Could Stand-up Comedians Call the Next Big Strike?
Are the entertainment gods determined to snatch every last bit of professional amusement from our fun-starved fists? With the writers and actors both on strike (and with no end to the work stoppages in sight), there hasn’t been this kind of interruption to content creation since, well, since COVID-19, but it’s a big nasty interruption nonetheless. About the only thing that hasn’t been disrupted is the steady stream of stand-up comics appearing on stages across America. But some funny folks believe they should be out on the picket lines as well.
Many comics are already there. Comedians, including those who are and are not members of the Screen Actors Guild, have been grabbing protest signs in solidarity with their actor brothers and sisters. “It’s all one. We’re all under the same umbrella so we have to support each other,” picketing comic Sarah Fatemi told the Los Angeles Times.
It makes sense. A stand-up comic like Wanda Sykes is also a working actor (The Upshaws, Curb Your Enthusiasm) and writer (History of the World Part II). Of course she would be picketing — but comedians can still get on stage and tell jokes, right?
Maybe they shouldn’t, stand-up comic Mona Shaikh told the Times. “It is high time comedians see their own union,” she said.
Why would comics need their own labor union? For one, comedy clubs rarely compensate them fairly, says comic Samson Crouppen, despite performances that drive large crowds and all of the food and drink sales that go along with ticket receipts. Shaikh also names harassment and mental health issues that come with the job as reasons for comics to “start that conversation.”
It’s not the first time comics have considered starting a union of their own. Back in the late 1970s, comics in Los Angeles banded together to form Comedians for Compensation, not a labor union exactly but close enough since the group picketed the Comedy Store to gain wages. Not fair wages but any wages since the Store’s Mitzi Shore believed the exposure provided by the club was all the compensation the comics deserved. Up-and-coming popular comedians like David Letterman and Jay Leno walked the line. It was an ugly impasse that damaged careers and lives, but the comics ultimately won the right to baseline pay.
Could a similar union work today? The most obvious challenge: Who can the comics strike against? Unlike Hollywood writers and actors, who are negotiating with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a comedians union would have to bargain with hundreds of individually owned comedy clubs across the country. Striking a deal with one entity is tough; coming to individual agreements with multiple venues seems unimaginable. But maybe not impossible?
Just like in the 1970s, if the big-name comics vowed to avoid certain clubs unless they agreed to a common set of fair working conditions, maybe America’s Chuckle Shacks and Ha-Ha Huts would fall in line. If anyone has the nerve to speak up, says Crouppon, it’s comedians who are “the voices that are in the forefront when things need to be said.”