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Upright Citizens?

January 25, 2008

It was a very wired and drawn Will Franken who greeted his audience in the vestibule at The Eureka Theatre last night. The Sketchfest headliner who recently decamped for New York from San Francisco hadn't slept in two days and, by the looks of things, had been living off Twinkies for weeks.

"I'm really broke," he said, by way of greeting. He then went on to describe a recent engagement at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. The well-known, bi-coastal comedy club is revered for its great standup and sketch acts -- as well as for its cheap ticket prices. "Best five-dollar-per-person date" chimed the Village Voice. "Cheaper and funnier than a lap dance" agreed Screw Magazine.

Turns out the prices are so low because the club doesn't pay its artists. Everyone who appears on its stage performs for free. This of course is standard practice for many comedy clubs. In fact, getting paid is abnormal. The thing is, why shouldn't a performer see a cut if he's making tons of money for the venue?

Franken told me last night that he'd performed on three consecutive evenings at UCB to full houses. According to Franken, the venue made $1600 per show from his appearance. On the third night, he decided to pass a hat around at the end of the show, figuring that he deserved a little something for packing the punters in -- even comedians have to keep a roof over their heads. UCB apparently took great offense at Franken's attempt to eek out some spare change from the people who'd found him so funny and had paid so very little to enjoy his sense of humor. The club's management banished Franken as a result. Upright citizens? More like downright swindlers.

In spite of the difficulties of making ends meet, Franken managed to keep his end up last night during his first return engagement in San Francisco and pulled off a side-splitting show. I'd seen and heard most of the material in his half-hour set before (many of the bits came from his recent show, Grandpa It's Not Fitting, which I reviewed last year for SF Weekly.) But this time the flow was smoother and the comedy sharper and more savage. From the moment he sat down at the piano and sang a two-bar parody of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" substituting the lyric "Goodbye English Rose / Goodbye Norma Jean" for "Goodbye Heath Ledger", to a final hyperbolic political speech centering on Barack Obama, the universe seemed to go into tailspin. Tonight Franken's performing at Sketchfest again, this time at The Purple Onion where he says he'll be trying out all-new material.

On another note, I got into trouble with fans of the comedy troupe Kasper Hauser a few years ago when I wrote an unimpressed reviewed of one of the group's shows back when I was a second-string critic for The San Francisco Bay Guardian. For several years, I've been carrying around a bit of guilt about that review. KH inspires such devotion among audiences that I figured I must have somehow missed something crucial in that performance. But having experienced the company's work for a second time last night just before Franken went on, I can now rest easy about my first impressions of the troupe: From a tired skit about a preacher's bad standup comedy habit to the schoolboy-humor-infused sketch involving a hysterical woman (played by a man in drag) who looks after miniature horses, the set dragged on. The company's work, as far as I'm concerned, remains inane.

And on a final note, I very much enjoyed the evening's opening sketch by New York's The Apple Sisters. This trio of sassy lassies sends-up 1940s "wireless" radio programing with sketches and beautifully-harmonized jungles, cutting references to "all our listeners out there" and "our fine studio audiences" with bawdy-absurd humor and wartime satire. The Sisters are performing tonight at The Purple Onion with Franken. Not to be missed.


  • I'm a huge fan of Will's, and he's a great guy, but I have to disagree here.

    The reason shows at the UCB Theater are so cheap is that they don't pay performers. If he wanted to make money on the show, he could have booked a theater for three nights himself. I've performed at the UCB (for free) and in similar theaters I've booked myself (and taken home the money). If Will wanted to pass the hat, he should have asked. It's lousy that he got banned, if he did, but it was a very weird move, and I might not book him again in my theater if he surprised me with that one.

    The owners of the UCB in New York aren't carrying home money by the bucketful. Theaters in New York are expensive to run, and they're trying to build a space where great talents like Will and others can develop their craft in front of an appreciative audience. They work hard to keep tickets cheap (they perform themselves once a week for free), and the great-selling weekend shows support the up-and-coming shows during the week. It's a community.

    This, of course, is *not* standard practice for comedy clubs. The reason performers choose to play the UCB is they know it's supportive of the alternative comedy community in a way you can hardly find anywhere else. The reason Will was playing there was to introduce himself to New York's real comedy fans.

    Again, I think Will is a really great guy and a wonderful performer, but I think you're mischaracterizing the situation.

    Also: Kasper Hauser are the best sketch group in America right now, and I've seen dozens. I'm shocked that you would call it "inane." I'm sure David Foster Wallace, who wrote an appreciate blurb for their most recent book, would disagree. Maybe he just likes "schoolboy humor."

    By Blogger Jesse Thorn, At January 25, 2008 at 7:29 PM  

  • The UCB Theatre has their way of doing things, and Will knew what that was going in. But Will, aside from being broke, has been pushing to make it, and to do a sold-out show with a standing ovation, combined with the realization that there is no pay involved, must have been frustrating. So he did something a little crazy and impulsive- but that is Will Franken. That is part of what makes him such an amazing talent. I think Will was pretty honest in his blog post about this at He has more of the facts there as well (it wasn't 3 consecutive nights, but 3 shows spread out over months).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 26, 2008 at 2:37 AM  

  • I understand there's a quiet agreement between the theater and the performers, but guess who really supports these performances? THE AUDIENCE. Folks lining up around the block in the shivering cold to support Will had no idea he'd receive no money. We go to these things not only to enjoy, but to support the performers we love. UCB's policy is an affront to US, even if their performers accede to it.

    If UCB and other comedy clubs are so "supportive" of performers, they shouldn't mind going public with their we-don't-pay-them system. At least the paying audience can then decide if they wish to support such a system.

    By Blogger Nina Paley, At January 26, 2008 at 8:06 AM  

  • I don't think that the UCB is at all private about their no-pay system. Performers joke about it from the stage all the time. And Will certainly knew, he'd already done it a few times.

    As far as the policy being an affront to the audience... well... I live in LA, and I love to go to the UCB. I go two or three times a month, and I take classes there as well. Often a comedy show at the UCB will feature five national headliners... if I went to that show in SF, it would cost $25 or $30, plus a two drink minimum. Even at other places in LA, it'd cost me nearly that much. Often the performers are folks who wouldn't be there if they were getting paid -- I went to a show recently that featured Matthew Perry, Janeane Garofolo and Walter Keonig. If they'd been paid, the tickets would have been $40. Instead, they were $8, the highest the theater charges.

    Basically, if you do a show at the UCB (and again, I've also performed there several times), you know what the deal is. There are other options, but passing the hat (without running it by the theater first) was unprofessional.

    And I really want to reiterate that I think Will is the greatest, both as a performer and as a guy. This isn't about him personally, it's about this model that the UCB has put together, which is something really special. It's like half theater, half clubhouse.

    By Blogger Jesse Thorn, At January 26, 2008 at 8:23 AM  

  • I'm also a huge fan of Will's. And I'm also the Artistic Director of the UCB Theatre in NYC. So I'm the person who supposedly "banned" Will - which is not true.

    If Will was unhappy with the financial arrangement at UCBT, he should have discussed it with me. He didn't. Of course, he never responded to me after the fact either. He posted my email on his blog and commented publicly instead. Sadly, he's never communicated anything about this situation to me at all. Which, of course, leads to rumors and attacks from people like the author of this article (and Will) - without facts to back them up. (e.g., the amount of money the theatre supposedly made from Will's work is incredibly exaggerated in and of itself - and, of course, does not include our running expenses, staffing, publicity, etc. for which Will shared no financial burden at all)

    We're very proud of the talent we put on our stage at the UCB Theatre, and we work very hard to support them. We regularly feature amazing up-and-coming talent and more established talent from Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, Late Night w/Conan O'Brien, and more - and none of those people is paid to perform. The same is true of our theatre in LA.

    But because of all the other work we do for artists behind the scenes - to build an audience, to connect them with industry and larger opportunities, to make their performance experience easy and stress-free - it's usually a mutually beneficial business arrangement. And unlike many other comedy theaters, our shows are all $8, $5, or FREE. Which gives the artists on our stage even more access to larger audiences.

    Of course, it's not for everyone. But it's New York City (and LA), so there are plenty of other places to perform - and they all have their own business arrangements with their own positives and negatives. I just wish the "crazy impulsiveness" that makes Will such an engaging performer didn't keep him from communicating with the people working to support him.

    P.S. Kasper Hauser is one of the best sketch groups I have ever seen. Consistently thought-provoking, ground-breaking, and hilarious.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 26, 2008 at 8:33 AM  

  • I don't think that the UCB is at all private about their no-pay system. Performers joke about it from the stage all the time.

    Will attracts a more mature audience than most comedians, not "comedy scene" or UCB regulars. I've been to UCB only a few times, and the no-pay system was news to me - and outrageous news at that. So far everyone I've discussed this with is outraged - but we're not part of the comedy scene. When we go to a show, any show, we expect some of the money from the admission price to go to the artist.

    And Will certainly knew, he'd already done it a few times.
    But we, the audience, did not. I don't doubt the UCB received complaints after Will's show - not because audience members thought Will was asking too much, but because they expected the admission price to be shared with him. It is a reasonable expectation, based on trust and ethical behavior.

    I'd also like to comment on this line from Anthony King's letter to Will:

    It's [passing the hat is] unprofessional and completely unacceptable.

    Here is Mirriam-Webster's definition of professional:
    a: participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs (a professional golfer) b: having a particular profession as a permanent career (a professional soldier) c: engaged in by persons receiving financial return (professional football)

    Thanks to passing the hat, Will's may have been the first professional performance ever at the UCB.

    By Blogger Nina Paley, At January 26, 2008 at 1:07 PM  

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