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Know Thy Enemy

First some NYC club drama, then some broader ruminations.
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Seth Simons
Mar 13 2021
9 min read
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One product of the overwhelming lack of class consciousness in comedy is an ignorance of the industry’s history; or maybe it’s the other way around. Earlier this month New York-based comedian Ariel Elias suggested on Twitter that when clubs reopen, they pay “check spot comics” six dollars. The term refers to comics who perform shorter sets toward the end of a showcase-style show (and occasionally headliner-style shows) while the club’s waitstaff move through the audience handling the bills. Check spots are generally considered tougher than normal spots because the audience isn’t paying much attention, and they’re generally unpaid. The idea is that comic who excel at check spots will eventually graduate to paid bookings.


One club responded promptly to Elias’s request: Stand Up NY, which not only uses unpaid check spots, but generally does pay comics at all unless they have at least two television credits (as comedian Jake Flores explained in this week’s Why You Mad, the podcast he cohosts with former Stand Up NY booker Luisa Diez—and as the club confirmed on Twitter). In a reply to Elias, manager Jon Borromeo said: “A lot of you comedians were stuck in guest and check spot hell but you rose above it!!!! And those who are doing 15-20 min on a Saturday deserve it!”


Now, it certainly strikes me as disingenuous for a club manager to describe the club’s own practice, which it designed and controls, as “hell.” But that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to point out first is how quickly Stand Up NY walked back its agreement. Here’s owner Dani Zoldan clarifying that actually he’s not going to pay comics, he’s just going to cover their Metrocards:

What I want to point out second is that this already happened. Decades ago. Here’s a passage we’ve discussed before from I’m Dying Up Here, William Knoedelseder’s 2009 history of the Comedy Store. The context is a 1979 meeting of the club’s regulars to discuss whether they should form a union to advocate for spot pay, something that at the time was unheard of in any club:


Some thought it was wrong to expect to be paid in the Original Room because most of the comics performing there weren’t at a professional level yet. The workshop atmosphere allowed anyone with talent to rise at their own pace, they said. And weren’t they all proof that the system worked? Why turn it into a professional room and run the risk of fucking everything up?


Others argued that it was a professional room already because there was so much media and industry presence on any given night that some comics had stopped trying out new material for fear of, as Robin Williams put it, “going down el tubo in front of the man from Time magazine.”

Leno and Boosler floated a compromise idea borrowed from the New York Improv, where the new owners—Budd Friedman’s ex-wife Silver and her partner Chris Albrecht—were giving comics $5 to cover cab fare between clubs so they could do sets at several places a night. Mitzi could give the comics $5 a night, too, they said, but call it “gas money” instead. That way she could preserve her no-payment policy and the comics still would be able to buy breakfast.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $5 in 1979 is equivalent to a little over $19 in 2021. This is likely why Stand Up NY agreed so readily to Elias’ request: it cost them nothing. She asked for less than a third of what comics were worth 42 years ago. The PR benefits of being The Good Club are more valuable than 60 or so bucks a week on train fare. I’m singling out Elias because she’s the one who elected to speak for All Comics in this instance, but to be clear this reflects an industrywide problem. Many comics don’t recognize how poorly they’re treated because they don’t know how much they’re worth, and they don’t know how much they’re worth because they haven’t learned from battles their predecessors already fought and won.


Perhaps the most important lesson from those battles is that club owners are not comics’ friends but their enemies. This was an especially bitter pill to swallow for the Comedy Store regulars, who loved Mitzi Shore and desperately wanted to avoid a strike. Here’s what finally pushed them over the edge, per I’m Dying Up Here:


[Tom] Dreesen was troubled by the evening’s events. He’d been hoping the membership would accept Shore’s offer [to pay less than $5 per set] and everything could return to how it was before. He was surprised at how strong and united they’d become. He felt some pride about that, but he also worried that they were about to pass the point of no return. If Mitzi didn’t come back with a better offer, then what was their option other than, as Mark Lonow had said, to throw up a picket line and shut the place down? And where would that put him? At the front of a pack of placard-carrying clowns demanding to be treated like longshoremen? Holy shit! How in the fuck did he get here?

In the middle of a fitful sleep that night, he sat bolt upright in bed. He had it! An idea that would solve everything! He marched right into Shore’s office the next day.

“Mitzi, I think I have a way for everybody to get what they want. It hit me last night; you just raise the cover charge by a dollar, from $4.50 to $5.50, and give that dollar to the comics. They get paid and it doesn’t cost you a dime. It so simple I can’t believe we didn’t think of it before.”

She looked at him as if he were a tiresome child and began shaking her head.

“No, Tommy. Like I keep telling you, the Store is a workshop and in that environment the comics don’t deserve to get paid.”

He sat there for a few moments saying nothing, running her statement through his head: They don’t deserve to get paid. So, it was never about money, he thought; it was always about power and control. And she was never going to pay them unless she was forced to. Holy shit, indeed.


It was never about money, it was always about power and control. We can find the same reluctance to face that truth in a 2004 campaign by New York City comedians to increase their pay for the first time in 20 years, from $50 to $100 for weekend sets. (Those figures are per Don’t Applaud: Either Laugh or Don’t, which has them a little lower than a 2004 New York Times article.) The following is from a letter (also per Don’t Applaud) to the city’s comedy workforce by Russ Meneve, who organized the campaign with Ted Alexandro:


Unfortunately, it is a necessary burden in business to negotiate prices, salary, etc. A burden we simply do not address as a group which has resulted in the very low pay we are getting. I want to say categorically, the club owners are not to blame. History has shown that in every situation similar to this the owners will try to raise profits to the disadvantage of the service-providing group, until the group demands a change. It is inherent in the situation.

[…]

The club owners are very aware of how little we’re making, certainly they are aware of the very large cab increase (a very high cost we must absorb on a weekend running to spots). I just wonder what the thought process was when they learned of this? Does it baffle you that they could not come to our aid in the least, since they are paying us so little already? One point that was made to me many years ago by a club owner was, “Well, when you make it big are you going to give me any of your money?” May I simply address this point by stating the unfortunate odds of this business, perhaps less than one per cent of us will make it to the kind of level they are implying. However, all of us can make reasonable livings as comedians since there is an obvious market for it. Making a living is a business; we must negotiate our product fairly. I wondered and laughed if this attempt I’m making to better the situation fails because of a lack of solidarity amongst the comics. Will it be the year 2050 and comics will be saying, “Hey, can you believe we’re getting the same pay they did in ’85? Sixty-five years man, this is wrong! Well, I gotta go, I have a spot.” Again, I am not blaming the club owners. It is a natural progression from their side, which should lead to one on ours. It is simply business, and negotiation is a critical part of it as in all businesses. The fact that we have not seriously done it is our own fault and the reason we are in this position.


I’m not here to rag on this campaign, which successfully negotiated a salary increase for the city’s comedians. I just want to note the very obvious dissonance of the repeated assertion that club owners are not to blame, which they are, and that it’s simply a fact of nature that they should seek higher profits at their workers’ expense, which it’s not. Capitalism is not baked into the fabric of the universe; business owners can choose to treat their workers fairly. It’s been almost half a century since Tom Dreesen realized why they don’t.


History repeats itself. Pay has stagnated for years in clubs across the country. The battles of 1979 and 2004 will sooner or later need fighting again, and I’d bet good money on sooner. I’m not sure there’s any path to victory that doesn’t begin with comedians recognizing once and for all who their enemies really are.



Header image via Flickr/Tony Mariotti.

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