There has been a popular comedy debate show in St. Louis for years. When Jeff and I moved to New York from there, we brought the idea with us. For 8 months, the show was in the back room of a bar in the Lower East Side. The show was free, and it was hard to attract an audience at a place that isn’t known as a comedy venue.
When UCB opened a new theater in the East Village, we had our eyes set on bringing the show there, because UCB has a reputation as a great place. We premiered at UCBeast in March 2012 and from there, the show took off. We constantly strived to put forth the best lineups possible. The show was chaotic, but hilarious. We had a comedian debate a schizophenic man, a reality TV star interrupt debaters to pitch his show, and a debater get completely wasted and kiss people in the crowd. We knew the chaos along with the humor was doing well. Then after 3 months of increasing audiences, we hit our first snag. We weren’t booked for the next month. We sent several e-mails, but received no replies. Through the grapevine we heard that it was because we weren’t booking UCB improvisers, our show was too chaotic, and they had complaints about inappropriate content. We still don’t know if this was true or not, as the next month we were given another date with an apology, and a permanent time slot, 2nd Friday at midnight.
This was shady enough, but on top of that, UCB charged a $5 admission ($10 for some other shows) and paid $0 to us or any of the performers. This felt kind of exploitative, especially when you consider that we were responsible for booking and promoting the show ourselves. Then someone told me it is UCB policy to not pay performers for any show. It seems that they would be able to provide performers with more than one drink ticket, especially when you consider how much they make from improv classes and bar sales in addition to ticket sales. The founders of the theater include Amy Poehler and other very successful actors.
Last month, which I didn’t know would be my last month, I had a spectacular show lined up, I had Myq Kaplan and Micah Sherman playing a few songs off their recent cd, Matt Koff who has contributed to the Onion News Network, and Kurt Metzger. Meaning on one show I had two comedians who half hour specials on comedy central. Kurt was amazed that they didn’t pay, but did me a favor because he’s a nice comic helping out a little guy. When I brought Kurt up there were about 20 people still left alittle after 1 am in the crowd. Kurt started off, immediately killing. In the middle of his set, made some funny rants about not getting paid. He was just pointing out how you shouldn’t make people pay to see a show and then not pay the comics. At around this time, the tech guy began lighting him. Kurt asked if he needed to get off stage. There was no reply, so he kept on killing the room and ended the show on a high note. After the show, multiple people told us how much they liked the show. Many of them mentioned how funny Kurt had been and that they would like for us to bring him back.
A few days had passed and I was already working on booking the show in January when I received an email from UCBeast regarding having to change dates in January as we had a permanent slot as on the 2nd friday of each month at midnight. I said I’d be more then willing to help out, but asked that I be given a new date rather soon as I liked to have my show booked well in advance to help advertise the show. There was no response, so I emailed again.
Then I was given this response
We’re making some changes and additions to our weekend schedule at UCBeast in 2013, and it looks like we will no longer have room for The Great Debate. I apologize for the last minute change.
I’ll let you know if something changes and we have room available in the future.”
I thought it was weird that a show that gets great attendance, has great lineups and has an original format that they had just talked about going bi-weekly was now canceled without a proper response. I felt as if I needed to know why they were doing this to us, but not to their improv shows which are poorly attended and not very funny.
Unfortunately you were unable to control some of the things said by some of the comedians you had on the previous show.”
They were canceling us because Kurt had pointed out that UCB charges admission but does not pay performers. Why would they cancel a show for someone mentioning the truth? Are they ashamed of their policy or do they think that people would be less willing to pay for shows where none of the proceeds go to the performer? Even the shadiest midtown comedy clubs pay comedians. You might say this is the cost of artistic freedom, but UCB doesn’t offer that either, as they canceled our show because they didn’t like something a comedian said. It is not like this is just about making money. There are great places where I will gladly perform for free, like The Creek and The Cave (10-93 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101), where the shows are free, and the owner (Rebecca Trent) and staff love comedy and do not cancel shows because they didn’t like what someone said on stage.
I feel every comedian has a fascinating story to tell, the good ones will show you a thing or two about life while at the same time making you laugh throughout their set. In fact earlier in the evening I started off the show by telling of my experience of being stabbed in a mall parking lot by a coworker, and the craziness that followed, and the human behavior exhibited throughout the entire event. Hell I’ve talked on this stage about 3 girlfriends cheating on me including a dead ex girlfriend and how her crazy family blamed for her death even though I had nothing to do with it, and her psycho brother who tried to kill me, my experiences in the porn industry, growing up foreign, and with so many physical defects (Crohn’s, speech problem that wasn’t corrected, bad immune system, being tested for cancer every month) and well hey if you haven’t heard of Jeff Wesselschmidt, there’s nothing that he’s scared of joking about, whether retarded people, glory holes, or his love of big butts and chocolate chip cookies).
I don’t know if Amy, Matt, Matt, Adam or any other founding member supports censorship, but it seems they definitely condone taking advantage of struggling comedians. Don’t you find it ironic that comedians who are poor and struggling are making you all richer? Do you truly care about the comedy community?
The show getting canceled actually worked out in our favor, though, as it has been picked up by The Stand Comedy Club (239 3rd Avenue New York, NY 10003) and will be able to feature a wider variety of the best of the New York City Comedy Scene along with headliners who visit. They will all be taken care of due to the great owners of The Stand, we thank Kurt Metzger, Patrick Milligan and everyone else at Cringehumor and The Stand for giving the show a new home.
Michael Shawki and Jeff Wesselschmidt
The Great Debate Variety Show