A Comedians' Union? Imagine the Meetings
By JESSE McKINLEY Published: 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 strike.
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 pay.)
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 workanight 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 well."