Do Standup Comedians Need to Join a Union? Here’s What You Should Know

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Photo Source: Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

Any group would benefit from organizing or joining a union. However, as a collective, comics and comedians are what Kurt Vonnegut Jr. called a “granfalloon,” a group of people who outwardly choose to have a shared identity, but whose mutual association is meaningless. So how does one organize a granfalloon of adamantly individualistic, disgruntled, misfits into a focused political force and then have them pay for it? This is just one of the reasons I feel standup comedians don’t need to join a union.

Let’s further examine the services provided by unions and why I feel joining would not benefit comedians.

1. Negotiation of working condition terms.
A union seeks to negotiate better working conditions. Perhaps to ensure backstage areas, green rooms, and microphones are actually clean and the environment is smoke-free with adequate lighting and security measures. However, working conditions for comedians are without a standard. Raunchy bars, church basements, backyards, restaurants, living rooms, trailer parks, community centers, and a parked U-Haul truck can be venues of choice. Shows in odd “working conditions” can actually increase their skill. 

2. Collection of dues and fund disbursement.
Union membership has a monthly or yearly fee for various services (i.e. pay scales, salary payments, dues). However, standup comedy jobs don’t fit into such constructs. Bookings are not 9–5. In the first 5–10 years, comedy venues are open mics and not paying developing talent. Instead, comedians struggle to hold a day job. This is paying “dues” in a much different way. Financially, paying union dues could change a comic’s priorities, making her feel entitled to stage time and possibly obligating venues to give them time without the comic truly being qualified enough to take the stage. The quality of the show, the comic’s reputation, and the venue’s popularity would suffer. Sales could decrease, bookings cease, and audiences might leave early or stop coming entirely. 

3. Taking action to enforce the terms of collective bargaining.
A union assigns representatives to clarify the payment terms of contracts. However, unknown comedians and unknown venues don’t use contracts. Unknown talent negotiates their own compensation, usually stage time, for promoting the venue and bringing friends and family, aka the audience, who pays the cover charge, honors the two-drink minimum, and hopefully, stays to the end of the show.  

4. Arbitration to get a comic booked.
If a comedian is a talented member in good standing with the union, they should be able to work in any comedy club anywhere. However, comedians cannot work in just any old comedy club anywhere. Comedians mostly write regional material. Local L.A. jokes are not always funny on the East Coast or the UK. Political jokes are exceptionally tough when performing state to state, as in blue versus red. Comics also write personal material, vulgar “blue” humor, not at all welcomed in corporate settings, on cruise ships, or college venues. If a union placed “forced hiring regulations” on venues, the union possibly sets the comedian up to fail. As it stands, comics find their own lesser-known venues in which to express their material. If unions intervened, ultimately, there would be no place at all for the art of standup comedy to develop. 

READ: How to Become a Standup Comedian

5. Workplace safety intervention to settle grievances.
Unions require “out-of-court” arbitrations negotiated over months to create an equitable, if not satisfactory, outcome for all concerned. However, in the comedian world, grievances between comics are handled swiftly in the venue parking lot to a greater effect. Grievances with the audience are handled by the booker of the venue. What might be labeled a grievance? Anything a comic could blame on the venue. Perhaps difficult parking, polarized audiences, MCs that kill energy, mic, lighting, and technical problems, a broken mic stand, mispronounced introductions, or hecklers. Comedy venues have ongoing challenges in maintaining performing standards and enforcing control. In light of this, if a comedian was known to report grievances, it may be discovered that the same comedian is limited in skill and possibly too inflexible to work the show. He may not be welcomed in any venue.

6. The standard of favoritism. 
Many jobs within a union are based on seniority, promotions, and layoffs, and tend to follow an objective system. However, this approach would only divide us. The us (comics) versus them (venues) or unionized comics versus nonunionized comics mentality could result in the ultimate division between comedians, creating a less-trusting environment.

7. Economic impact.
Unions impact the economy and shape business platforms, steering a country toward economic stability. However, a union for comedians would not affect the economy. Instead, it would change the standup comedy experience. Comedians would strive to please the union, not audiences. If comics had a collective voice, they would walk a tightrope, afraid to be honest and original or risk paying a fine or risk cutbacks on union services because of violating union standards. There is a saying, “You haven’t lived until you died onstage.” I don’t believe a union would support “dying onstage.” It is the risk of fault and failure that makes a comedian brave. 

We have the honor of failing without the protection of a union net. Without a union, without protection, without a net, we are better off and free to be exposed onstage, feed off laughter for validation, and dig deep to find the true voice that will change the world while couch-surfing our way to fame. 

However, if you’re still interested in joining a union, you should know there are currently no special comedy unions exclusive to standup comedians. To acquire any union coverage, standup comedians would need to join Actors Equity to earn an equity card or participate in a SAG-AFTRA TV-film union project as an extra, a principal actor, or as themselves, a “standup comedian.” Even standup comedy TV specials are not covered, as they are nonunion TV standup comedy projects. 

For updated membership rates and more information, contact SAG-AFTRA or Actors’ Equity.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Gayla Johnson
Gayla Johnson is an actress and stand-up comedian. he’s appeared on such television shows as ABC's “Scandal,” “Supergirl,” “Bones,” “Grey's Anatomy,” “Legions,” “The Fosters,” “Young & The Restless,” Comedy Central's “Workaholics,” and more.
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