The case for unionizing comedy

Sketch comics and improv performers can either organize or watch the industry rot.

The case for unionizing comedy

Sketch comics and improv performers can either organize or watch the industry rot.

We live in a golden age of labor exploitation in comedy. It starts at improv and sketch theaters, where young comedians are taught that performing for paying audiences is not actually a job. It continues at the rash of digital-content shops that define our modern comedy diet: Funny or Die, CollegeHumor, Super Deluxe, JASH, go90 (R.I.P.), Fullscreen (R.I.P.), Seriously.tv (R.I.P.), Above Average (R.I.P., kinda), and other streaming services that farm those same improv and sketch theaters for underpaid, overworked, dispensable freelancers long-since conditioned to accept that doing what you love is a decent substitute for fair pay.

The market is ripe with players eager to capitalize on this mindset, from multimillion-dollar podcast networks that don’t pay guest talent to billion-dollar “disruptors” like Netflix, which keeps ratings secret and talent in the dark about what they’re worth. Even Comedy Central recently launched a “Creators Program” for which it selected five comedians, out of 1,026 submissions, to produce and perform a daily online talk show and a weekly scripted series. Though the network describes them as the “anchor” of its social brand, it cannot be bothered to give them full employment benefits; they’re independent contractors. The initiative is run by veterans of UCB, Funny or Die, and Above Average.

The result of this system is the sort of comedy we have today: mostly white and mediocre. To reach the echelons that grant labor protections, comedy workers must trudge through an ecosystem that pays shit and treats them accordingly. This landscape naturally favors those who can afford to weather it. “Class privilege is a major advantage for those who aspire to be professional comedy workers,” the sociologist Michael P. Jeffries writes in Behind the Laughs: Community and Inequality in Comedy. “Comics who have access to extra cash even when they’re not working have a head start over those who do not.”

To reach the echelons that grant labor protections, comedy workers must trudge through an ecosystem that pays shit and treats them accordingly.

That head start begins at the ground floor. If you wish to perform for free at a major improv theater, you must first pay several installments of several hundred dollars for classes. (UCB classes cost $450 to $500; you must take up to five to audition for house teams.) Stand-up is cheaper to get into, but the overwhelming absence of paid gigs in a comic’s first several years again tips the scales in favor of those who a) can afford to live in cities like New York and Los Angeles, and b) have nights free. The result in both cases, but especially in improv, is a reproduction of the structures present everywhere else in our culture. “Although white men are certainly subject to the unfairness of the comedy business,” Jeffries writes, “the challenges faced by women and nonwhites are of a different kind... the performative and professional choices they make are dramatically different from their white-male counterparts.” Whether to say “yes, and” to racist typecasting in an improv scene, whether to come forward about abusers — these choices, too, begin at the ground floor, and they conspire to make comedy communities unwelcoming toward anyone not protected by whiteness and maleness.

These are complicated, intersectional problems. No solution will be easy, but one is obvious: comedy workers must unionize.

The effort should start with improv and sketch performers, who already have the sort of tight-knit communities that enable organizing efforts, and years of resentment over working conditions that also helps. For too long, the debate over whether UCB should pay its performers has focused on descriptive matters (what counts as “work,” exactly?) while sidestepping legal ones. But as Chicago-based labor and immigration attorney Will Bloom told me, it is unlikely that a for-profit theater like UCB — which charges admission to shows whose house performers are selected through a rigorous, hiring-like process — has anything but an employer-employee relationship with those performers. More bluntly: it is probably illegal not to pay.

Generally speaking, a theater that makes money off its performers’ work cannot argue that they are volunteers. And a theater that strictly dictates the scope of their labor — who’s on what team, who’s permitted to coach them, when and where they perform, how much they rehearse — would have a tough time arguing they are independent contractors, and thus not entitled to minimum wage. That argument gets tougher when comics have no opportunity to make a profit, say, by receiving tips directly from the audience. It gets tougher still when they perform an integral part of the theater’s operations, say, by literally being the reason it exists. “The economic reality is clear,” said Bloom, referring to a judicial test that assesses whether workers are in business for themselves or dependent on another party. “UCB is hiring performers and making money off of them.”

And no, the chance to do adventurous work in an exclusive community doesn’t count as compensation. “If you’re an employee and due compensation, you have to be paid in money,” added Paul Starkman, an employment attorney also based in Chicago. “These wage-and-hour laws are called wage-and-hour laws for a reason.” And no, it doesn't matter if a theater is in the red or in the black. “Nowhere in the law does it say that, if a business can't turn a profit from the labor performed by their employees, they don't have to pay them their due wages,” said Bloom. “I can also say from personal experience doing plenty of minimum wage and overtime lawsuits that there's probably a great overlap between bosses who can't keep their enterprises in the black and bosses who don't pay their workers minimum wage.”

The dam is set to burst. When it does, comedy workers deserve a say in what comes next.

Performers at UCB and similar companies — there are many — could sue for years of back wages, but a favorable judgment might destroy their artistic home. The thing is, these theaters are already doomed. In February, iO West, the Los Angeles sister of the foundational improv theater iO, shuttered abruptly after years of mismanagement. For almost two decades its owner, Charna Halpern, ran the theater autocratically from Chicago, ignoring the LA community’s input. She even, by her own admission, systematically withheld overtime from paid staffers in violation of California law; and she remains a powerful figure in Chicago and the industry. Meanwhile UCB runs a business predicated on free labor that somehow makes no money. At a town hall in June, its leadership revealed that the training center has been subsidizing UCB’s four theaters to the tune of almost 100 percent of the training center’s profits. There are already whispers that its newly opened, pricey Hell’s Kitchen venue might not be long for this world. These are hardly sustainable business models.

The dam is set to burst. When it does, comedy workers deserve a say in what comes next. Beyond fair pay, unionization would guarantee a seat at the table in institutions that need rebuilding from the ground up. It would allow performers to develop meaningful, enforceable policies around issues like diversity, sensitivity, and workplace harassment. It might even pave the road to a future where improv itself, and not adjacent creative endeavors like writing or teaching, can provide a meaningful income. Job security, worker safety, more equitable representation — these are things worth fighting for. So is the ripple effect it will send throughout the industry when comedians declare their unwillingness to be exploited any longer.

So, how would comedy workers unionize? Same as anyone else. “Every workplace is different, but the fundamental task of organizing is the same,” said Bloom. “Figure out the network of relationships among your coworkers, then follow those network to bring everyone on board with organizing a union. That obviously looks different in a comedy theater, where, for instance, people aren’t reporting to the same physical space every day, but there are other communities and nexuses of relationships through which organizing can happen.” Once they reach a critical mass, performers would demand management’s recognition and prepare for the hard work of building something new. “The most common process is to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, a union contract, with the employer,” said Bloom, using UCB as an example. “While there are some subjects you have to negotiate over, like wages, you can put nearly anything into that agreement if you can get the boss to agree… Whatever structural issues there are at UCB that performers want addressed, they’re something they could address through their union contract.”

While performers could organize through an existing trade union — say, Actor’s Equity — this might bring nettlesome complications, like the imposition of standardized employment agreements that don’t make sense for improv theaters. Since any union effort will likely result in the wholesale reorganization of improv business models, I suspect a more practical approach is for performers to wait until the groundwork is complete before approaching umbrella organizations.

And yes, this process is also available to stand-up comics on the club circuit, though the individuated nature of that form will probably make the process longer and harder. It is up to improvisers and sketch comedians to show that comedy workers can unionize, and soon. The alternative is to sit idly by as the industry collapses under the weight of its own inequalities.

Seth Simons is a writer based in the Bay Area.