NEW YORK -- Here's a good one: Four hundred stand-up comics form a union and demand a raise. Local club owners say, "That's funny!" so the union threatens picket lines and protests, complete with a giant inflatable rat. But right before Giant Inflatable Rat Day, a deal is struck with the clubs and the comics wind up with better pay.
Shaggy dog story? Nope. It really happened. On Thursday, the fledgling Comedians Coalition declared victory after months of meetings, one-liners and negotiations, striking a deal with the Improv, Dangerfield's, the Comedy Cellar and other clubs. Members approved the new terms after gathering in a conference room at the offices of the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, which had helped the group organize.
"A dramatic increase like this is amazing," says Buddy Bolton, a coalition board member. "In some cases we're talking about a 250 percent hike in pay."
That doesn't mean anyone here is about to get rich. It turns out that in the nation's capital of stand-up, the money is -- how else to put this? -- kind of a joke. As a result of the coalition's agitations, some clubs went from offering about $65 for a weekend slot to $75. (Some will go to $85 next month.) But that's the high end, for coveted Friday- and Saturday-night gigs. On weeknights, some clubs have been paying as little as $5 a set. More typical was $20.
"I have financial cancer," moaned comic Rich Aronovitch, 29, as he left the meeting. "I owe ConEd $790, I owe $1,200 in rent."
Aronovitch wasn't exactly radiating triumph. "We're all happy and dancing around, but really, we've gone from not being able to make a living to not being able to make a living. This is a good step in the right direction, but not a major victory."
The problem is simple supply and demand. New York is crawling with stand-up talent. There are so many comedians that those who want to earn real dough hit the road. A show at a lounge in Chicago, for instance, can fetch $300, and colleges often pay several times that. But auditions for television shows and movies happen here. The road is a good place to earn cash, but a terrible place to land your big break.
The goal of the Comedians Coalition -- and technically, it is a coalition, not a union -- is to make life a little more comfortable for comics who want to work where they live. It's an idea that has been tried a few times in the past but without lasting success. Six months ago, comedians Ted Alexandro and Russ Meneve gave it another shot, this time with the organizational aid of a Web site.
"We had to make a statement as loud and as powerful as porno," says comedian Ben Morrison, the guy who designed www.nycomedianscoalition.com. "Porn, after all, is what is driving the Internet."
Some venues were dismissive at first. "We heard a lot of resounding 'nos,' " says Bolton. Then the coalition pulled together more than 400 members -- a majority of the city's humor professionals, organizers say -- plus it had the support of stars such as Dave Attell and Colin Quinn, who pledged their availability to the media if things got ugly.
"But we really didn't want things to get ugly," Bolton says. "That would have been bad for comedy."
For the club owners, the prospect of a strike was a little scary. There are lots of comics in the outer boroughs and in other states, but how many would want to cross a picket line?
"I would never have let it come to that," says Chris Mazzilli, owner of Gotham Comedy Club. "Perception is reality, and if there's a perception out there that I'm [mistreating] my comics, that's bad for business."
Mazzilli thought a raise was reasonable, though he didn't come close to the $120-a-show figure that the coalition initially requested. (His is among the clubs that will offer $85 by next month.) From his perspective, the real culprit is the entertainment market, which undervalues comedy. Cover charges hover around $10 to $16 a show, a steal compared with tickets to off-Broadway plays, or a night of jazz.
As they persuaded club owners, coalition organizers also had to herd members of a profession made up almost entirely of class clowns. That got easier as it went along, though at the beginning of Thursday's meeting, as dozens of comics filed into the AFTRA room on the seventh floor, you got a sense of how hard it might be. Everyone seemed to be heckling everyone else.
"Hey, Mark, I put the air back in your tires," one guy said, by way of greeting.
"Smells like hack in this area," quipped another as he took his seat.
"Deliveries in the back!"
"Were you checking out my [rear end]?" asked another man as he skooched past a seated woman.
After the meeting co-founder Alexandro said he's accustomed now to speaking before a room of people who know how to crack wise. So, have to ask: Heard any good jokes about a union of comedians?
"No," he said. "And several writers have tried."