Once, several years ago, when Donald Trump was president and the novel coronavirus was locked safely away in a government lab, I found myself chatting with a regular at a popular comedy venue. She was a producer as well as a performer—who isn’t, these days—and part of a tight-knit social scene that included the venue’s management, which I mention because I believe her opinions were decently reflective of the house’s. As tends to happen in these situations, we ended up arguing about Louis CK, who was still early in his return to the circuit and whose comeback, I said, merited more resistance than it was receiving, given all he confessed and all he refused to atone for. In response, this person gestured broadly around the packed venue. “Statistically, there are people here who have done much worse than Louie,” she said, more or less. “And you’re saying we should ban him?”
Visiting a friend in Los Angeles last month, I had trouble articulating why I didn’t want to see any comedy shows. Truthfully I don’t think the form is salvageable, not for many years at least, and coming anywhere near it fills me with a physical sensation approaching disgust. Pretty much everyone involved knows about all the problems, the people who care aren’t in a position to address them, and the people in a position to address them don’t care. No one’s about to put their own paycheck on the line to exert leverage where they have leverage to exert, and given the state of the world it’s hard to blame them, except the fabulously rich ones, whom I hereby officially blame. It’s simple enough to turn my brain off and have a nice time at a venue whose people and values I believe in—there are plenty of good people in this business, and some of them are funny too—but inevitably I walk out feeling like I’ve betrayed… someone, I’m not sure who, probably because I’ll never meet them and I just spent the last couple hours pretending they don’t exist; that because their problems are not real to me, their problems are not real.
The great promise of comedy is that it helps us through the bad times, makes what’s hard easier and what’s killing us somehow more survivable. And yet here we are in a world where so many of comedy’s biggest stars, and by extension everyone who wants to be them or near them, are dead-set on making the bad times worse. Their great intellectual project is to mainstream transphobic hate. Their great material project is to enshrine the right of bigots and sex predators to be treated like gods. Two years ago this month they took it upon themselves to spread the plague, because they wanted to and no one was stopping them and why are you so scared of the plague anyway, and now there’s no telling how much suffering and death was very directly caused by the average club lineup, let alone the average club. And I’m supposed to… go see John Reynolds at Union Hall and forget about all that? Check out Atsuko Okatsuka at the Elysian and take heart in the communities working to keep themselves free of comedy’s evils?
But they’re not free; they’re hostages. Brooklyn’s alt venues were part of the same New York Comedy Festival that featured Bill Maher and Tim Dillon. LA’s are part of the same Netflix festival where Dave Chappelle hosted Jeff Ross and Chris Brown on one wretched lineup. Every year the major improv theaters send their finest character performers to JFL, their finest sketch writers to Jimmy Fallon and Lorne Michaels. Again, you can hardly blame them. There’s no escape from the industry, not if you want to make money making comedy for mass audiences. The anti-system only exists in relation to the system; ascend its ladder and your best bet as a free agent is to endlessly roam the country playing the same theaters Chris D’Elia and Louis CK are headlining, with Dave Becky or Ari Emanuel or both taking a cut of your paycheck. It’s possible enough, if not necessarily easy, for fans like myself to avoid supporting rapists, reactionaries, and their enablers. The only two choices for comedians of principle are poverty and compromise, compromise being the fruit of success in spaces where you don’t have to. So many of the greats who came up during the first alt comedy wave are now just normal club comics. Last week Ziwe lovingly roasted fellow Paramount Global employee Charlamagne Tha God, a guy who’s accidentally confessed to multiple acts of sexual assault. Sarah Squirm is on SNL, palling around the Weekend Update desk with Amazon spokesman Colin Jost. We’re all so happy for her.
If you haven’t yet watched the spectacular CEX KRIMINAL, Alice Hamilton’s skewering of Chris D’Elia and the crew of grotesqueries reigning over the Comedy Store, I really encourage you to drop everything and watch it now. It’s extremely funny, very obviously true, infuriating in the way it makes you realize that nobody else is saying these things. Where is everyone? Where are comedy’s Good Guys? Does Josh Gondelman have nothing to say about this terrifying villain returning to his hunting ground, their workplace? How about Marc Maron? Ron Funches? Gary Gulman? John Mulaney? Mike Birbiglia? Jerrod Carmichael? Bo Burnham? Jon Stewart? Is everyone so thoroughly convinced of their own powerlessness in this industry? Or do they just not care?
In the late 1990s Del Close took his protégé Jeff Griggs to help him run an improv workshop at the University of Wisconsin. A notoriously caustic teacher known for giving his students such nicknames as “Dumb Cunt” and “Fat Dumb Cunt,” Close quickly grew frustrated with the group of undergraduate improvisers. They pulled too much focus, were ungenerous to their scene partners, too preoccupied with plot and too little with relationship. He told Griggs, a twentysomething Chicago comedian working as his personal assistant in exchange for free classes at Improv Olympic, to get onstage and show how real improvisers do it. He called upon a young woman to join Griggs—the “chick” had good instincts, he declared—and effused over the scene they subsequently performed. Later, privately, he gushed to Griggs about the student’s “beautiful breasts” and encouraged him to sleep with her, even suggesting they get a hotel room for the night. Griggs demurred, agreeing instead to take “Tank Top Girl,” as they called her, out to dinner on Close’s dime. After their post-workshop performance that night, he kissed her and invited her to visit him in Chicago.
Griggs, whom Close affectionately referred to as “retard,” nostalgically recounts this story in his memoir Guru: My Days with Del Close. He’s now an instructor at Second City and Columbia College. As for Close, well, we all know what happened there: he became a living god, then a dead one. His students, the ones he didn’t bully or harass into giving up on comedy, went on to found UCB and the Peoples Improv Theater and the Magnet, while his longtime business partner Charna Halpern ran iO West into the ground, then iO. To this day Close is revered as one of improv’s most influential thinkers and teachers, though his true influence may be less in the theory he preached than the power relationships he established: there has been no major improv training center where racial and gender-based harassment has not been the norm, where the labor of young artists was not exploited, where teachers did not use the student body as their own personal dating pool. The (semi-)professional improv world as we know it was created in his image, Del Close, a man who openly believed women aren’t funny and only late in life came to agree that Black people are.
And what happened to that world? It died, for a minute, now it’s back. Second City’s multimillionaire owners sold the company to a private equity firm that has yet to meet its teachers' union's demands for a fair contract. Halpern, who learned that 2013 Del Close Marathon monologist Louis CK forcibly masturbated in front of Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov shortly after he did so in 2002, sold iO to a pair of real estate executives who plan to reopen the theater this summer. UCB’s four owners, one of whom used the theater’s money to buy a house and two of whom still work with Louis CK’s fixer, sold the theater to venture capitalists after pledging to restructure it as a nonprofit. As each phoenix rose from the ashes, it grandly pronounced that this time it would get that equity stuff right. “iO Theater is thrilled to announce our core leadership staff that will be working together to forge a path back to reopening the theater and fostering a diverse, fair, welcoming, and creatively energized community.” “Our first priority is to reopen theaters and training centers in Los Angeles and New York with diversity, equality and inclusion front and center.” “We are thrilled to work with ZMC as we continue to transform the company into an equitable and thriving environment while delivering world-class comedy to our audiences.” The idea here is that whereas those last guys were well-meaning leaders who fell short in their efforts to build equitable organizations, these new guys, who are literally in the business of enacting inequality at the systems level, will do a better job. Well, if you say so.
It’s tempting to believe, as people I respect have argued, that it’s better for comedy to have more stages than fewer, historically flawed as those stages may be. Sorry, I’m not convinced. We have before us ample evidence that the system cannot be reformed from within. Nor, it seems, can a better world be built around the edges of the old one. The old has too much gravity, forever pulling the new toward its molten core. After all, the inescapable problem in this business, the reason one cannot forge a career in it ethically, why it works so hard to convince you that ethics don’t even apply here, is that all its major institutions are for-profit enterprises in our broader capitalist system. (Sorry to arrive at this very cliché “I’m a leftist writing cultural criticism” point, but it’s true and I feel I’ve held off admirably long.) UCB, Second City, and iO could make radical and immediate strides toward equity by becoming co-ops and transferring ownership to their workers. They could alternatively (or additionally) give every single one of their workers—which, as always, I use as an umbrella term for staffers, teachers, performers, writers, and crew members—$10,000 in no-strings attached grant funding. Or $20,000. Or $50,000. We’re talking about people with functionally infinite money who could instantly transform their local comedy ecosystems by easing the material burdens that keep so many artists from devoting their lives to art. But they won’t, because they’re not just people, they’re capitalists, and they’re not here to make art, they’re here to make a return.
What will this mean in practice? In March I received a press release from Second City, boasting rather prematurely that it was “the only national improv theatre remaining post-pandemic.” Not only had it survived, it was thriving, allegedly, thanks to Second City Works, its corporate training and branded content arm. (Perhaps the early-pandemic mass layoffs helped too.) Time is cordially invited to prove me wrong, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that UCB and iO’s new ownership will follow Second City’s lead, doggedly chasing after growth by turning Del Close’s teachings into team-building exercises and engaging digital modules for the likes of Uber and Facebook. It’s not an impractical move. These theaters, UCB especially, spent the last five years squandering what remaining goodwill they had with their actual artistic communities, but the rest of the world doesn’t exactly pay close attention to improv comedy’s internecine dramas. (It would really help me out if they did.) That means these theaters, UCB especially, still have valuable brand equity. Fortune 1000 HR apparatchiks care little whether the next generation of New York City improv students favor the PIT or the Magnet or the Brooklyn Comedy Collective, whether Catherine Cohen brings her next hour to the Elysian or Dynasty Typewriter or Largo. UCB still has its name, its 20-year legacy, a portfolio of corporate work and people with experience making it, and now the backing of the LA Dodgers’ investment arm. It may be a long while before the theater is once again a premium comedy destination, but that’s no reason it can’t make good money in the meantime.
So, let me ask you this. Is it better for comedy to have no centralized talent incubators or centralized talent incubators that only exist because they help Raytheon engineers collaborate better, invent faster, and lead with authenticity? I know where I stand, but maybe it’s best not to frame this question around hypothetical business models that have yet to coalesce. I think often of a chapter in Jeff Griggs’ memoir where he describes Del Close’s refusal to learn his students’ names, reducing them instead to crude physical descriptions: “The Fat Chick.” “The Little Greek Guy.” “The Dumb Curly Blonde Bitch.” “The Tall Blonde Chick.” “The Anorexic Bald Guy.” “The Chubby Gay Guy.” “The Lesbian Lawyer.” His teaching style was so “blunt and direct,” as Griggs naively describes it, that students were often left crushed and demoralized by his feedback. After one particularly negative round of notes, Close privately assured Griggs that the class would be stronger for it. “What if they don’t come back?” Griggs asked. “Fuck ‘em,” Close responded. When Griggs’ prediction came to pass and the majority of his classmates dropped out, Close was unfazed. “It’s for the best,” the guru told his apprentice. “They were severely damaged.”
Forget, for a minute, the conventional narrative of the modern comedy theater as the secret force behind so much beloved pop culture, the mystical training ground that spawned SCTV and 30 Rock and Comedy Bang! Bang! and Human Giant and Broad City and The League and The Chris Gethard Show and Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and so many SNL stars and Daily Show correspondents and TV writers and all they went on to create. Consider instead the comedy industry in negative, the shadow comedy industry, the vast mirror-world populated by years of artists bullied out of their classes, harassed into quitting their teams, molested, abused, priced out, ignored by sexist and racist and homophobic bookers, left to fend for themselves, to deal with it, sorry but our hands are tied, the could-have-been comedians just plain unwilling to spend their lives in rooms of people worse than Louis CK, who moved back home, took that job in tech, lost, gone, never to be seen or heard from again. These people belong to comedy’s history as much as anyone who made it. You cannot truly understand the form without them, their struggles, the reasons they left, the very real loss our culture has suffered for it, far more than just a thought experiment. The question, then, is one of trust. Do you believe the institutions that broke everything will fix it?
This, of course, is the great question of our time. Every day brings new emergencies, the earth buckling under us. While it isn’t exactly helpful, I’ve found it at least clarifying to remember, in the wake of the latest upheaval, that the august body set to overturn Roe v. Wade includes at least two sex offenders, that the same is true of every legislature behind the nation’s abortion bans and bounty laws, that indeed the whole rotten show was designed to produce this outcome by people who would be thrilled to see it. It is no great mystery why comedy or any other industry would violently resist efforts to purge outright bigots and predators. Really it’s the simplest thing in the world, little more than cause and effect. The room is filled with them, it was built by them. It’s for them.
“The legitimacy crisis is that our institutions are illegitimate,” Alex Pareene wrote last week. “We lost. The right won,” said Osita Nwanevu, arguing that the only path to near-term change lies in state and local politics. This is helpful. It’s true that comedy’s problems are more or less a trickling down of the world’s. It’s also true that comedy is much smaller than the world. It’s one part of an overlapping network of culture industries, many of which have meaningful if imperfect processes in place to protect their workers from abuse and exploitation, and most of which are not overrun by loathsome reactionaries. Better things are possible, in other words, they are right in front of us, the wheel needs no reinventing. Perhaps the big picture is unsolvable: we cannot, through tools currently available or at least currently palatable, dismantle the system that gives nine-figure deals to flagrant transphobes and happily rents out theaters to unrepentant sex creeps. But there’s still the small picture. If we stop thinking about comedy venues as part of the broader Hollywood ecosystem, as I just did three sentences ago, we can see them instead as part of hundreds of local arts ecosystems. Here the individual comedy worker suddenly has much more power: to organize their venues and scenes, to lobby for rent control and arts funding and safe cheap mass transit and public housing and the enforcement of labor laws, to seek the conversion of public property into community land trusts, to fill these community land trusts with democratically-run arts spaces, to initiate nonviolent direct actions against venues that give shelter to people who deserve something else entirely. This is all possible, plausible, the sort of work many people and organizations are already devoted to, including comedians. Better still, it will be part and parcel of the larger work ahead, knitting comedy communities more tightly into the social fabric of their cities and states, their workers side by side with labor unions and community organizers and tenants’ rights activists and the unhoused, everyone engaged in the same struggle.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the greatest impediment to this project’s success will also be its ultimate goal, the decoupling of comedy work from the distorting, soul-ruining incentives of show business. A world where you can lead a happy middle-class life making live comedy at the community level is a world where you don’t have to chase after fame, fame being the only sure path to lasting financial security as a comedy worker and the very thing that obliterates people in this industry: the people who attain it, the people they hurt, the people who sacrifice everything, fruitlessly, in its pursuit. And yet fame is the reason so many get into comedy in the first place; one can hardly imagine they’d be willing to give up the dream for a life of thankless organizing that might someday grant them a pale substitute. And of course there’s nothing normatively wrong with wanting to make the forms of art that only exist for mass consumption, which by their nature make their makers famous. Celebrity, exorbitant wealth, these are rotten byproducts of culture industries and probably also inevitable ones. I don’t think we can ever fully eradicate them. But maybe, maybe we can ease their stranglehold on the art form we love, the all-consuming pressure to create something sellable instead of something good, needed, new. And maybe we can solve some other problems along the way.
Or maybe not. As I said, I don’t think comedy is salvageable anytime soon. The salvaging will be difficult and long and this whole atomized business of freelancers is structured to undermine it. And yet. It’s nice to imagine.
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Header image via Phil Roeder/Flickr.
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