How To Save Comedy

(And everything else.)

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Over the last few weeks a light drama has unfolded over the comedy blogosphere, which is like the regular blogosphere, but worse. (I can say that because I’m part of it.) The drama began with a Linkedin essay, republished in the New York Post, by the entrepreneur and hedge fund manager James Altucher, who is also a co-owner of the Manhattan comedy club Stand Up NY. Titled “NYC is dead forever. Here’s why.”, the essay argued that New York City is dead forever, then explained why: people are leaving, businesses are closed, restaurants in particular are closed, nobody’s going to open new restaurants until the virus is gone, nobody knows what’s going to happen, real estate elsewhere is cheaper than it used to be, New York real estate is also cheaper than it used to be (which is a bad thing because landlords and property owners will go broke as people keep waiting for prices to sink even lower), the city has a $9 billion deficit that it’ll struggle to repay as people flee and tax revenues plummet, and the internet is faster, making it easy to work from anywhere.

I personally don’t find Altucher’s arguments compelling, and I personally would never say with great moral certitude that an abstraction is dead forever in a mid-pandemic essay emphasizing that nothing is certain. Then again, I’m not a millionaire hedge fund guy. In any case he wrote the thing, as is his right, and it caused a bit of a stir among the sort of people who get upset when someone insults the idea of New York City, people like Jerry Seinfeld. In a New York Times op-ed, the Marriage Ref star accused Altucher of giving up on New York, which he said will inevitably bounce back thanks to its unique energy and resilient populace. Altucher swung back in the Post that same day, basically saying “no it won’t”: not without massive legislative action, at least, and not so long as the city remains locked down.

That seemed to be the end of it, until The Stand co-owner Cris Italia reignited the debate this week in a blog post on Medium. I should note that I have a history with Italia, or rather he has a history with me. In June he and his co-owner Patrick Milligan spent a few hours calling me fake news from their club’s Twitter account. I called Italia to talk it out, and in our hourlong conversation he repeated that I’m not a real journalist, opinion journalism isn’t journalism, criticism isn’t journalism, my tweets are costing him business (this was after the pandemic started and live comedy shut down), if I stop calling myself a journalist he’d have no problem with me, and I should sit down with him at the club before I say anything negative about it. As best I could tell, his beef boiled down to a single tweet which he felt inaccurately represented The Stand. Since then, he’s periodically showed up in my Twitter mentions to keep calling me fake news. I tell you this in the interest of full disclosure—I’ve criticized the man’s club, and he’s criticized me—and because his concern for ethical journalism will become important context. (Also I think it offers a pretty useful picture of the guy.)

Italia spends the first section of his essay distinguishing his upbringing and outlook from Altucher’s. Whereas Altucher grew up wealthy and led a lucrative career in finance, Italia grew up in poverty. He survived the crack vial-littered streets of Bushwick and pulled bodies from the wreckage of the Twin Towers before building a comedy club “from scratch” with partners like his brother, a veteran commercial real estate agent with a Wall Street background. He says he and his peers are committed to seeing NYC through the crisis, noting that his brother is already working with other performing arts venues to lobby for federal relief for live entertainment. Then he levels a provocative accusation against Altucher and Stand Up NY:

While Mr. Altucher was sitting in his home, not in New York, and not coming up with solutions, his only contribution to the pandemic has been bombarding New York City parks with pop up shows. He went on to boast that his club is producing something like 50 shows weekly. He said this proudly as it was some kind of achievement. Unknowingly, these non-permitted events caused the cancellation of NY Laughs’ summer program: Laughter in the Park.

NY Laughs is a non-profit organization that uses its programming to fundraise for other charities for the last 14 years. Thanks to Mr. Altucher and his 50 shows, all the dates were canceled. When asked again to confirm why New York City made this decision, they pointed to Mr. Altucher.

This caught my eye for a few reasons. One, it’s a serious allegation, implying that Stand Up NY took money out of the pockets of charities. Two, I found it a bit odd for a live comedy producer to describe Stand Up NY as “bombarding” the city with shows, as though live comedy were a nuisance. Three, it’s not clear from Italia’s description how one thing led to another. How did Stand Up’s shows cause the cancellation of a different organization’s? Who is the “they” pointing to Altucher, NY Laughs or New York City? What exactly happened here?

Well, I asked around, and the answer is not quite so linear. According to Suzette Simon, founder of NY Laughs, her program was not cancelled by New York City. Rather, the private entity she was partnering with backed out, citing a Stand Up NY show broken up by state authorities in Battery Park City (which is on state-owned land). It’s true that Stand Up NY’s shows are non-permitted, but it’s not particularly germane: the city hasn’t been issuing permits for any comedy shows. Stand Up co-owner Dani Zoldan told me in a Twitter message, “We decided to do them anyways,” and he’s hardly the only one to make that judgment. In our phone call, Simon suggested that her programming was more legitimate than Stand Up’s because she obtained sound permits for them months ago. Unfortunately, this likely would have made little difference had her partner stayed onboard: a spokesperson for the NYC Parks Department told me that events requiring amplified sound are not allowed under current regulations. (With a few exceptions, Stand Up NY’s shows have been microphone-free.) “Legitimacy,” in this case, would not have saved Laughter in the Park from the worst-case scenario. The spokesperson added that the Parks Department has not broken up any comedy performances on city parkland.

Simon stressed that she doesn’t want to start a war between these two clubs. I don’t either. Since Italia has already fired shots at Stand Up NY, though, some clarity is called for. While it is technically accurate that a Stand Up NY performance was broken up by authorities and NY Laughs’ summer programming was subsequently cancelled, the fault for that cancellation does not lie with Stand Up NY: it lies with a private entity that got cold feet. (Simon wouldn’t tell me who her partner was, and she said she struggled to find a replacement. Zoldan said on Twitter he’d be happy to work with NY Laughs, but Simon hadn’t seen that post at the time of our conversation.) When I asked Italia over email why he suggested the city shut down Laughter in the Park, he said he wouldn’t speak to me after all the times I’ve slandered him, though he would share the answer with an actual journalist.

To be fair to the unnamed private entity, Laughter in the Park’s fate is also the responsibility of lawmakers who left independent entertainment venues to fend for themselves in all the ways Altucher and Italia outlined. There is nothing wrong with the overarching argument of Italia’s essay, that comedy clubs must work together to lobby for state and federal support for live arts venues. Deliberately (and falsely) discrediting a club that’s paid comedians for every spot at its pay-what-you-can summer shows, however, strikes me as antithetical to that work. The task at hand does not simply require solidarity between comedy venues. It also requires solidarity across comics and their audiences, which venues broadly share. As I’ve written elsewhere, one curious feature of our time is the tremendous ideological influence some comedians—some podcasters, really—hold over their fans. What if they used this power to, say, persuade their listeners of the benefits of demonstrating outside elected officials’ homes every night? What if they used it to educate their listeners about the power of a general strike? What if comedy clubs—nerve centers of an industry of unorganized freelance social commentators—used their resources and networks to mobilize a massive agitprop campaign, channeling their audiences’ suffering into a force the ruling class cannot ignore?

I know this is an outlandish suggestion, but these are outlandish times. Extracting meaningful action from a government that wants us dead will take more than trade lobbies encouraging their supporters to write letters. It will take a populist uprising on par with those in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Belarus to make our leaders feel the fear we live in because of them. In a country with dismal union density and workplaces scattered to the winds, entertainment organizations have quite a bit of power to shape that effort—if they leverage the full potential of their talent and audiences. I’m focusing on comedy clubs because they’re my beat, but this applies to creative guilds as well, and pretty much any organization that works with celebrities. Imagine, if you will, a world where the NBA wildcat strike was a regular occurrence. Imagine a world where every TV writer yelling at you to “VOTE!!!” was counterbalanced by a comedian yelling at you to stop working and get into the streets.

If you’re a regular reader of this newsletter, I don’t need to tell you the obvious impediment to this effort: many comics (and club owners) are right-leaning individualist capitalists with a vocal disdain for direct action. Well, boo hoo. Comedy is the art of persuasion. If comics on the right side of history can’t persuade comics on the wrong side that their shared material struggles have only one solution, then comedy was doomed anyways. But it’s not. Nothing is. Not yet. The problem with Altucher’s vision of the future is that he’s synthesized it from a present that isn’t set in stone. We can still change it. We just have to be very clear about who our enemies are. Then we have to treat them accordingly.


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Header image via Joe Lodge.