We're not joking

Comedians threaten strike action

New York’s comedy clubs are bracing themselves for strike action – by the stand-ups themselves.

Comics furious at receiving only a paltry pay rise in the 20 years since the city’s stand-up boom have formed a loose trade union to demand more money.

More than 300 comics, including some TV names, have formed the  New York Comedians Coalition to make their claim, and have issued an ultimatum to clubs that “it’s time to change”.

The group says that in 1985, a comic made $50 (£26 at today’s exchange rate) for a 20-minute weekend set. Yet after 20 years of inflation, the fee now stands at just $60 (£31)

Comic Colin Quinn said: “Comedians in New York have always been underpaid behind the premise that New York is about the exposure and that you could ‘work out’ undeveloped material.

“However, club criteria have become very commercialised, and if the club owners choose to run comedy clubs as strictly commercial businesses then they should pay accordingly.”

Veteran comic William Stephenson added: “We need to discuss genuine cost of living concerns. My bills have gone up over the years, just like theirs.”

The coalition, founded by Russ Meneve and Ted Alexandro, is demanding fees be doubled to make up for the years of low pay. They are also seeking a small increase in weekday pay, which is $20 a set, as well as holiday pay for regular comperes.

The group says it wants an amicable resolution, but that comics are prepared to strike if necessary.

Meneve said: “The comedians formed a coalition so that our concerns would be addressed collectively. 300 comics cannot be ignored.”

Clubs say they are being squeezed by rising costs and limited audiences. A couple have agreed to up their weekend rate to $75, though that’s still a long way short of the collective’s demand.

The New York circuit is fiercely competitive, with hopefuls on the lowest rungs of the ladder often having to agree to bring a certain number of people to a show for even the chance of an unpaid slot, in the notorious ‘pay-to-play’ arrangement.

Rewards for those very few who make it can be huge, but, unlike the UK, it is almost impossible for a decent comic to make a living from performing.

Comedy Central star Dave Attell said: “The cost of living for comics has gone up: the price of cabs, beer and porno. Why not club pay?”

Published: 22 Dec 2004

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