a front to violate labor laws, the fiery response to this week’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 UCB’s management, not punk rock. 

It’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 it’s doing fine: the theatre and school are both making money. No one who’s heard this has seen any documentation to support it, and UCB has not answered my questions about its financial health. If it’s true, though, it’s great news. Last winter, UCB’s owners said they couldn’t think about matters like paying coaches—let alone talent—until they righted the ship. Now that it’s righted, if it’s righted, they can finally start sharing UCB’s value with the workers who create it. 

Obviously that’s not going to happen. As talent have pointed out here and elsewhere, the fundamental problem is not UCB’s finances. The problem is still UCB’s owners. It’s impressive how few shits these people give. Take the Harris event: Matt Walsh was the only owner absent from last winter’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 team—Harold, Maude, Lloyd, and Characters Welcome—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 UCB’s ostensible values, organized without the workforce’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 CK’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. He’s really proud of the special, which he thinks is unique and innovative—how many specials have you seen shot in front of an audience that’s all high?—and he chafes at questions about UCB. "When you're asking me about how does the business of UCB run, be in my shoes,” he says. “I'm all proud of some creative thing and you're asking me about the thing I don't enjoy doing… 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.” 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 prestige—his prestige—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 4’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 there’s something bigger they’re not letting on. 

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Header image via the Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

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