By Carl Unegbu, Comedybeat | Most people consider comedians a rather weird bunch not only for what they do but sometimes also for why they do it. Yet, compared to other groups in the entertainment world, there is something else that seems sort of weird about comedians. Only this time, it is actually about something that they are not doing or maybe simply cannot do: Comedians have no union of their own, unlike actors who have their Screen Actors Guild (SAG); the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) or the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) or even musicians who have their American Federation of Musicians (AFM).
To be sure, comedians can and do join unions when they work in other arenas, like film, stage and television or even music. But so far, when they work just as comedians, they have no group or union that represents their interests.
Not that they have never tried to unionize. As it happens, once upon a time, comedians did try to form a union back in the late 1970s in Los Angeles, during their strike against Mitzi Shore’s iconic Comedy Store on Sunset Strip. At the time, the issue was about getting paid for their work at the club, which was then raking in the big bucks at their expense. They picketed the club and posed such an effective threat to business that Mitzi Shore eventually caved in to their demands for paid work.
Their plan to form a union was eventually shot down in January 1982 when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the striking comics were independent contractors rather than employees and thus could not seek redress at the NLRB. And during the past decade another effort was made on the Eastern seaboard when New York City comedians tried to put a union together but without much success.
But the failures so far have done nothing to discourage some in the industry who still consider forming a union or something similar to it as a worthwhile effort that should not be given up. People like Tamar Kummel, a longtime comic who has organized open mics and other comedy shows in New York City. Kummel sees the vast changes that have occurred in the comedy industry over the years, such as the use of You Tube by comics, as a reason why having a union might be helpful to comics today. “Our industry changes so fast everyday with new media,” she said, noting that SAG now has new model contracts for new media for the benefit of its members. “Can you [a comic whose joke has been used in a ring tone] sue a producer who’s using your ring tones without your permission…can you do that alone?” she queried.
Kummel also notes other changes that have taken place in the industry over the years which have not been favorable to comedians, especially the new comics. Changes like the pay-to-play schemes that have been devised by comedy clubs over the past decade such as the so-called “bringers.” Under a bringer arrangement, which most comedy clubs in the city call the New Talent shows, a comedian seeking stage time in front of real audiences is required to bring a certain number of paying guests to the show each time he gets on stage. Kummel sees this arrangement as unfair. “Why are we [the comics] responsible for bringing people [to the shows] or paying to play?” she said, noting that actors are not required to bring people to their movies.
Another veteran comic, Sassi Keegan agrees that a union would be a good idea for comics today. “I think it would raise the bar and the professionalism of the industry,” said Keegan, a producer of industry shows at Broadway Comedy Club in New York City, who also notes that the industry today is highly competitive and oversaturated. Keegan also thinks that a union structure for comedians might help them to win concessions like health benefits, which is already available to the members of unionized groups like SAG, AFTRA and AEA. She credits the recent efforts to form a union in New York City with raising the pay for spots on weekend shows in the city to $75.
Yet, not everyone in the industry thinks comedians can actually succeed in forming a union. Steve Arons, a manager and producer at the New York Comedy Club, doubts that comedians will be able to pull it off. Arons, a longtime comic, thinks that because of the nature of their work, comedians are not in the same position as actors when it comes to forming a union. Comedians and comedy writers tend to work independently on their own unlike actors who have to work long hours on a set and in a team structure, he said. “An actor has to work long hours on a set…but a comic could have three or more shows a night at different places.” Plus, when it comes to getting paid, Arons does not believe that comedians have the same motivation to get paid for their work. This sets them apart from other groups such as musicians, noted Arons. “Musicians are different and they work for money…but comics just wanna do it for the hell of it and they crave the attention.”
Kummel concedes that this is the case. She notes that during her days as an organizer of comedy shows in the city about 10 years ago, she was surprised to find that many comedians didn’t seem eager to get paid for working. “I noticed the comics then didn’t even want to get paid and these comics were at all levels …not just the rookies,” she says. “They were so accustomed to not being paid that it was hard for them to accept money…they were so incredibly generous and insisted that the minor profits from the shows went to future shows instead of them.”
And there are other comics, including rookie comics, who are not so sure that comedians can succeed in forming a union. Derik Boik, a new comic in New York City, recalls that the moves by comics to form a union had failed in the past and he is not holding his breadth for such efforts to succeed in the future. He thinks that it will be hard for comedians to reach a decision on things like who can become a member of such a union, whether they should be headliners or “open micers” [sic] as well. He also thinks that comedians might be reluctant to pay membership dues since they are usually broke. Despite his doubts, Boik thinks it would have been a good idea to have a union to deal with such problems as bringers shows which he regards as “stupid” and the abuses of promoters.
Another obstacle in the way of comedians forming a union is the resistance they can expect to find from the comedy clubs and the producers of shows who have worked outside the union system for so long. Kummel sees this as a real problem and believes that as things stand, if the terms agreed upon in a union structure such as union contracts are to be honored, the cooperation of the clubs and producers will be necessary.
So far, everyone agrees that if a union can become a reality, it will be quite useful for the community of comedians. Kummel, for one, thinks that a formal union structure may not be necessary. Considering the difficulties of a union structure, she thinks a less formal structure that would bring comedians together might be what is needed after all. She proposes what she calls an “association” model which she thinks will also be more acceptable to producers and the comedy clubs than a union. According to her, this structure will eliminate the problem of who can join a union, because with an association anyone who is working in the industry and wishes to join can join. Comparing a union to an association, Kummel describes a union structure as “exclusive” in nature while an association will function mostly as a kind of “support system” for comedians.
In the end, whether comedians can succeed in forming a union of their own or something similar, be it an association or something else, remains an open question. But the common feeling among comics that presenting a united front will help their cause coupled with all the big changes that continue to occur in the industry all but guarantee that comics won’t give up the old dream of having a union of their own or something similar any time soon.