In the wake of the closure of the Peoples Improv Theater’s flagship location in New York City, I’d like to tell a brief story illustrating why I have hope that the loss of so many comedy theaters during the pandemic, difficult as it is to witness, will ultimately be good for comedy.
A little over a year ago I went on the Comedy Cellar’s podcast for a debate of sorts with its owner, Noam Dworman. I had recently written a newsletter criticizing his comments on race and the 1619 Project, and he invited me to make my critiques to his face. After much deliberation, I agreed on the condition that in return he grant me access to the Cellar for a story. (Due to the pandemic and other reasons, this part of the deal did not quite pan out.) I’m not going to link or recommend listening to the podcast, which is basically two hours of me getting angrily chewed out by five people: Dworman, his co-host, his producer, SiriusXM’s Director of Comedy Programming, and a comic who performs regularly at the Cellar. But I will describe a few parts of the discussion I still think about.
In essence, I spent the podcast trying to argue that structural discrimination exists, the Cellar participates in and perpetuates it, and Dworman et al have a moral imperative to improve parity in standup by booking more diverse programming (in terms of identity as well as style). My interlocutors were firm believers in comedy as a meritocracy and insisted that the Cellar’s comics are the best of the best; anyone who doesn’t perform there simply isn’t good enough. I said this isn’t true, the Cellar could fire every one of its regulars and easily replace them with any of the many extremely talented people in standup. They scoffed at the very idea. In their view, the Cellar truly represents comedy’s cream of the crop.
But wait, I said. Don’t you guys know there’s this whole thriving alt comedy world that arose largely out of people who don’t feel safe or welcome at clubs? Dworman rejected this handily, arguing that just because people feel unsafe at clubs doesn’t mean they are unsafe, and that people who do feel this way may just be rationalizing rejection. Elsewhere in the discussion he asked me to name comics of color and/or nonbinary comics whom I think he should be booking. I wasn’t comfortable looping anyone into this (in my opinion, ludicrous) rhetorical exercise without their permission, but I agreed to write a few names on a piece of paper and pass it around the table. Without saying who, I feel confident that the comics I named would be recognizable to anyone in New York City who sees comedy outside the usual clubs. No one at the table recognized any of them, except for the SiriusXM guy, who said he recognized one from a recent TV appearance, which he suggested the comic was only given because of their identity.
Okay, so that was the podcast. A couple nights later I went back for a longer sit-down interview with Dworman. We were planning to meet at the Cellar but he texted me at the last minute to meet him at a Japanese restaurant around the corner. When he arrived, he explained that he was rethinking everything. He hadn’t known about my involvement in the Shane Gillis affair and was taking flack from comics angry with him for bringing me into their space; they didn’t want me in the club because they were afraid I’d try to cancel them. He didn’t want to anger them any further, but he also didn’t want to renege on his end of the bargain. He would give me one final conversation, here, where his comics would be safe from me.
I came away from these conversations incredibly demoralized. If these were the attitudes at one of the most respected clubs at the country, it seemed there was no hope for any sort of reform in the industry. The people running it are stubborn, incurious, and so naive to the world outside their ideological bubbles that they believe it’s everyone else who’s in a bubble. The comics who make up (a critical mass of) their workforce are so desperate to maintain their station that they’ll close ranks to keep out critics, even as those ranks include unrepentant creeps, abusers, and racists. A year later, these comics have unprecedented leverage to extract radical concessions from comedy’s ownership class, and instead of wielding it they’ve gone right back to work during a deadly pandemic. I struggle to see how anything changes here without a systemwide breakdown that’s just not happening.
But that breakdown is happening in sketch and improv. The industry’s most prominent theaters are collapsing. Its most influential gatekeepers are losing their authority. The workforce is much more conscious of its exploitation and has already demanded change from the ownership class. That the owners have responded largely by abdicating their power is a good thing: their decades-long stranglehold over the industry created artificial scarcity and the sort of competition for (mostly unpaid) work that sustains an oppressive status quo. Once that stranglehold is lifted, there will no longer be any question as to whether reform or rebuilding is the right path forward, nor any obstacle posed by those who choose to stick with an inequitable system that works for them.
That’s not to say there won’t be any obstacles; there will be plenty. But the collapse of the status quo is only a cause for hope. When it’s gone, there will be no choice but to build a new one.
Just a little silver lining, I think.