Selling Sunset

The latest out of UCB.

Selling Sunset

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A little bit of news out of UCB over the last week. On Friday the owners released a statement about what they’ve been doing since their last statement about what they’ve been doing:

A statement from the UCB4 regarding theater operations and our work with PROJECT RETHINK. 25, 2020

And yesterday Project Rethink, the talent board advising UCB on its restructuring, released a statement about that effort:

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There’s not a whole lot of news in here, but there are a few points worth dwelling on.

-At Project Rethink’s urging, UCB will convert both sides of its business—training center and theater—into nonprofit organizations. Previously the owners only committed to divesting from and converting the theater while retaining ownership of the school. As the school is UCB’s profitable arm, this raised questions about why they would hold onto an entity they’re barely involved with and ostensibly make no money from. Now it looks like they may actually divest themselves from the whole business.

This is a promising development. What’s missing, as it always is with the UCB4, is any positive articulation of what they want UCB to be. Not just what they’ve done wrong and how they’ll fix it, but what they see as the ideal version of UCB and its role in comedy. Aside from being Leadership 101, this is crucial to persuading people to come back to UCB when the time comes. Why should comedy workers return to a system that failed them? Will the new UCB be “the old UCB, but better,” or will it actually be new? What will it offer that people can’t go elsewhere and give themselves?

The UCB4 would be wise to win back as much trust as they can as soon as they can. As they say, they’ve joined the National Independent Venue Association in lobbying Congress for live arts relief funding. Every day I log onto Twitter and see dozens of comedians galvanizing their followers to help out various candidates and grassroots efforts. I’d wager that UCB, with its decades of devoted and famous alumni, has the potential to leverage public support for the NIVA more effectively than almost any other entertainment venue. But first it has to convince people it’s worth the effort.

-The owners say their goals include "at the very least, holding on to our Franklin theater." I recently received a tip from a source in the Los Angeles real estate business that UCB is working with the firm CBRE to quietly put its Sunset Boulevard theater back on the market, and that at least one potential buyer has already taken a look. The building—with its two performance spaces, a cafe, storefront retail spaces, offices, classrooms, and rehearsal studios—has been plagued with issues since it opened in 2014, namely a lengthy liquor license application and chronic difficulty filling the storefronts. It’s sat empty since March; county records assess its value at almost $7.5 million.

UCB wouldn’t tell me whether they’re trying to sell it or not, but this statement confirms it’s on the table. The owners’ list of goals doesn’t even mention Sunset, only that they hope to retain the theater they rent on Franklin Avenue. This raises a number of questions. Sunset opened at UCB’s zenith, when the company was flush with cash it invested in growth at the cost of sustainability (as Nat Towsen eloquently argued in 2018). UCB’s workers made the money that bought the theater; will they see any proceeds from its sale? What assets does UCB plan to turn over to the nonprofit entities? What financial support will the UCB4 give to their successors? Or will the new UCB have to raise millions itself before it can staff up, open theaters and training facilities, and get to work healing the industry its predecessor poisoned?

-The owners pledge to use an SNL-funded “diversity scholarship” to support students and performers. I’ve been trying to get details on this scholarship since SNL announced it in vague terms two weeks ago: “a scholarship program for students of diverse backgrounds to advance their comedy careers” at UCB, the Groundlings, Second City, and the Peoples Improv Theatre. SNL told me it will entail funding “to help get diverse performers into introductory programs and then continue to support them as they rise within the school,” but didn’t say how much funding, how many students will benefit, whether talent will receive funding as well, or what the application will look like. Both the Groundlings and the PIT told me they don’t know anything other than what’s been announced.

NBC has long supported diversity scholarships and fellowships at all four theaters, so the details matter quite a bit. Essential as these programs are, more of the same clearly won’t bring the radical change UCB needs. That said, a significant cash infusion conditioned on certain terms—say, talent pay, intern pay, diversity initiatives with concrete benchmarks, cheap tickets, and more than the bare minimum of financial transparency—could change everything.

In its letter, UCB said this scholarship will support performers as well as students. Could this be a sign that more comprehensive talent pay is in the cards? Knock on wood—I’ve heard from inside the theater that UCB’s owners are sincerely grappling with the possibility they’ve been wrong about pay. That’s good news, though it may reflect the beginning of a longer fight: the moment UCB starts paying talent is the moment it admits talent always should have been paid.

This is a significant admission (supposing they actually make it), even if the statute of limitation has passed for most UCB alumni to file unpaid wage claims. It means the UCB4 know they owe a lot of people a lot of money, which means they can be pressured to pony up.

-UCB can fulfill many of its promises right now. Both letters affirm UCB’s commitment to become a more transparent, honest, and accountable organization. There is no reason it cannot be more transparent, honest, and accountable this week. The ten-sentence paragraph listing what the owners “could have done better” is commendable, but I highly doubt they have anything more pressing to do than fully account for 20 years of negligence, mismanagement, discrimination, and outright theft. The work shouldn’t wait.

Also, and I know I’m a broken record about this, Amy Poehler is a multimillionaire star/producer/wine shop owner. She could right so many of UCB’s wrongs by waving her hands. Is she really going to hire a consultancy firm before she pays back the interns with dozens of unpaid accrued hours? I can’t help but look at these letters skeptically—despite everything promising in them—for this simple reason. The UCB4 still hasn’t put its money where its mouth is.

What else…

-Dave Chappelle cancelled the rest of his outdoor performance series in Ohio after one of the regulars maybe got exposed to Covid. Note how his spokesperson assures Page Six that even though there was an exposure in the cast, there haven’t been any reported cases in patrons or crew. He’s comparing apples to oranges: if a comic’s exposure is sufficient cause to cancel shows, an exposure in the audience should be too. This is sort of the whole ballgame. Plenty of reopened clubs have contact tracing measures in place, but their effectiveness is necessarily limited. It’s easy enough to ask your comics or servers if they’ve been exposed; no club I’m aware of is checking in with its audiences after the fact, and I highly doubt many customers are calling up clubs to say, “Hey, by the way, I just found out I got exposed a few days before I saw Adam Carolla.” And what difference would it make if they did? Zanies Nashville closed for deep cleaning after DL Hughley exposed his audience to the virus. Then it reopened with all the same guidelines in place, including the one letting audiences take off their masks when they’re seated.

-In that vein, here’s a chilling piece in which the New York Times’ food critic asks scientists if indoor dining is ever truly safe. (Spoiler: no!)

-Humorism favorites Nick Ciarelli and Brad Evans were anointed New Faces: Creators by the now-online comedy festival Just For Laughs. I personally don’t see any reason JFL couldn’t have selected comics in its standup and sketch categories, and in fact I think it would be an important statement that comedy goes on even when live comedy stops, but then again JFL is mostly just a big circle jerk for agents and executives, so, I guess it’s not a huge loss.

-I very much want to see this movie:

Thank you for reading all the way down. Please enjoy this picture of my dog munching on Elisa Gabbert’s wonderful new book, The Unreality of Memory: