Stand-up comedy is no laughing matter for the American Federation of Television & Radio Arists (AFTRA), which is attempting to unionize cable TV networks that feature the work of stand-up comics.
Cable stations such as Comedy Central and Black Entertainment Television "are among the targets we are considering for organizing," said Paul Worthman, AFTRA's director of organizing and outreach. "It's a massive project. It's a national project. There are thousands of people out there who identify themselves as stand-up comics."
"In many cases, comics are not fairly compensated for their work on cable TV," said Betsy Salkind, chair of the SAG/AFTRA national comedians caucus. "We're reaching out now to the community of comedians to find out what their concerns are.
"The situation in cable, " Salkind said, "is that work that is not covered under a union contract can show up anywhere in the universe, and often does, and the comic has no claim to it at all."
The goal of the organizing project, Wortham said, "is to develop a broad base of comedians who will collectively cooperate and collaborate as we target cable networks for recognition. We want to build and broaden a base, both among our current members and potential members, who we want to draw into activism. As we expand and build that base, we will move forward in trying to build additional signatories in cable."
Worthman describes this as a "bottom-up" organizing campaign, meaning that it depends largely on the "support and collective activity of our members." In a "top-down" campaign, the union simply attempts to strike a deal with a producer, network, or employer.
Easier Said Than Done
Organizing comedians to stand up against the cable networks may be easier said than done, however.
An AFTRA report on the organizing effort said the campaign "has taken longer to implement than desired."
"I think it's impossible," said one veteran stand-up comic. "Everybody's out for themselves. Comics don't do these shows for the money. They do them to be seen and to try to get a sitcom."
Bernie Brillstein, a manager of many stand-up comics, agreed. "Nobody uses cable or the clubs to make a living," Brillstein said. "They use it for exposure. They use it to be seen. The most important thing is to tape the six minutes off the cable and show it to somebody. It's the only way you can get exposure. It's very hard to get exposure on network television because most of their material is not suitable for network television.
"I'm not saying they should work for what they're working for," Brillstein said. "They should get everything they can get. But they do use cable television to help their careers. It's very difficult, being that there are no night clubs like there used to be. It's very difficult for them to be seen. If they can get a tape, they can take it around and show it, and get work on network TV and in movies. But where else can these guys be seen? You can't go out on the road anymore, because there's no road anymore."
Besides, Brillstein said, "I don't think (comics) are union guys at heart. I think they are rebels at heart. I've never known an organization of comedians to agree on anything."
AFTRA's Worthman disagreed.
Rebels With A Cause
"Union activists," he said, "are, in fact, nothing more than rebels with a cause. Rebels and unions are not mutually exclusive. Performers, athletes and other individualists understand the importance of cooperation, and the need for unions to protect their working conditions and to get fair pay." Comics, he said, are no different.
"Our position," Worthman said, "is that if people's material is used, they should be fairly compensated for the use of their material, regardless of whether it is subsequently used by the individual performer as a promo."
Jamie Masada, founder and president of The Laugh Factory, said that "comics are more underpaid and overlooked than anybody in the entertainment industry. They bring so much joy to people, and they don't get much back from it. They are the most giving people in the world. Something needs to be done to help them. I tried to organize them a few years ago, but I couldn't because none of the club owners would go along with it." Masada is also founder of a nonprofit organization called the Laugh Factory Academy of Comedy, which helps needy comedians.
Suzy Soro, a comic who was once the co-chair of the SAG/AFTRA comedians caucus, blames the unions for the sad state of stand-up comics.
"AFTRA and SAG both screwed up in the early days of cable," Soro said. "They didn't know that cable would be the behemoth that it came to be. So they negotiated separate deals with each cable network. And now it's too late because the cable networks have the power, not AFTRA. I think AFTRA really has tried, but the deals that were cut then are unsatisfactory by today's standards. They are not commensurate to the cable companies' viewership, power and wealth."
The old deals AFTRA worked out allow cable networks to rerun shows featuring the work of stand-up comics and never to pay residuals, or make any contributions to AFTRA's Health and Retirement Fund.
"My shows have been repeated ad nauseum for three and four years," Soro said, "and I never have seen a dime in residuals."
Indeed, the early stand-up acts of many of today's top sitcom stars--including Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Roseanne, Paul Riser and Brett Butler--can still be seen on various cable channels, which pay the comics nothing for the reuse of their work.
AFTRA, meanwhile, is moving ahead with its organizing plan. A recent AFTRA report said the union has established a volunteer comedians committee "to do outreach to every identifiable comedian throughout the country The committee began by first setting out to recruit additional participants in a personal- and telephone-outreach campaign. Meanwhile, lists of thousands of comedians were obtained, and national and Los Angeles AFTRA staff began the arduous task of putting them into a database to initiate a telephone survey. As the results of the responses to the initial phone calls get tabulated and follow-up of comedians working on cable occurs, a base of support behind demands for recognition will be built."
David Robb writes for The Hollywoo