A Comics’ Union?

I belong to a Comedy Writing Forum and this was posted a few days ago. It seems that if you are a New York comic, and New York is the only place you do your “gigs”, you are getting short-changed.

A Comedians’ Union? Imagine the Meetings

December 22, 2004


So a comic walks into a bar, does a set and still can’t

feed his kids. Or his pets. Or his pets’ kids. So what does

he do? He gets a lawyer, forms a coalition and threatens to


Hello? Is this thing on?

Seriously, folks, you can’t make this stuff up. Hardened by

decades of low wages and even lower self-esteem, some 300

New York comedians have decided to unite to ask the city’s

comedy clubs for, well, a little respect. (Oh, and more


Two weeks ago, the group, the New York Comedians Coalition,

sent a letter to the owners of 11 clubs around the city,

asking for $120 for a 10 to 20 minute set on the weekends,

up from the current average of $60. They are also seeking a

small increase in weekday pay, which runs about $15 to $25

a set, as well as holiday pay for regulars. M.C.’s, who

introduce acts and plug the audience for information (“So,

where you from?”), would make upward of $200 for a weekend

gig under the coalition’s plans, as opposed to the current

industry rate of $75 to $125.

“Comics have been making the same wage essentially since

1985,” said Ted Alexandro, one of the coalition’s founders

and a regular performer on the city’s comedy circuit. “And

the revenue being created is outrageous.”

In particular, Mr. Alexandro and his comedic colleagues

point to the clubs’ practice of charging covers and an

enforced two-drink minimum, a policy that makes it almost

impossible for weekend audiences to escape without spending

at least $30 a head. Comedians say that when you add in

lucrative special shows for corporate events, proms and

bachelor parties, the clubs are killing (the comics’ patois

for doing well).

Club owners aren’t so sure. “It’s an extremely competitive

market,” said Chris Mazzilli, the owner of the Gotham

Comedy Club on West 22nd Street. “You’ve got clubs in

Midtown handing out free tickets and pulling people in off

the street. We’re charging $15. That can make it tough.”

But work-a-night comedians say the rates in city clubs pale

to what they can make doing longer sets on college campuses

or headlining in other cities. “I could do 30 shows in town

and make $800,” said Ben Bailey, a 34-year-old comic with a

wife and a cat at home. “Or I could work the road and do

eight shows and make $2,000. There’s no comparison.”

Many club owners hope there’s some room for compromise,

especially in a close-knit industry where tough crowds have

hardened owners and comedians alike. Mr. Mazzilli, a former

comedian himself, has agreed to raise his weekend rate to

$75 and will meet with the coalition after the New Year to

see if a bigger raise can be arranged. The Comedy Cellar,

the venerable club in Greenwich Village, has added acts and

also raised its rate to $75.

Cary Hoffman, the owner of Stand Up New York, on West 78th

Street, which pays $60 a set on the weekends, says he, too,

will meet with the comedians, but says he isn’t sure how

much more he can pay. “The economics are staring me in the

face,” Mr. Hoffman said. “My rent is up, my insurance is

up, everything is up. The only thing I can do is try to

find some way to raise the money so that I am viable.”

For their part, the comedians say most of the city’s club

owners have offered to talk and Mr. Alexandro said plans

for a possible work stoppage have been put on hold unless

talks on pay break down. (Health insurance? No one’s even

going there.)

Russ Meneve, another coalition founder and a regular at

clubs like Caroline’s in Midtown and Comic Strip on the

Upper East Side, said the increase in base pay is

especially important for younger, less established comics

for whom making an extra $10 an hour during the week is –

here comes the pun – no laughing matter.

“For newer and development acts, that money means a lot to

them,” Mr. Meneve said. “But believe me, it helps me as



Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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