Former UCB Artistic Director, Kevin Mullaney weighs in on performer compensation debate (exclusive)
Kevin Mullaney is a great guy whose been on both sides of the entertainment business. He’s performed on stage as well as off, overseeing business attributes to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City. He spoke very openly and honest about how both sides of the comedy world work. From trying to get stage time to demanding payments and from running a theatre to paying rent for space, Mullaney is a valuable asset for a behind-the-scenes look.
Lsten to both sides of any story before you make your judgments and Kevin lays out a few arguments to think about. He addresses everything from creative freedom to the goals UCB founders Matt Besser and Ian Roberts had when they launched the UCB Theatre in New York, to how things come into play today.
We got the chance to ask Mullaney his thoughts about the current UCB debate about performers compensation which lead to their recent decision to cancel weekend stand-up shows in light of the situation.
UCB was in the news a lot this week and you’ve been on both sides, performer and management.
I’ve been a part of these controversies before. There’s been several dramas during the years I was in UCB that flared up. Back then it would flare up on my message boards. I was the artistic director for UCB for a while and there was one huge drama that popped up during that period and they’re all talking about it on my message board and it was very uncomfortable.
What’s your take on the current UCB business model and the debate that came from it?
There’s a really great podcast that I was listening to Matt Besser talking to Ian Roberts and they talk through their experience in New York when they came there. The basic idea is they created the theatre they wish existed when they showed up, which was a theater known for comedy. Where sketch and improv were welcome and they wouldn’t have to pay a lot for rent. In fact, no one pays any rent to do a show at UCB in New York where audiences know to come, where the tickets are cheap.
We’re talking at most $10. All the weeknight shows are $5, a lot of them are free, and this is in New York where the rent is kind of out of control. Not just for apartments, but for theater as well. It’s really hard to find places, or it used to be really hard to find places, to do shows without putting up at least a couple hundred bucks. So obviously, 10 or 12 years later, their theatre is doing much better. For many years, the theatre did not make any money, even with few sell out shows. Now, it probably makes money, but it doesn’t make a lot. People do that equation, “well there are 8 comics and if they paid each one of them 20 bucks why couldn’t they do that? They’re making more than enough money.”
I think most of the people who look at it purely at a financial level, there’s more going on there than just that one show. I guess the other part of it is, if you participate in a place like UCB, it’s much much more. The value you get out of it has much more to do with the actually performances and the people you meet and the experience of putting up shows. So nobody is getting rich off of those shows. The people who are involved in that theater, there’s a few people making a working wage, busting their ass, managing the theater and managing the bar and that kind of thing, but there’s nobody sitting back with their cigars making huge amounts of money. It’s not like other comedy clubs. I understand why and there are good reasons people reach a point and they’re like, “I don’t want to perform for free,” and I totally respect that.
However, most people for the first 5 years or so of their comedy career, whether they’re a stand-up or an improviser, the opportunity to play in front of a full house, especially a full house that only paid 5 bucks, is a really great thing to perform in front of a full house. On some level, there’s not that huge pressure in a sense of, “we paid 40 bucks, well I paid 80 bucks for me and my girlfriend to see this comedy show and you fucker better be funny!”
If something good happens it’s gonna be good, and if it fails no one is gonna demand their money back. That atmosphere is priceless, especially in a place like New York. I know this from coming back to Chicago trying to put up shows, the first show I put up I went out and rented a theater for 150 bucks a night. We just performed by ourselves and had maybe 5 or 6 people on average a night and lost a lot of money. So the next time we did a show we chose an upstairs gallery with a different model. It was $50 to rent the place and you can only take donations and can’t sell tickets. Just having a space that only cost us 50 bucks instead of 150 bucks to try out new shows, that’s what you want. And that’s what UCB has been about for 13, 14 years now. It’s all been about giving new people a chance to create cool shows.
Sarah Silverman did a show there after she was already quite famous. Janeane Garofalo performed there way after she was famous. Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch, while on Saturday Night Live did a 2 person show there because UCB was saying, “you can do your show for free here to showcase it.” No hassle to showcase it for producers and so forth who might be interested in turning it into something. That no hassle part of it, where it’s just like, “you want to do your show here? Here’s a time slot. Do your show. We won’t take any money from you, we’re not going to give you any money either, but it’s going to be cheap and you’re probably going to get a nice house.” That’s worth a lot for people to be able to do something for little or no hassle in a place like New York is worth a lot.
So, there’s Kevin’s take on the situation. What is yours?