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Last week Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre announced the sale of its Sunset Boulevard location. As I reported in September, the company’s owners put the property on the market over the summer, apparently unable to keep up with their mortgage payments. In one of their classic sprawling, apologetic letters to the UCB community, they said they’re “working to maintain” their Franklin Avenue locating and “continuing the process” of converting the theatre and school into a nonprofit. While they reiterated their commitment to transparency, they notably did not say who bought Sunset, for how much, or what they will do with any proceeds from the sale.
This latest milestone in UCB’s interminable demise sparked the usual round of nostalgia and tea. I’ll admit I cringed a bit at the all-too-common “fuck COVID” reactions. The pandemic has destroyed many good businesses, but it’s also revealed the fundamental failings of many others, like UCB, Second City, and iO—all arts incubators structured to funnel money to their landlords first and their workers second (or third, or fourth, or not at all). When the comedy world eventually sets out to rebuild, I hope it does so with clear eyes about which losses were tragic and which were tragic but necessary.
Then again, it’s not gone yet. Here’s an interesting take I received from a member of the UCB community who requested I keep them anonymous:
just seeing all the memorializing of UCB every cut from a thousand death they announce in poorly formatted press releases i think obscures a very real thing-- ucb is very much alive. i remember a few months after the project rethink stuff being blown away by the sheer number of classes they are running, pretty much at the same price as in person, now without the overhead of needing physical space. laying off the staff, the ppp loan, i have no idea whether they qualified for the broken lease forgiveness NY instituted during COVID but I suspect they did or would. And now they sold sunset. I have no idea what a deep hole they were in financially and would be overreaching to suggest anything definitive about the state of things now, but i keep returning today to whatever in a dozen of all hands meetings where the UCB4 scolded and were reflexively dismissive of criticism and took the bare minimum of responsibility. I don't remember if it was Walsh or Roberts or the exact quote but they made it abundantly clear that they would be much more profitable running as a school and not having performances, and at the time it felt like an empty threat, but now that's exactly what they have, i would love to be proven wrong about it, too cynical or too dumb of a take, but i get the distinct impression that covid was the best thing that could happen to them because it gave them cover to enact brutal austerity without ever needing to take real accountability for what caused the demise of five spaces in such a short amount of time.
I went searching through my transcripts of some of the winter 2018/2019 UCB meetings to see if any of them contained the quote in question here. I couldn’t find it (not surprising—there were many more meetings than I received recordings of), but I did come across another moment that I think is worth revisiting. In a January 2019 town hall in Los Angeles, a few weeks after UCB announced the closure of its East Village location, Matt Besser explained to the community that he and his co-owners were conscious of their bad business decisions as they were making them:
I would say more decisions than not have been based more on what the theater would want than what is what you'd call a smart business decision. The most, the biggest of that is having two venues in a city, two cities. Is there any other comedy club that has that? It's really expensive. And when we made those decisions of expanding to two theaters, we knew it wasn't a "you will now make twice as much money." It was more of a "you'll have twice as much costs." So when we make—and there's a lot of decisions through the years like that. Like DCM [the Del Close Marathon, UCB’s annual improv festival]. Like the last five DCMs, we were aware we were losing money. We're aware we're losing more and more money every year, but we just looked at it as a party rewarding the theater.
So we knew, okay, we see this as losing money. A business would say this is a bad business decision to keep doing it, but us treating you like stakeholders—well, this is our way of rewarding. So Hell's Kitchen was the same. I could go through almost—I think every decision we make—UCB Comedy [the theatre’s digital production arm], we had no intention of making money on that. We were just going to make videos and let people make videos. There was no, there was no intent. There was no, we didn't have advertising on UCB Comedy until we started working with corporations hiring us. They were just videos going up. So we called it the third stage. 'Cause I believe it was only two stages at that point. So we did that saying, "These are our stakeholders. People are making videos right now, so let's use some of this money that's sitting in the bank to let them do that."
So that was us going “You guys are stakeholders. This is for your sake. We're going to do it even though it's not smart business decision." In other words, it's not going to make money. Hell's Kitchen, same thing.
Here is the only prediction about the coming year I can make with absolute certainty: it will be full of UCB postmortems. My wish for 2021 is that we finally shift the popular narrative of the theatre from “it made comedy what it is today (good)” to “it made comedy what it is today (incredibly inequitable and homogenous).” The UCB 4 stole from a generation of comedy workers and made it acceptable for the rest of their industry to follow suit. They knew for years they were digging UCB’s grave; when they had money in the bank, they used it to dig deeper. As that UCBer aptly pointed out above, there’s no reason left to assume they’re the unlucky parties here, tragically losing their beloved small business to a global crisis. No, they’re lucky for the opportunity to finally strip it bare.
I very much enjoyed this short film by Kelly Cooper:
I’ve spent a good chunk of the last few weeks researching the origins of what I’ve been describing as standup’s reactionary elements—the Compound Media/Legion of Skanks/Tim Dillon faction we focus on a lot here in Humorism’s Boise office. Theoretically this research will manifest in a feature sometime next month, so I won’t spoil too much of it now. But I will say I’ve been surprised to discover how deeply our friends at The Stand are involved in this scene’s history. Well, not that surprised.
I knew vaguely that the club’s owners—Cris and Paul Italia, Patrick Milligan, and the late David Kimowitz—are managers as well, and that they represent (or have represented) many of the club’s marquee talent: Aaron Berg, (former Proud Boys leader) Dante Nero, Rich Vos, Big Jay Oakerson, Luis Gomez, Yannis Pappas, Andrew Schulz. What I did not fully grasp was that they founded their management shop almost a decade before the club, with the explicit goal of popularizing the sort of comedy it now embodies. For almost 20 years, their mission has been to put these people on the map.
Their management shop is called CH Entertainment, “CH” standing for “Cringe Humor.” The firm traces its origins to the early oughts, when Milligan produced shows around New York City (and the country) under the CH banner, with comics like Nero, Jim Norton, Colin Quinn, and the late Mike DeStefano, whose image graces The Stand’s logo (and who you can hear dropping a hard “r” in this 2008 Cringe Humor promo video, if you need any more insight into their style). In a 2016 interview tracing the firm’s history, Kimowitz said, “We were the original rape joke people.”
Cringe Humor doesn’t have a web presence anymore, but from 2003 until around 2015 (as best I can tell from the Internet Archive) it had a lively website populated with comedy news, reviews, and blogs. Here’s what it looked like in November 2003:
BOYCOTT THE COMMIES
CringeHumor.net is sick & tired of CC neglecting new stand-up comedy, and focusing more on awful cartoons like Kid Notorious and hideous original movies like Windy City Heat. The only outlet stand up comedians have on a regular basis is the great Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn show, but many of the guests are out of their element.
So, if you are a true fan of stand-up comedy, we suggest boycotting the event. It also appears that Comedy Central dropped the "Funniest Stand Up" category for the final product, as it's no longer listed on their official site. Hopefully it will produce poor ratings and disappear after a year like the XFL.
As you can see, Cringe Humor fashioned itself from the start as edgy and anti-establishment, a champion of comics too raw for Comedy Central. We won’t dig too much into the archives right now, but it’s worth briefly examining what it reveals about standup in 2020, where social norms around bigotry and hate speech are rapidly regressing (if they ever caught up to the present). Let’s look at a blog post Milligan wrote in 2007. The title is “Here's to you, Slutty Female Comedians!” I will warn you upfront that the content is extremely sexist and vile:
The following is advice from me to all of you wonderful female comedians that are climbing the ranks in New York City.
1) Who cares if you are funny? Odds are you are not. That's why the good Lord gave you breasts, an ass and a vagina, and most of all a mouth. What your mouth lacks in humorous talent, it more than makes up for when it comes to giving head.
2) People are wrong to tell you that your looks will get you ahead. ALWAYS tell those people that you don't need to rely on your tight pants or low cut tops to garner attention in the world of comedy. Your material IS that strong.
3) Be sure to make your headshots as sexy & sultry as possible. Men are more inclined to tolerate your sub-par act if you are easy on the eyes to them.
4) Remember ladies, the easiest way to get stage time is to use your oral skills on whatever show producer you're closest to. Why earn spots the old fashioned way by being original and creative? Remember this equation: for every 5 minutes of sucking you should get 5 minutes of stage time. It's that simple.
5) Male comedians REALLY do think you are funny and they are not afraid to tell you so. When that certain handsome comic flatters you, be sure to repay the favor to him on your knees. There is no better way to get yourself out there in the world of standup than by putting out.
6) You're right; Rick Shapiro is a tortured genius. What better way to show what a great artist he is by being his latest cum depository for a week or two? You are such a rebel! And if Rick isn't available, his equally zany twin brother Rob will surely take his place.
7) I'm sorry to hear the headliner you have a crush on decided to move out west to further his career. I am sure he will one day come to his senses, dump his girlfriend, and move back here just for you. You guys connect on such a mature level, and he TRULY does think you're a talented comedian. Hang in there girl!
8) Damn girl, can't believe you broke up with that comedian you've been "seeing" on the down low for years. If he even looks or talks to another female, you should have your unfunny cunt friends stalk whoever that ho is! Remember, being a comedian is like being in high school all over again. You should ALWAYS gossip and talk shit behind other women's backs, but befriend them when you're face-to-face. It always works!
9) Hooking up with all those comedians at your local club will further your career. That’s right ladies, it's soooo easy to climb to the top than by earning a wonderful reputation amongst men who would NEVER talk about their sexual exploits with you.
10) Hook up with male comedians that have potential. What easier way to get to become a household name than to have a man who is making a name for himself? If he headlines, be sure to demand a middle spot on his show. If you are really good at satisfying him, convince him to start his own show, or start an open mic, that way you will get more stage time than Larry The Cable Guy! Git-R-Done!
That's all for the advice now, chicas. Feel free to respond, and readers if you have your own advice feel free to send them to me also, it will be posted in a second installment soon.
If you're a slutty comedian who feels that this piece hit too close to home, email me and tell me how I can't get laid and/or point out how small my penis must be. I will gladly respond by calling you an unoriginal & typical cunt.
*Please note: We at Cringe Humor support many female comedians. There are some however that are not interested in being a stand-up comic, but use getting on stage as a way of getting attention for a talentless life. This column applies to them.
Milligan is The Stand’s booker. He booked comedy shows around New York City for a decade before the club opened in 2012. (I don’t know if this is still the case, but as of a few years ago he also worked as a corrections officer on the side.) If you’re entertaining the thought that maybe his attitudes have evolved since 2007, consider this June thread by the comedian Ariel Elias:
(The Standing Room is The Stand’s satellite club in Long Island City, opened in 2014.)
Last month I proposed that one way of looking at the history of comedy is as a small handful of gatekeepers deciding who gets to be famous enough to shape American culture. This was an incomplete analysis. Their power isn’t just in who they let in; it’s also in who they leave out. How different would comedy look right now if the club ownership class were not rife with angry misogyny? If it were not composed mostly of white men? If improv theaters like UCB had paid workers fairly—and had mechanisms in place to deal with sexual harassment and racism—from the start? How much art have we lost because of a few assholes running comedy as their little playground?
Just a few questions to consider as we head into the new year. See you on the other side.