Controversy Over Upright Citizens Brigade Flares, But Is It Much Ado About Nothing?

NEW YORK - MAY 14:  Members of Comedy Central's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater perform at the Unity Concert for 'Cover The
NEW YORK - MAY 14: Members of Comedy Central's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater perform at the Unity Concert for 'Cover The Uninsured Week 2004' at the Michael Schimmel Center For The Arts at Pace University May 14, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)

What started as one comedian's off-the-cuff vocal displeasure over the way a well-respected comedy institution runs its business evolved into a needlessly divisive, hostile online battle fought via Facebook updates and Tumblr posts.

I'm not including screengrabs or quoting from those comments here, because, honestly, it's not going to move the discussion further in any meaningful way-- regardless of how poorly or well thought-out each opinion is. It's enough to say that a great many comedians have something to say about the issue.

The whole thing started in December of last year when comedian Kurt Metzger (Ugly Americans, Comedy Central Presents) performed at a stand-up show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater on Manhattan's East Side (aka UCBeast) and made some comments onstage about not getting paid (no performers are paid at UCB). And then we started hearing that UCBeast canceled the recurring show on which Metzger performed because of what he said. This was never verified and despite a Jan. 14 post on Cringe Humor from the two producers of the show, which stated, in part, "They were canceling us because Kurt had pointed out that UCB charges admission but does not pay performers," sources yesterday told me this was untrue.

However, an email exchange between the Great Debate show (the show in question) co-producer Michael Shawki and UCBeast Artistic Director Nate Dern was posted on Tumblr a couple of days ago; at the end, in a message dated Dec. 23, it appears Mike Sapp, who, according to Facebook, works tech at UCBeast, intercepted a message from Shawki, explaining, "Just to let you know Nate is too busy to talk about this nonsense. Your show was cancelled because you couldn't control your comedians." This came after several polite, professional e-mails from Dern.

Regardless, the first wave of vitriol-filled Facebook posts in December of 2012, some of which expressed concerns over the not-paying-comedians model of business, was upon us.

This week the discussion resurfaced, due, to the live show returning -- this time at recently opened New York City club The Stand -- and the aforementioned Cringe Humor post. The show went down on Jan. 27. There, Metzger explained his beef with UCB. The full video is below.

In order to get a better understanding of this back and forth, I talked with both Metzger and founding member of UCB Matt Besser yesterday and I listened to a rough cut of an episode of Besser's podcast Improv4Humans on which he and founding member Ian Roberts address the controversy. And here's what I came up with: The major disconnect derives from the fundamental cultural differences between the worlds of stand-up and improv as well as the differences between comedy clubs and theaters.

Seasoned stand-up comedians in New York are quite used to getting paid for performing at well-established clubs during the week (approximately $25 a set) and especially during the weekend (approximately $75 a set). Most improv players, it seems, are grateful for the opportunity to perform in a well-run venue without taking shit from traditional theaters or comedy clubs, who aren't into their props and sound cues and who aren't interested in dealing with anything more than a comic and a microphone.

Besser and Metzger told me they had a productive phone call on Jan. 27 wherein they discussed these things. The upshot, Besser says, is that perhaps the UCB needs to rethink producing paid-ticket stand-up shows on the weekend or perhaps give drink tickets to performers during the show instead of waiting until after they perform (as is the current policy).

Metzger tells me he has no ill will toward UCB. "I'm more concerned that other clubs in New York might take a cue from this and not pay comics," he says. But honestly, I don't think it's a concern, seeing as the UCB has been operating this way for 15 years (UCBeast opened in 2011) and it doesn't make sense for a traditional stand-up club to take its cues from an experimental comedy theater who mostly produce shows that cost nothing or $5 or $10 to attend -- which leads me to Besser's explanation as to why UCB doesn't pay talent.

"When a performer says, 'I'm at this show that's $10 and there's 120 seats, so you guys are making $1,000 for the show, so, why can't you give me $5 and show your appreciation for our performance?'" Besser says on Improv4Humans (full episode here). "Well, if we do that, how are we going to pay for the shows that are in the red -- that aren't as popular as that [$10] show?"

And that's the difference between the UCB and a traditional comedy club. The UCB's main charge is to provide a quality space with proper support staff for comedy performers of all types to experiment without the stress of selling out every show or bombing and never being asked back. And lest you think the four founding members, including Amy Poehler and Matt Walsh, are exploiting performers, Besser has something to say about that as well.

"[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."

Roberts explains the draw of the UCB is not based in monetary gain. And he understands if that's a turn off to some performers. "If you're performing at our theater, once you don't see a benefit and you say you can go make more money that night, and be just as happy-- well in that case, I'd say you'd be crazy to be at our theater," he says on the podcast. "... but don't try to change our business model that helps so many other people... If [not getting paid] surprises you after one time, I'd say go somewhere else. If you're not surprised, then why did you show up?"

Will UCB's payment policy change? Should it change? Tells us what you think in the comments section.

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