"We pay our performers, just not in money."
August 31, 2016 7:37 AM   Subscribe

Emma Allen reports from deep inside improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. (SLNewYorker) The UCB improv empire takes in millions a year. "Pyramid-scheme theories have been floated: if U.C.B. is charging so much for classes, does not compensate performers, and makes them pay for practice space and coaches, where's all the money going?"
posted by Flexagon (87 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh, now I get what Bojack Horseman was having a dig at.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 7:56 AM on August 31, 2016 [24 favorites]


So they are not upright citizens?
posted by octobersurprise at 8:02 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


Ignoring the issue of performer pay, $5 mil of revenue to maintain at least three theaters in major cities as well as pay the staff does not seem like that much to me. Not saying they shouldn't be paying the actors, but I don't think anyone is actually getting rich off this scheme.
posted by Think_Long at 8:04 AM on August 31, 2016 [34 favorites]


I don't think this is a double, but it does seem related to this ongoing FPP about payment for live storytellers.

I agree though, in this case, it seems like "millions of dollars" may not go as far as some people think that it does.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:12 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yup, yup, yup. I fell down the improv wormhole, spent a whole wedge of money, had a blast, met lots of great people and feel like a much,much better person for doing all the levels but I'm a fintech software guy with far too much disposable income. I had much younger, much poorer classmates who were essentially 'all in' on improv and dutifully attended all manner of workshops, went through the levels (A-E, 1-5 con at $250 a pop over 2 years) teched shows and who are generally upstanding members of the scene. No one seems to mention (performers included not some vast secret hidden by the school) is that at the end its mostly leads to being on a house team or playing in the upstairs of a bar once every 2 weeks or coaching at said improv school. Even if you make it to the dizzying heights of Main Stage you'll get a few runs a best. The walls have lots of photos of famous SNL alumni starting but vastly more photos of people I didn't recognise.
posted by Damienmce at 8:17 AM on August 31, 2016 [17 favorites]


Before Kanye West filmed a “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-esque comedy pilot for HBO, he hired Matt Besser to give him private improv classes at home.

that is all...
posted by JPD at 8:17 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


We're on a website where you pay for the privilege of generating the content that allows the site to generate revenue, after all.

The very best of internet comment writers can make a living off it, but I'm just here slogging in the MeFi trenches waiting for my big break while cortex rolls around on a giant pile of money (or so I'm told).
posted by 0xFCAF at 8:20 AM on August 31, 2016 [88 favorites]


I heard it was a giant plate of beans.
posted by oneironaut at 8:22 AM on August 31, 2016 [12 favorites]


I heard it was a giant plate of beans.

Heinz Baked Beans, to be precise.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:28 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


There is, in fact, a scam hard-wired into this, which I witnessed over the course of a year at an improv program in Minneapolis. And the scam is this: You might get onto Saturday Night Live, or get a show on Comedy Central, or whatever.

And I suppose you might. These places do have a long history of being training grounds for future success, so most can claim one or a few students who went on to greater fame. But they are training grounds, not funnels, and there are a lot of people who went on to success without ever going through an improv program, so it's not a job placement program, it's not a path to success, it's not even necessarily a very good program.

But there they are, the famous alum, featured prominently on the walls of the business, the sales packets, their names hand-written on the basement walls from when they were students. The school doesn't outright say that this is the road to SNL, but, boy, they do nothing to dissuade anyone, and you talk to people in the program and they really think, a few years of classes, on to the mainstage, send a video to SNL, my career is set.

There's a lot of potential for abuse in that unspoken promise, because people really, desperately want the promise to be true. So you can get people to just keep cycling through the same classes (as "refreshers"), you can have them perform for free, and, as happened with my girlfriend, you can actually hire them for a paid gig and then just never get around to paying them. When my girlfriend confronted them about the unpaid debt, she was told she would get paid when she got paid, so she took it to the state and they were forced to pony up. Of course, that was the end of her relationship with the program, but so what? She contacted everybody else who had gone unpaid and told them how to get their check, and every single one of them said this was a bridge they did not want to burn, because it might sabotage their future -- the unspoken promise of a future on SNL, or wherever.

In the meanwhile, my girlfriend has done more professional acting than anyone in the program, despite not identifying herself as an actor, has done more professional writing than all of them combined, and has a small but notable career as a playwright, despite not identifying herself as a playwright. She didn't need the school. Nobody does. And yet they keep you coming with that little promise, hinted at, because people so badly want it to be true.

I know we are supposed to let the buyers beware and all that, but I think this is abusive. I think it is gaslighting. I think that if you can't come up with a program that is inherently worthwhile, without suggesting a bunch of unlikely benefits that you, as a program, are in no way working to make actually happen, you probably don't have a program that is worth being a part of.
posted by maxsparber at 8:31 AM on August 31, 2016 [59 favorites]


Of course, that was the end of her relationship with the program, but so what? She contacted everybody else who had gone unpaid and told them how to get their check, and every single one of them said this was a bridge they did not want to burn ...

She should have tempted them with an offer to join her new improv group: the Unpaid Citizens Brigade.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:36 AM on August 31, 2016 [16 favorites]


You might get onto Saturday Night Live

This is the plot of the recently released "Don't Think Twice." (Though there is no scam involved other than possible self-delusion.)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:39 AM on August 31, 2016 [10 favorites]


Needless to say, Don't Think Twice was an intensely painful film for me to watch, and I won't be recommending it to my girlfriend.
posted by maxsparber at 8:42 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


Reminds me a bit of unpaid internships in many industries. Had my own encounters with the improv scene in Chicago - very intense. Many do it for personal reasons - meeting people, personal growth. But the possibility of landing a coveted gig on SNL or elsewhere hangs over everything.

Am still interested in seeing Don't Think Twice though.
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:44 AM on August 31, 2016


hey do nothing to dissuade anyone

Bingo


This is the plot of the recently released "Don't Think Twice."


Been wondering why I have seen it discussed more among my improv friends. I think that hurtling towards middle age, being good at pretending to be a dog's ghost at the pizza place and living essentially in poverty is an awkward, sobering truth too close to the bone.
posted by Damienmce at 8:44 AM on August 31, 2016 [19 favorites]


We're on a website where you pay for the privilege of generating the content that allows the site to generate revenue, after all.


I think of it more as paying for the privilige of not dealing with people who won't pay $5 to shitpost
posted by thelonius at 8:47 AM on August 31, 2016 [54 favorites]


I was in a semi-professional (we got paid, but we ran it ourselves, and our pay was entirely dependent upon what we made each night) improv comedy troupe for 5 years in the early 1990s. As such, I brought in a lot of family and friends to be audiences for the shows, and the reaction was usually, "You guys look like you're having so much fun up there!"

I could take that as a dig at our performance skills, but going to many, many (MANY MANY MANY) other improv shows during that time and afterward, that seems to be more the point. Improv in itself is more about the people onstage than it is about pleasing an audience, and most of the people who tend to love improv either do it themselves or are friends with people who are involved with it somehow.

Occasionally, there will be a breakout star (we worked with Dane Cook's group a couple of times, then he became the big deal du jour for a while), but mostly, it's a lot of work for a result that's....really fun up there.
posted by xingcat at 8:47 AM on August 31, 2016 [5 favorites]


By the way, I do get paid to write. I would not ask that anybody pay me to write what I post on MetaFilter, which is less formal and constructed and researched than my paid writing. I don't think they really compare. This is a conversation for me. A conversation I have with my fingers.
posted by maxsparber at 8:50 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


maxsparber, want to know what's truly frightening about the unspoken promise of future employment of which you speak.

Universities and Colleges do the very same thing. They always promote their famous alumni, it's a way of saying: "See!! Look at how successful you'll be, now give us all your money, even if you're not qualified to be in our program, don't worry, we'll make an exception and allow you to borrow heavily from another institution at high interest rates so that you can find yourself in massive amounts of debt!"
posted by Fizz at 8:54 AM on August 31, 2016 [19 favorites]


I have a show at UCB myself, and I read this article.

In NYC alone, UCB has a training center in Chelsea, offices in midtown, and theaters in Chelsea and the East Village. I can't even imagine what the combined monthly rent is on those spaces.
posted by chinese_fashion at 8:55 AM on August 31, 2016 [9 favorites]




"Universities and Colleges do the very same thing."

Many do have job placement programs and alumni associations that actually work to get their grads jobs, although your point is a very good one -- many don't.
posted by maxsparber at 9:03 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


postscript: If done mostly for recreational purposes improv is a really fun, great thing every everyone should do. The funniest things I've seen have been in basements with 15 people on a damp Tuesday night.
posted by Damienmce at 9:09 AM on August 31, 2016 [8 favorites]


oh boy

i cant wait to feed my family some exposure

thanks
posted by boo_radley at 9:10 AM on August 31, 2016 [5 favorites]


I have mixed feelings about it, having gone through the UCB and iO programs and been all-in on live comedy for years. On one hand, I spent a lot of time and money, and decidedly fell out of love with improv (seriously, nothing is as bad as bad improv.)

On the other, improv gave me a home when I moved to LA in my mid-20s knowing exactly one person. Half my friends are people I met doing comedy. And I've been supporting myself as a writer for awhile now, and while it's never been like SNL or anything I've had some great successes and they were all directly a result of people I met through live comedy.

Classes are overpriced, and I think teachers should be a little more honest with people about their prospects of "making it." But I found a lot of value in the scene that transcended my newfound ability to pretend to be a sentient fart.
posted by joechip at 9:11 AM on August 31, 2016 [11 favorites]


It's not any different than dance schools. Very few people make it to the top, but you can scrape out a living teaching it to others.
posted by stowaway at 9:12 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


I don't think anyone is actually getting rich off this scheme.
surely it can't be bad for property owners and people that sell alcohol
posted by idiopath at 9:12 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


I found a lot of value in the scene that transcended my newfound ability to pretend to be a sentient fart.

Yep. They're all great things. I still have a lot of friends I know through improv. I got a lot out of the program. Those are the things these programs should be selling.
posted by maxsparber at 9:13 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's not any different than dance schools.

Or any other branch of the arts.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:13 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


I know we are supposed to let the buyers beware and all that, but I think this is abusive. I think it is gaslighting. I think that if you can't come up with a program that is inherently worthwhile, without suggesting a bunch of unlikely benefits that you, as a program, are in no way working to make actually happen, you probably don't have a program that is worth being a part of.

Okay, but....isn't this true of every single performing-arts school everywhere, though? Every acting studio, every music school, every dance academy?

Mind you, I do think that any high-pressure "my class is the panacea" techniques suck, but...if the complaint is more that "I signed up for classes and I'm still not famous", then...well...?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:18 AM on August 31, 2016 [15 favorites]


I guess my improv-doing friends have been unusually lucky in the schools they chose, or unusually good at filtering out bullshit. None of them ever seemed to be under the impression that anybody was going to get rich or famous doing it. Their level of involvement was somewhere in the neighborhood of "semi-regular Warhammer 40K player," "volunteer community choir director," or like maybe like "Burning Man theme camp organizer" or "noble in the SCA" at the way high end.

Which, like, all of those hobbies can be a huge time and money sink too, and all of them can be distorted by people who want to be A Big Shot (or want you to think that you can be one if you give them money and attention), so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that improv is the same way.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:20 AM on August 31, 2016 [8 favorites]


Okay, but....isn't this true of every single performing-arts school everywhere, though? Every acting studio, every music school, every dance academy?

I got my degree in theater from the University of Minnesota. It's an accredited program at a big, well respected state college. I have had 30 plays produced and have worked professionally in a variety of capacities in live theater. I also have worked on and off as a theater critic for 20 years.

I mean, yeah, they are similar, but some programs geneuinely do open professional opportunities, and some do not.
posted by maxsparber at 9:20 AM on August 31, 2016 [9 favorites]


I tend to be a bit more sanguine about people taking improv classes, as I agree with this bit in the article: "Like starting a band in the sixties, or joining a cult in the seventies, or enrolling in business school in the eighties, or going to group therapy in the nineties, taking improv classes has become the default activity for today’s postgraduate seekers." There probably are people who think that they have a superior chance, out of the thousands of people attending classes every year, to join SNL or a sitcom cast, but you probably have people on your local bar's softball team who think they have a shot at the major leagues. (This isn't counting people like maxsparber's girlfriend, who was actually hired but not paid; that's obviously scummy and also illegal.)

I've thought about taking some improv classes, but realized that I'd end up getting frustrated by the person in the group who talks over everyone else and tries to dominate the group even though they're not at all funny, and then realized that I was writing a one-act play in my head about an improv group who gradually turns the session into a planning session to kill the dominant not-funny guy, and then realized that probably every other improv group or class had someone already writing the exact same play, and then realized that this situation also held true for RPG groups, so why spend money on improv classes.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:21 AM on August 31, 2016 [10 favorites]


I got my degree in theater from the University of Minnesota. It's an accredited program at a big, well respected state college. I have had 30 plays produced and have worked professionally in a variety of capacities in live theater. I also have worked on and off as a theater critic for 20 years.

I mean, yeah, they are similar, but some programs genuinely do open opportunities, and some do not.


Yes, but this article was mainly about the UCB, also an accredited and well-respected program, which has produced many of the most successful comedians working today.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:25 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is a conversation for me. A conversation I have with my fingers.

And what do your fingers say to you?
posted by asterix at 9:27 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


That's true. UCB is accredited through the the National Association of Schools of Theatre. I expect the quality of their education is pretty high, and there is a better chance of finding work as a result of this program. I was speaking to my own experiences, not to those of the UCB.

That being said, UCB should pay their actors.
posted by maxsparber at 9:28 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


who talks over everyone else and tries to dominate the group even though they're not at all funny

Strange as it may sounds, that's one of the reasons I enjoyed the classes so much. Meeting absolute weirdos both good & bad. Realising that based on the same input different people will make absolutely baffling choices.
posted by Damienmce at 9:29 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


And what do your fingers say to you?

Various fings.
posted by maxsparber at 9:29 AM on August 31, 2016 [43 favorites]


Counting down until I see maxsparber'sfingers as a new sock puppet.
posted by blurker at 9:30 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


So I live in Portland (as I keep saying, can't you guys pay attention and know instantly?) . And everyone- and I do mean everyone - has a band, a stand up act, a storytelling thing, a burning man camp , an art car, a performance art piece- you name it, it's an Art Project. Some people have success out of the Portland bubble by selling their art pieces, or actually get onto the national scene like Ron Funches or Red Fang.

I myself moved here with the intention of becoming a filmmaker. Lucky for you guys I like expensive shoes, cause if I was going to live on what I was not making I'd be eating them instead of wearing them. Plus I sucked at it. But I met one of my best friends and made lots of contacts and have the knowledge that I tried to do something interesting and failed, which is much better than not trying at all. I feel like places like this give people a hope that they may rise above the rest- whether that is gaslighting to give people a nice delusion for a while is up to you.

And how far they take it reflects more on their grasp of the real world then any implied promise places like this make.

I still do creative work. It's cheaper then the shrink and a few of my friends like it. I've been to see some truly awful, super uncomfortable amateur performances over the years in support of my friends. I've also seen some genius stuff - who knows what sets off that roman candle of success?
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 9:34 AM on August 31, 2016 [7 favorites]


I've known a ton of people who went through UCB (and Groundling, and Second City) programs. NOBODY thought it was a scam and nobody actually thought they were likely to make to SNL. It was highly productive in writing skills, public speaking comfort, girlfriend-meeting, friend-making and not-moldering-away-on-couching. The money they spent is a TINY fraction of the money people spend to do mountain climbing or belong to a golf club or have a sailboat and yacht club membership or any number of things with a precisely zero chance of ever making you rich(er) or famous.
posted by MattD at 9:36 AM on August 31, 2016 [39 favorites]


I took a lot of improv classes in Toronto, mostly because I enjoyed hanging around with improvisers: they're mostly really interesting people whose brains work in enjoyable ways, and who don't look at you in horror if your brain makes an unusual connection between Thing A and Thing B. The improv itself was sometimes fun too!

At the time I started out, there wasn't a clear connection between improv classes and success on SNL or whatever. Being successful on television seemed about as possible as flying to the moon. And I figured out fairly early on that I didn't have the natural talent or the acting chops needed to progress any further than the hobby level.

The downside of improv as a hobby is that eventually I aged out of the scene. But I now have some interesting memories and a larger Facebook friends list than I otherwise would have had, so it's all good.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 9:45 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


I like the concept of improv as a means to an end, but because of groups like UCB and college improv groups, it has become an end unto itself, which I just don't find that entertaining. I was impressed by a lot of work I saw in YouTube from the Amsterdam comedy group Boom Chicago, and so I went to a show when I was in Amsterdam. But instead of being one of their produced/scripted comic pieces, it was an improv show and... sure it was funny, but it was more about marveling at the skill it took to make up and act out these scenarios on the spot. That's impressive if you are already into improv, but as comedy it's just poorly written comedy.

Improv is a useful creative skill and a tool, but at a certain point, dedicating yourself to UCB and their classes and their performances doesn't make you a better writer, a better comedian, or a better actor-- it will just make you better at improv.
posted by deanc at 9:56 AM on August 31, 2016 [6 favorites]


I know we are supposed to let the buyers beware and all that, but I think this is abusive.
"Caveat emptor" means that, after a sale has been made, the buyer can't recover legal damages over any of their own assumptions of quality unless the seller explicitly made fraudulent claims.

Caveat emptor does not mean that third parties can't tell the buyers which likely-to-be-made assumptions of quality are false! That's helping the buyer beware! It's a very good thing to do!

"Caveat emptor" also isn't the default in modern U.S. law; IANALawyer; IANALatinStudent; Legal Information is not Legal Advice; yes I appreciate the irony here.
posted by roystgnr at 10:06 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


That being said, UCB should pay their actors.

"UCB should pay their actors" is a separate issue from "UCB should reimburse students for non-fame".

I agree absolutely that UCB should pay their actors. But the article seemed to be more about UCB students than actors (unless I really misread the article, which is possible).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:10 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


That's impressive if you are already into improv, but as comedy it's just poorly written comedy.

Yeah I mean I've been to a bunch of improv shows and enjoyed them, but I also listen to Grateful Dead concert tapes on purpose, which should tell you something about my tolerance for sitting through dreck to catch a few gems.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:11 AM on August 31, 2016 [10 favorites]


The article is primarily about the classes, but the question pf paying the perfomers came up ("“I don’t see what they do as labor. I see guys onstage having fun. It’s not a job,” he said. “We pay our performers, just not with money.”), and is one of the most recurring criticisms of UCB.
posted by maxsparber at 10:24 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


More cynically, aren't they private companies which are required to file limited public accounts?
posted by Damienmce at 10:37 AM on August 31, 2016


A great improv show can be a moving, transcendent, hilarious experience. I liken today's improv boom to the 70's mime boom - you get a few Marcel Marceaus who are jaw dropping good, a few more Shields and Yarnells who are rather excellent and a ton of annoying street performers. Most of the latter drop out before they even have a chance to get good (unless you're already touched-by-the-hand-of-God talented, it's going to be about three years of dedicated work before you're even good).

The stuff that I've seen that has been transcendent hasn't been that way because of the structure or games or what have you - it's been that way because the performers were all top notch, experienced improvisers, usually with extensive theatre background beyond their improv work. In addition, they're generally past the "I'm maybe going to be discovered so I have to say funny stuff" point and are performing in the moment for that particular audience.

So basically, a really great improv show is typically performed by experienced improvisers who've given up on their dreams of stardom. But whoa can those shows be amazing.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:40 AM on August 31, 2016 [5 favorites]


dedicating yourself to UCB and their classes and their performances doesn't make you a better writer, a better comedian, or a better actor

It does, though, for many people, and it's structured to do so. Every school makes you get through several levels of improv before you can get on the sketch teams for a reason. It harpoons your shyness and teaches you to think fast and teaches you to speak up. You learn when to quit and how to escalate and how to collaborate. Upper-level classes are often focused on longform improv, the stuff that forks and then flips back in on itself, because that's how stories are structured. It separates the That Guys (every L1 and L2 class has a That Guy, which is why most upper-level classes are invitation- or audition-only) from the players.

Every writers' room - drama, comedy, reality, whatever - is an improv stage with ideas getting thrown around and riffed on, with an assistant taking notes and pinning notecards as the good stuff filters up. Almost every standup "writes" by running their mouth (with friends, to their dog, to a writing partner, to a voice memo, etc) until some stuff bubbles up. Improv is where the sketches come from.

The weird thing to me about going to watch someone else's improv is that it's like going to the gym to watch sports. Doing improv is working out, it's literally doing exercise. I only enjoy watching it because I have been a student just enough to understand the mechanism and to know when I'm seeing something really good happen.

Which is why I think it's weird to charge for those shows in the first place. Most places I've never paid more than $5 though, which is probably fair enough markup for me to sit in a climate-controlled space and use the bathroom, while staff keep the place from burning down or being overtaken by snakes or whatever.

I think even paying performers $5 each for those shows on principle would be a meaningful thing to do. Especially at the schools founded by actors who have union protections to thank for getting paid for their work would not now (and in most cases could not) work for free if asked.

These are not the only ways to get better at writing and comedy, but they are good ways, especially if you're looking for like-minded people to work out with.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:42 AM on August 31, 2016 [13 favorites]


The U.C.B. Four, who own the company but do not take salaries, argue that the revenue helps keep ticket prices low (often less than ten dollars).

I dunno, a company that gives people a place to grow, creates friendships, and is run by 4 people who obviously have other things they could be doing for cash money- why isn't it a non-profit?
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 10:42 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


(I take that back; I've paid $10 at UCB for showcases. LA's expensive.)
posted by Lyn Never at 10:43 AM on August 31, 2016


Yes, and?
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:43 AM on August 31, 2016 [11 favorites]


More cynically, aren't they private companies which are required to file limited public accounts?
not in the US.
posted by JPD at 10:46 AM on August 31, 2016


Relevant
posted by blue_beetle at 11:01 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


Improv is so weird in that, you don't need any cost investment to "do improv". The costumes are invisible, the props are invisible. You need a room, a couple people, and some chairs would be nice.

But to just play games and do scenework, without the structure of an improv theater and community is really hard. You need to be very very self motivated to make it happen, or get pulled into the orbit of someone who is.

To do any of that in front of an actual audience, you'd need to be exponentially more motivated with definite costs.

I love the game playing and people meeting, have lingering expectations and hopes of being discovered but you have to be all-in 100% improv-is-my-life or luckier than most.

I tried some classes last year after a long hiatus. I liked the jams or slams or open stages or whatever the theater was offering, but the classes didn't feel enough like play and didn't feel enough like I was learning/growing/being taught (***at one theater for my particular tastes)

The classes seem worthwhile for a number of people for a number of reasons and the costs. I'm pretty sure at the theater I was at, the troupes running shows had to pay a rental fee for a stage (and tech if they didn't have their own) but kept anything from the door (and nothing from the bar, but maybe they got some discounts/freebies) after the rental was paid. This is the same as when I've independently put on comedy/sketch shows so it seems fair to me. Again, I'm shocked at anyone bringing heads to the theater and not profit sharing. Just totally boggled.
posted by elr at 11:17 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Compass Theater model, which was the basis for Second City (it sort of turned into Second City) and a lot of other theaters, is that improv forms the basis for creating an actual stage show, usually a series of skits, which is directed and professionally produced. At the end of the show, the case does improv, which you could come late and see by itself for a very small fee, or just stay through the show, pay the regular fee, and see the improv for free.

The cast got paid, and the improv generated the next show. So it is certainly possible to pay your cast.
posted by maxsparber at 11:25 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


I have heard good and not so good things from friends who have been involved with UCB. However, the things I've heard from friends involved with various random improv theaters all over the country suggests that most of them do feel like a racket or a pyramid scheme. Things like constantly increasing the number of courses required before you can be a cast member or charging monthly "dues" that cast members have to pay in order to remain part of the cast. For the person like the author, who takes a class or two for fun or to practice public speaking or whatever, they are mostly awesome. But for the desperate millennial who is looking for any route to something that pays actual money, and is willing to pay now for some alleged future payoff, they are mostly a scam.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:43 AM on August 31, 2016


..which is probably fair enough markup for me to sit in a climate-controlled space and use the bathroom, while staff keep the place from burning down or being overtaken by snakes or whatever..
posted by ovvl at 11:48 AM on August 31, 2016


Improv schools work like all trade or professional schools. They promote themselves with the reputations of their alumni, take students' money, teach things in their general direction, and then declare victory and enroll new/continuing students. The students who were going to succeed anyway leave and succeed while the rest compete against each other, with the "winners" getting their own teaching positions at the school if they're lucky.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:03 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


The scam thing depends on where you go. I've seen a number of improv theatre with models that have different levels that don't promise anything other than an education. I've seen some that culminate in an unpaid multi-week run in a theatre (the logic being that they are still working with a coach and getting feedback and learning how to interact with an audience - they are typically paired with a more experienced team, often the house team). I've also seen some groups that do the "keep stage time just out of reach forever" thing and keep adding new classes.

The first two kinds of schools look on the surface like the latter kind of school but are decidedly not scams. They don't make you retake classes (unless you want to) and their only major failure, perhaps, is that they sometimes don't give you anyplace to go once you've taken the classes. If you can't figure out how to put your own team together, find rehearsal space, etc after you're done, you don't have a next step (unless you choose to keep taking classes, but that's understood in these cases to be a choice and not a promise).

To put this in another context, there are a lot of film acting schools out there that are based on the "keep taking classes" model. These exist because the only way to keep honing your skills for film work and auditions is to continue doing it. If you're not doing films regularly, you don't become a better actor by sitting on your butt doing nothing. Similarly, if you want to hone your improv skills, you're not doing it by sitting at the bar complaining.

There are also improv schools in small cities where there are absolutely no illusions about breaking into something larger. I'm in Honolulu and none of us think we're going to be discovered. We're not the only frontier town that has people who like to do art of all sorts.

---

That all said, there's quite a large number of groups in the US (and across the world) that aim at creating great work. These include P-Graph from Austin (a sublimely talented quartet who do a variety of remarkable genre-based one and two act improvised plays), Seattle's Jet City Improv (who run a season of genre shows that people can audition for and also offer the pure anarchy of a show called Funbucket), Phoenix's Galapagos (who do Harold-like long forms but are five very strong performers with tremendous, honest commitment to everything they do), Chicago's TJ and Dave (who are arguably the best duo working in the US today and make it worth it to sit through two usually mediocre opening acts), Bassprov (a two person show about a couple of guys fishing that gives TJ&Dave a run for their "best duo" title), the creepy and hilarious Doubtful Guests, Pimprov (who you must see if you ever have a chance), New York's terrific Improvised Shakespeare Company and shout out to local group On The Spot who've represented Hawaii on the mainland doing improvised silent movies as well as kabuki.

Most of those groups do fully produced shows with sets, costumes, lights and everything else you'd expect in a scripted show. They take what they do very seriously and are focused on the idea that they're doing this for the audience, not for themselves. I don't mind laying money down to see a show that is trying to be a show. I do mind paying money for what is essentially a student showcase.

There's a popular sentiment that improv is like jazz. I'll roll with this. If I'm going to watch jazz, I want to see Charlie Parker, not my cousin Steve who picked up the saxophone last March. Charlie Parker can improvise for an hour and its going to be great because he's a great artist. Very few people will argue "great jazz music would be greater if it was always set and never improvised." People will argue that about improvised theatre. I propose this is because more people have seen their cousin Steve do crappy improv than have seen Jill Bernard improvise her one-woman musical Drum Machine . The only way Cousin Steve is going to become as good as Jill is through several years of doing shitty shows and by going through a few years of intense training.

Anyhow, improv can be art or not, improv schools can be scams or not, improv contains multitudes etc etc etc
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:34 PM on August 31, 2016 [9 favorites]


ALL ABORD THE GIGGLESHIP
posted by Theta States at 12:34 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I first saw Bojack Horseman season 2 I figured they were just making fun of Scientology. Now I realize they were making fun of improv and Scientology simultaneously by merging the two worlds seamlessly.
Now I have to go back and rewatch.
posted by Theta States at 12:42 PM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


But for the desperate millennial who is looking for any route to something that pays actual money, and is willing to pay now for some alleged future payoff, they are mostly a scam.

Whhhaaat? I have never heard of anyone thinking improv is a path to a stable future. Hmmm, dev bootcamp or improv? Weird.
posted by zutalors! at 12:44 PM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


..which is probably fair enough markup for me to sit in a climate-controlled space

From your mouth to UCB Franklin's ears.
posted by Room 641-A at 12:46 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I first saw Bojack Horseman season 2 I figured they were just making fun of Scientology. Now I realize they were making fun of improv and Scientology simultaneously by merging the two worlds seamlessly.

I used to live in an apartment complex that was on the same block as both UCB and the Celebrity Scientology Centre. The similarities aren't just that they're both on Franklin. The insularity, the promises of connections, the expensive quest to conquer the different "levels," the L. Ron Hubbard/Del Close deification... there's definitely a cultish atmosphere to improv and improv philosophy. But hey, at least improv didn't estrange me from my family, and when I left improv the theater didn't send their minions to kidnap me and force me onto a Harold team.
posted by joechip at 12:57 PM on August 31, 2016 [15 favorites]


when I left improv the theater didn't send their minions to kidnap me and force me onto a Harold team.

Well, they would have needed a suggestion from the audience for a weird job that a kidnapper might have.
posted by maxsparber at 1:16 PM on August 31, 2016 [22 favorites]


This was an interesting read.

I do take issue with the supposed financial "scam". The $5 million annual income can easily mostly go to overhead. They rent 4 (or 5?) commercial spaces in NY, Chicago, and LA. Cover that rent, utilities, a handful of salaries, incidentals and petty cash, and that money is gone. I don't find $400 for 8 classes that expensive, either. In the realm of self-improvement classes in NYC, that price is pretty much in the middle. In the realm of professional development classes, it's cheap.

I have a friend who took UCB classes in NY. It was interesting to see an outside but very close view of the experience. The expectations, or hope, of a path to fame was definitely there. I can't really say how much that came from the organization and how much it came from the students, but I suspect both. I attended a few UCB shows with my buddy, it was a fun night out. $5 bought you admission to a funny show, $10 shows were very funny. It was a good laugh, and a cheap night out.

I met some of his improv friends at these shows. They were almost all flabbergasted that I was attending shows without being in classes. The next question was usually if I was thinking about taking classes. (No, I wasn't.) They'd be shocked that I was paying $5 to be there when I didn't need to be there. This interaction happened over and over. That aspect did seem oddly cult-y.
posted by Cranialtorque at 1:20 PM on August 31, 2016 [7 favorites]


The wonderful thing about UCB's “Improvisation as Commodity” is that they tell you there's only one way to improvise.
posted by scruss at 1:54 PM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's not any different than dance schools.

There is no big time in dance, at least not in terms of money and any dance school is pretty straight that it'll be rare to even get a corp role. Not that there are not crazy dreams of becoming a ballerina, and it gets a bit cultish like any field where obsessive dedication is required to even play, but there's no "expectation" of big time after n years of classes.
posted by sammyo at 2:43 PM on August 31, 2016


I learned things through improv that other people learned from their mothers.
posted by amtho at 3:20 PM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


The wonderful thing about UCB's “Improvisation as Commodity” is that they tell you there's only one way to improvise.

Yeah, I was part of a pretty free-form amateur improv group in college. We weren't earth-shatteringly great or anything, but people around the college liked what we were doing and we were having a lot of fun doing it.

One summer, one member took the first level of courses at UCB and came back insisting that we were doing improv wrong. Repeatedly, to the point that it became entirely fucking insufferable. He wound up leaving the group anyway for unrelated reasons, but it was not a fun few months in the interim.
posted by Itaxpica at 3:31 PM on August 31, 2016 [6 favorites]


Come on, if it were a scam wouldn't there be a Trump Improvisational Theater? (Because he is the BEST at ad lib)
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:43 PM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


As a comparison, the Beck Center is a regional theater nonprofit located just outside Cleveland with an annual budget of $2.5 million. It pays Actor's Equity scale on twelve shows annually in three theaters. So, no, you're not going to have anyone making huge money at $5 million while paying some of the most expensive real estate on earth.
posted by wnissen at 4:44 PM on August 31, 2016


What the fuck does "gaslighting" even mean anymore? For a while there it was a really useful label for a particular kind of common but difficult-to-describe abusive behavior, but now it just seems to mean any kind of mendacity or disingenuousness at all. I'm kinda bummed about this.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:00 PM on August 31, 2016 [19 favorites]


This was really interesting to me. I am completely blown away that anyone would see evening improv classes as a path to stardom or really any kind of career. It seems to me like the benefit would be learning some skills and maybe meeting other people to work with (like the Broad City women did). But becoming famous through years of taking basically continuing education classes and performing in the equivalent of community theater? Do people really think that's going to happen?

If improv schools are marketing that, it's really disingenuous. But I also think it's part of a larger issue in this move towards credentialism. This idea young people get peddled that the route to success is just getting x degree or taking y course. This is really problematic in fields where you can only learn by doing, and/or where the real predictor of success is hustle or luck.
posted by lunasol at 5:49 PM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


First I gotta refer you to my comments about my improv school over here. Similar structure, but things are a lot cheaper and easier, some people do get paid. Also, if you live in this area (or anywhere other than The Two Big Cities) you know darned well you're not gonna be a star. I have heard of a few folks going to LA (two specifically saying they were going to start at UCB LA), but so far nobody's "made it" that anyone's ever heard of. So nobody's going into this here with any idea they are likely to get big. However, I can't say I blame anyone attending UCB for thinking that because if anyone COULD, it'd be people from there because some people HAVE. No guarantees, duh, but if people there have a 1% chance, that's still more than my 0% chance, eh?

"they sometimes don't give you anyplace to go once you've taken the classes. If you can't figure out how to put your own team together, find rehearsal space, etc after you're done, you don't have a next step (unless you choose to keep taking classes, but that's understood in these cases to be a choice and not a promise)."


"But to just play games and do scenework, without the structure of an improv theater and community is really hard.."

Pretty much. There are people at mine who form their own teams, but I don't have any particular pack of buddies there, probably because I live out of town and have to work at 8 a.m. the next morning and thus don't hang out much after show's over, etc., so I won't be doing that. If I want to keep continuing and practicing I can go to the weekly jam for free, but otherwise the options are retake class (though now he's offering discounts if you want to do that) or audition for a team. I'm doing this out of town because the only improv group in my town is the college team that I'm not eligible to join, and I'm amazed that's been going on as long as it has because when I was in college people would not show up to class because "omg midtermz." I have to go where there's enough people to actually do improv, not hope that a bare minimum can show up for class this week.

(Incidentally, I'm so thrilled to hear improv goes on in Honolulu!)

"When I first saw Bojack Horseman season 2 I figured they were just making fun of Scientology. Now I realize they were making fun of improv and Scientology simultaneously by merging the two worlds seamlessly."

That's exactly what they teach you to do at comedy school. I read that line and that's exactly what I thought of doing.

T"his idea young people get peddled that the route to success is just getting x degree or taking y course. "

Of course young people think that, they get told that all their lives. They spend their entire youth in a school system where they're told the route to success is getting a high school diploma followed by getting at least one college degree. Many a kid has gone on to multiple degrees whether they needed or could afford them because what the hell else do they do? It makes you feel better to know there's a (supposed) route to success, that if you get those degrees, take Improv 101-501 or whatever, you're getting somewhere, feel like you're getting somewhere, and are going to get somewhere. And in a lot of fields, jumping through the hoops and requirements in order DOES pay off. Just not in the arts, where everything is weird and fuzzy and you will probably never make it no matter what you do.

Anyway.... on the one hand, it sounds like UCB is rolling in it. On the other hand, I don't know jack about paying rent in those cities for those locations and for all I know the school may be breaking even at best on that kind of money. The fact that the owners aren't taking salaries makes me wonder a bit on that (though I'm sure Amy Poehler is doing okay by now at least in other ventures). If they have the shit tons of performers it sounds like they've got, maybe they can't swing so much as $5 even for the weekend teams? Most improv teams have a lot of people, even if you're not paying for sets and costumes.

I don't know. All I really know is if you wanna do art, you probably can't or aren't likely to get paid to do it. If you're paying a lot to go to comedy school, don't take out a loan thinking it'll pay off. Don't spend yourself broke on it hoping this is an investment. Do it because you love it even if it means you stay at your shitty day job until you die, not in hopes that you can get out of the shitty day job.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:05 PM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


From the article: "That is exactly the line that the Upright Citizens Brigade is peddling: If you follow our rules, you will get laughs without having to tell a single joke. Your personal life will improve, and you will get ahead in business. Just sign here, and here, and hand over your credit card. Like starting a band in the sixties, or joining a cult in the seventies, or enrolling in business school in the eighties, or going to group therapy in the nineties, taking improv classes has become the default activity for today’s postgraduate seekers."

Is there such a thing as a manic pixie dream hobby?
posted by eponym at 7:32 PM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


"When I first saw Bojack Horseman season 2 I figured they were just making fun of Scientology. Now I realize they were making fun of improv and Scientology simultaneously by merging the two worlds seamlessly."


Yeah, I got that too. And S2E10 is titled "Yes, And..."

kites are skytrash.
posted by lkc at 7:47 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


We're on a website where you pay for the privilege of generating the content that allows the site to generate revenue, after all.

What was it, $5? When was it that I did this? 15 years ago? I'm fine with all this. I feel I should give MeFi MORE money.
posted by alex_skazat at 8:36 PM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


What was it, $5? When was it that I did this? 15 years ago? I'm fine with all this. I feel I should give MeFi MORE money.

Yes, that's certainly possible.
posted by lkc at 8:39 PM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


plus you get a little star in your profile!
posted by lkc at 8:40 PM on August 31, 2016


Reading the article I was actually reminded of the structure of Landmark Forum (and possibly EST). The attendees pay fees for their courses but all the course leaders / teachers are just volunteers, and have actually also paid to do the courses that qualify them to be course leaders. and those courses were presumably lead by unpaid "teachers" also. Sure they have huge overheads for venue hire and admin. But does ALL the money really go on that stuff? In the case of Landmark forum I think the answer was no. There are some extremely rich folk at the top of the pyramid.

You would think that UCB could quite easily dispel the myths around profits by just publishing annual accounts of revenues, various venue costs and salaries.
posted by mary8nne at 3:41 AM on September 1, 2016


Another thing that struck me - the article says that none of the owners draw a salary, but what happens to the profits? It seems odd that it's registered as a company, not a non-profit.
posted by lunasol at 7:27 AM on September 1, 2016


Improv in itself is more about the people onstage...

I've been trying to hold in this shitpost for the whole thread, but with this setup I just can't any more.

"The only losers in improv are the audience!"

Ok, thank you for your time, carry on.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:40 AM on September 1, 2016


I've done improv off and on for about 5 years. Lived in New York for some of my improv class-taking and I stayed far away from UCB, because I do it for fun and as a way to meet people, and I didn't want to be surrounded by people who wanted to be on SNL. I also got a real assembly-line vibe from the place.

The thing about improv is that no one is making much money off it. It's the kind of art form that's usually kept afloat by rich people, only there's no cache to it so no one is doing improv at Carnegie Hall or Alice Tully Hall (which, incidentally, would be terrible.)
posted by Automocar at 7:45 AM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


"The only losers in improv are the audience!"

I've got to stress again, this is because most improv shows are student shows and are the equivalent of your nephew's piano recital. There are great shows by great performers out there.

And there's also terrible films and terrible plays and those cost a lot more money to produce and still ended up sucking.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:20 AM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


« Older Mephitis mephitis, the mefites' mustelid   |   The definition of "parent" has been expanded in... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments