In Defense Of The UCB Theatre's Business Model

Yesterday the New York Times published an article that was critical of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s business model. I’d like to say a few words defending the UCB Theatre. 

In a nutshell, this is what I’m talking about in case you don’t know: the UCB Theatre is a comedy theatre that was founded by Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts. The UCB were originally a sketch and improv group from Chicago who moved to NYC to pursue a sketch show on Comedy Central in 1996, which ran for several seasons. They began teaching the Chicago style of sketch and improv that they learned from their teacher Del Close, and eventually founded a comedy school and theatre. From the start, UCB has had cheap ticket prices ($5 - $10) and has endeavored to be a place where interesting, alternative comedy can happen, and defines itself as a comedy theatre rather than a comedy club. To this end, the UCB has chosen to not pay its performers in order to keep ticket prices low. It is a place where students of comedy can practice the craft they are learning and more established performers can come work stuff out in a low pressure space with a comedy-loving vibe. The NYT was critical of this policy to not pay its performers in order to keep ticket prices low and to keep this low-pressure vibe in place. 

Full disclosure: this is a biased defense. I currently am the artistic director of the UCB Theatre, where I also teach and perform on a weekly basis. The UCB has been good to me, so it is perhaps not a surprise that I love the UCB. Perhaps in saying why I love the UCB, though, I might be able to express why I support its business model.

I think of the UCB Theatre as comedy grad school. When you go to grad school, you forsake financial compensation for a period of time for the benefit of the experience and the hope that it will lead to a career in the field you’re studying. Unfortunately there are a finite number of jobs out there and not everybody gets the one they want, but hopefully you’re living your life in such a way that you’re enjoying the experience of what you’re doing while you’re doing it without your current happiness being dependent upon a future outcome that is largely outside of your control.

Although while I’ve primarily done improv comedy at UCB, I also do some stand-up.  When I first started doing stand-up in the city five years ago, I would do barker shows, bringer shows, and pay-to-perform shows. A barker show meant that I had to hand out fliers for a period of time (usually one to two hours) before the show in order to get five minutes of stage time. I did this at the Sage Theatre in Times Square every week. Nothing like hundreds of tourists saying no to you and mocking you to give you the confidence you need to go do a comedy show. 120 minutes of work for 5 minutes of stage time. A bringer show meant that I had to bring a certain number of friends to buy tickets in order for me to get stage time. I sometimes would offer to buy my friends their ticket and pay for their two-drink-minimum just to make sure I got the quota. And a pay-to-perform show meant just that - I did an open mic in the basement of a Mexican food place called Maui Taco once a week where I had to pay $5 to get five minutes of stage time.

When I was new to the city and first doing stand-up, it was worth it for me to do these barker/bringer/pay-to-play shows. After a while I started to meet other comedians and started to get offered better performance opportunities. Eventually I got to the point where it was no longer worth it for me to do these types of shows. That doesn’t mean that I think those types of shows should stop existing. The UCB, by the way, does not do barker/bringer/pay-to-play shows. Those models work for some places, which is great. You can pick the place that has the model that is the best fit for you based on the point you’re at in your development. During this debate over the last few weeks, I’ve had a lot of conversations with comics, and one of them put it to me this way: “If I have a paying gig, I’ll take that over doing a show at UCB where I don’t get paid. If I don’t have a paying gig, I’d rather perform at UCB and get stage time than not perform at all.” That calculation makes sense to me. If you’re at the point in your career where you can get paying gigs every night of the week, then you probably don’t need the UCB any more. That is awesome. We want people to develop at UCB, then stop needing us and go off into the world.

I think not approving of the UCB business model is a perfectly valid position to take. There are of course other models that we could adopt and that other venues have successfully adopted, and internally we’ve brought up in discussion the possibility of paying performers or finding a different model many times. Ultimately though, after considering it and considering it many times over the years, we at UCB want to prioritize keeping ticket prices low, which helps to get a good, young, comedy-savvy crowd, and also gives performers the freedom to take more risks and find their voice. We like that vibe and don’t want to change it.  

Every week at UCB, dozens of stand-up comics show their approval of our model by performing at our theatre because they recognize the value that it gives them. As Matt Besser said, we pay our comics, just not with money. As artistic director, I’m currently working on making the line-up of comics for an industry showcase in early March. This will give eight comics who have never been on TV before the chance to make that next step in their career. This is one of the many ways that UCB pays its performers.  

I think about, talk about, write, practice, teach, direct, and perform comedy every week of my life. I didn’t get into comedy because I thought I would definitely get paid to do it one day. I started doing and it and keep doing it because I love it. The UCB Theatre is a place for people who love comedy and want to immerse themselves in it. If that sounds like you, please come join us. All are welcome.