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More by the authorBiographyE-mail the AuthorGersh Kuntzman-American Beat
The Day the Laughter Died
New York City comics are threatening to go on strike—and it’s not funny
WEB EXCLUSIVE
By Gersh Kuntzman
Newsweek
Updated: 3:38 p.m. ET Jan. 3, 2005

Jan. 3 - Did you hear the one about the comedian who stopped telling jokes?

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Sorry, but there’s no punch line. In fact, it’s not a joke at all. The word on the street here in New York is that more than 300 of our best (and when I say best, I also mean our worst) comics are going to start walking the picket lines unless local comedy clubs start paying them a living wage.

That reminds me of a joke: Did you hear the one about what constitutes a "living wage" for a comedian? Where do you think the term "two-drink minimum" comes from?

Anyway, these comics have a point. According to the comedians’ union—OK, it’s not really a union, but a bunch of guys with a Web site and the name New York Comedians Coalition—a comedian earns just $65 for a 20-minute weekend set at a top comedy club. And the weekday rate of $15 to $25 is, there’s no other way of putting it, a joke. But a comedians’ strike? In these dire, post-9/11 days, isn’t that akin to letting the terrorists win (I’m joking, of course ... or am I?)

"A comic working 12 to 14 shows a week grosses barely over $20,000 a year," says Ted Alexandro, a co-founder of the Coalition. Alexandro claims he and his fellow funnymen haven’t gotten a raise since 1985 (the era of such witticisms as "Did you hear the one about Reagan’s polyp? Yeah, they removed and it turned out to be benign—which is more than I can say about David Stockman’s budget! Thank you!").

Conveniently enough, that was around the time when I was a habitué at New York’s best comedy clubs. Since then, drink prices and cover charges have certainly gone up, so it makes sense that comedians should expect similar hikes in their fees. As comedian Dave Attell likes to point out, it’s increasingly expensive to be a stand-up comic in New York (where a Saturday night means racing from set to set in taxis). "The cost of living for comics has gone up," says Attell, star of Comedy Central’s Insomniac, citing increases in a comedian’s lifeblood: "cabs, beer and porno."

AMERICAN BEAT  
Kuntzman: Headlines You May See in 2005
Never one to look back, our intrepid columnist predicts which stories will dominate the media in the year to come
Kuntzman: Visitors Find New York a Bargain
The devalued dollar has made the U.S.—and New York, in particular—a shopping haven for tourists this holiday season. Is that good news for the locals?
Clearly, it was time for a journalist with my appreciation of comedy, cabs, beer and porn to get to the bottom of the issue. And fortunately, my brain is like a time-capsule of New York City comedy. Last time I was in a club was back in the pre-Seinfeld Era, when everyone and his brother would grab a mic, stand in front of a fake-brick wall, and make jokes that began, "D’ya ever notice how..." When I was in the clubs, comedians had to really work for their material, you know, by doing imitations of Scotty from "Star Trek" ("Aye cain’t do it, keptin!") or making fun of how the teachers talked in the old Charlie Brown cartoons. Alas, not a golden age.

I headed for my old haunt, The Comedy Cellar, which was always my favorite club because it was almost always empty and if the comic picked on you, you could pick on him right back. But when I got there last week, all three shows were sold out. Three full houses—on a Thursday, no less!—would seem to back up the union claim.

CONTINUED>>
Page 2: Closed out of my old favorite

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

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