You don’t spend a decade in the comedy community without picking up a few war stories and battle wounds. Comedians call non-comedians “civilians” sarcastically, but there is a similar theme: people outside this world don’t understand and will never understand what it’s like to be in this world.
I don’t make the comparison of comedians to soldiers lightly. In fact, it highlights the point I’m trying to drive home: comedian infighting and machinations are such low stakes, so meaningless in the grand scheme of things. It’s taught me something fairly depressing but useful: all the squabbling we traditionally associate with power players in society – abusive machinations of power, ruthlessly crushing those who threaten your authority, picking fights over petty issues, and using it to advance your agenda – have nothing to do with the source of the power or the substance. The power itself is the drug in its own right.
I constantly think of Guy Branum‘s breathtaking analysis of the power brokers of comedy:
At the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, there’s a table where the comics sit. It’s where they joke, debate, goof off, and ridicule their friends. As depicted on the FX series Louie, it’s the most fun place to be with the smartest, coolest comics in America. Every club has one, but the Comedy Cellar is the best club, and the table Louis C.K. sat at was the best table, occupied by the likes of Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Marc Maron. That table is the most important force in comedy. There are rarely women or gay men at that table. There are never trans people….
We don’t need a female comic with provisional status at the table. We don’t need the table to find the trans comic who’s least offensive to them and kind of learn his name. It will still perpetuate a system that privileges and protects the perspective of straight cis men. The table is the problem. Burn the table down.
This may be the best analysis of the power structure in comedy. The infrastructure of comedy is built around being part of a closed system that’s difficult to gain entry. It doesn’t hold the alt-right and white supremacy accountable and spends excessive energy punishing or abusing those who question their inability to hold it accountable. It has nothing to do with being funny or joke writing. It has to do with power.
The problem with all of this is that you can’t burn the table down. If it’s not the Comedy Cellar table, it will be a green room, email thread, or hell, Discord server. Whatever future form comedy takes, there will still be an abuse of power.
It’s important to remember what this power struggle is about throughout it all: the ability to be successful in delivering dirty jokes and generic observations about Tinder and sandwiches.
I know this because I’ve seen it at all levels of comedy, not just the most successful level. In a decade of comedy, my life has been primarily in unpaid comedy shows at semi-prominent comedy theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Many people who ended up having enormously successful careers got their start at UCB, the PIT or iO West (RIP to all those theaters, btw). None ever achieved financial success at those theaters themselves.
I’ve been in several feuds in the comedy world. There are too many to get into now, with too many moving parts. Here’s a fun one from last year. When UCB NY closed its doors at the beginning of the pandemic, a Facebook group called the “UCB Bad Memory Box” started. Members of the New York UCB community came in to reflect upon the dirt they acquired during their years associated with the theater. To quote my friend, a seasoned veteran of the free comedy theater circuit and with his own share of dirt on several of those theaters, “nothing I’ve ever been involved in has been anywhere near the level of what I saw in that UCBNY group.”
I was in that group for all of three hours. I got kicked out of the group by a moderator, who messaged me accusing me of leaking posts outside the group to my sketch team. Never mind that that categorically wasn’t true. Never mind that this person had a reputation as a leaker themselves. This person was an admin of that Facebook group. And this person wanted to control the power of the people in it.
Not only did this person call out people for potentially leaking in their private Facebook group, they later retaliated against a member of the group in a separate thread, months later, with wildly inappropriate and manfuctured accusations of saying offensive things. This accusation and the incident they used to justify it had absolutely no basis in reality whatsoever, and it was more or less quickly dismissed by the comedy community at large.
I’m being intentionally vague here. If this seems petty and pathetic, you’re right. The important thing to remember here is that none of this Facebook group drama story has anything to do with comedy. It doesn’t even have anything to do with success in the comedy industry. It has to do with maintaining the power to be a moderator of a Facebook group full of comedians.
When this person saw their authority as moderator of the Facebook group being challenged (to be clear, it wasn’t), they tried to dish out real-world consequences in the comedy community. All over a Facebook group sharing memories about a community of unpaid comedians at a comedy club in the basement of a comedy club under a supermarket in Chelsea. The stakes could not have been lower, yet the abuse of power maintained the same structure.
This incident, and countless others like it, have taught me that power in comedy is not defined by a seat at the table at a comedy club. It’s not about being able to control who posts what in a Facebook group. It’s not about a writing job or being passed at a comedy club, or getting in the good graces of a producer. It’s not even about capitalism’s power over comedy because really, no one who’s ever wanted success in a capitalist system would, in their right mind, go into comedy.
It’s about power, pure and simple. While there’s a lot of good that can be done with power, there’s arguably no morality to the pursuit of power in and of itself. It’s why although marginalized voices desperately need power, the people who tend to seek it, even in traditionally marginalized groups, tend to care very little about morality and more about maintaining the power they’ve already acquired. Power is the punchline, not the setup. This is a human thing that’s impossible to fix. At the very least, it’s possible to anticipate.