Black comedians are calling on Second City and UCB, two of the biggest institutions in comedy, to make major institutional changes to include and value Black voices in their spaces. During a time of civil unrest arising from repeated police brutality against Black people, taking issue with the whiteness of improv and sketch comedy might seem akin to commenting on the wallpaper of a half-submerged Titanic. But change in these spaces could disrupt extremely white pipelines to mainstream entertainment.
Millions of people feel the influence of institutions like Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City, and hopeful comedians look to them as a route to national recognition, on shows such as Saturday Night Live, The Office, 30 Rock, The Good Place, or The Daily Show.
So when the reckoning to deal with race finally reached UCB and Second City, it was especially overdue.
"You wish it didn't take a global pandemic with massive levels of unemployment and the very public, continued death of Black people at the hands of police and other extralegal forces," said Ali Barthwell, a Second City alum and current director of one of its touring companies.
UCB and Second City differ in foundational ways. Second City pays its performers, while UCB relies on mostly unpaid work. Both sell classes for aspiring comedians, with courses ranging from improv to TV sketch writing.
Both companies have been recently called out by Black comedians who've passed through their programs. After former performers at Second City called out the company's Black Lives Matter endorsement as hypocritical, the CEO Andrew Alexander, resigned, saying in a letter posted on the Second City website that he “failed to create an anti-racist environment."
Following Alexander's resignation, in an open letter to Second City, alums demanded an investigation of Second City staff for allegations ranging from microagressions to sexual assault, called for crediting the work of Black performers, and outside firms to address HR issues. In response to the open letter, Second City acknowledged the demands and said the company is "prepared to tear it all down and begin again."
In a statement to VICE, The Interim Executive Producer, Anthony LeBlanc, said the following.
"Second City acknowledges that we fell far short in the past and we are sorry for the pain our alumni experienced. Our leadership is working with an independent DE&I firm and taking concrete steps to assess and dismantle structures of inequity within our organization in order to create a culture that affirms everyone. Our reconstruction goals include creating a workplace where employees feel valued, respected, and that they belong... and if there is an issue when this is not the case, it can be reported without fear of retaliation. We've hired an independent HR firm to ensure objectivity in addressing past and future concerns. We recognize that we’ve got to rebuild trust; and the only way to do that is to match our words and actions. We are being transparent in our process because we want to be held accountable."
In conversation with VICE, LeBlanc expressed how deep the issue of race is in comedy. He mentions "mostly white, affluent" Second City audiences, who then determine both who and what is funny.
"Can we adjust and change and undo that part, but keep the idea about improv and generate such wonderful sketch material? I think that can happen," LeBlanc said.
Meanwhile, Keisha Zollar, who worked as a "Diversity Coordinator" for UCB in New York, called out the company for never paying her in money for her work, without mentioning its name in a thread on Twitter, sparking a conversation on the institution's record on race. UCB responded to the thread with a request to get in touch with Zollar. (UCB did not return requests for comment from VICE.)
VICE spoke to Black comedians who've performed with Second City and UCB, who describe these institutions as places that at best never fully embraced diversity, and at worst exploited and excluded Black voices.
Barthwell, who has been with Second City for 10 years as a student, touring actor, and now the director of one of its national touring companies, jokes that she's had every job on the performance side within the organization. She'd been inspired to join after seeing Amber Ruffin in a show.
While Barthwell was a student at Second City, she says, she received a pitch from another student instructing her to "just say something ghetto back," as the sketch's punchline. In another instance, a student had written in for Barthwell to smack her lips, and went as far as demoing it for her. She also remembers having a teacher, who'd been with Second City for a decade, tell her she was "too smart," and that she should "play a big momma welfare queen."
Now that Barthwell is a teacher at Second City, she has more authority to call out racist behavior, and for many of the newer students, she says it's the first time they've heard such feedback. "They say to me, 'Well, our other teachers let us do it. Our other teachers didn't say anything.' And then I'm in a fight with a student because I'm like, 'Your other teacher should've called it out.' And I'm getting a bad teacher evaluation at the end of the term."
Barthwell compares the operations at Second City to the campaign of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, describing Lightfoot as a mayor who ran on a progressive platform who's villainized protestors and has been accused of locking down the city to protect downtown. (Lightfoot has denied favoring downtown at the cost of other neighborhoods.) "All these things and these structures, we're noticing where the girders aren't.”
"There's just a lot of work that has to be done," she said. "How do you turn an institution that for many Black people, queer people, people of color, has been harmful or scary, that has upheld racist standards, practices, beliefs, how do you turn that into something that's not racist? Not only not racist, but antiracist. I like the people I work with, I like my cast, I like teaching. I hope I allow people to discover ways to express themselves and express their point of view. "
Regarding the HR investigation, Barthwell said, "I would like for them to be transparent. There are people that everybody knows, 'Oh, you don't end up in the van alone with this person." She describes the current experience of airing grievances, both publicly and in internal meetings, as both cathartic and harrowing, as the culture of Second City was often one of fear and retaliation. "People who speak up, particularly Black people, particularly queer people, are labeled as troublemakers and labeled as difficult, and that could result in you not being hired again," she said.
Dewayne Perkins is a Second City alum who's written for Michelle Wolf's Netflix TV show, the White House Correspondents Dinner, and is currently a writer on Brooklyn 99. He's also one of the Second City Alum who called the company out after its Black Lives Matter post. A native Chicagoan, Perkins, who is Black, started taking classes at Second City around 2008, when his friend urged him to join her, in a class that was otherwise all-white. He'd never heard of the theater before then. Perkins would join Second City as a paid performer in 2014.
"Second City is one of the only places you can get paid to do improv [in Chicago]," Perkins said. "That was the biggest draw, knowing I would be able to do improv, which I love, with people I enjoy, while getting paid to do it."
"Why is it that in order to be treated well, we have to start our own improv theater?"
Both while taking classes and working there, Perkins felt "a sense of tokenism," as he was often the only person of color on stage. He said he didn't feel his castmates could relate to his experiences, like being surrounded by a group of white men at a gas station, or his fear of getting pulled over when they drove through certain towns.
Previously, Perkins had acknowledged this struggle as simply part of the game, where Black people in Second City must go through trauma. He told himself, 'This is part of it. This is what we have to go through to get where we want to be." However, with time, he said, he realized that was not true. When he began speaking out about his experience at Second City, he says he was labeled a "troublemaker," and was told it would affect his ability to get work.
Despite his experience, Perkins is dismissive of the idea of Black people being forced to create their own institution instead.
"Why is it that in order to be treated well, we have to start our own improv theater?" Perkins asked, citing the additional responsibilities such a project would entail. "I don't think it would be fair to take away the impact [Second City] has given to white people for so long, and say 'Well now, people of color, you have to start from the bottom, and have a theater that doesn't have a reputation.'"
Akilah Hughes took classes at UCB, earning one of its few diversity scholarships after moving to New York from Kentucky. Hughes is a writer, actress and now the host of Crooked Media's daily news podcast, "What a Day." Her perception of UCB was that it was the pipeline to shows like Parks & Rec and SNL. "I think they tried to move away from this [perception] because enough white people spent their parents' money to recognize that this isn't the case."
"The diversity issue hindered UCB in every way."
Hughes said she temporarily lost her scholarship after showing up to class a few minutes late, due to an audition going over time. "That wasn't even the policy, it was supposed to be two or three times [being late.] But I'm not going to fight this when I'm the only Black person here and everyone else in the room is silent. It's just the teacher telling me why I can't be in the class anymore, wasting everyone else's time and money," she said. She took a six-month break from UCB before returning.
Hughes points to UCB's unpaid Diversity Coordinator position as a symbol of UCB's level of commitment to diversity, by not paying a Black woman to find non-white talent. "It is, at its root, the dry hump of a gesture," Hughes said. She recalls seeing Keisha Zollar, the Diversity Coordinator, student, and performer at UCB, every time she was there.
"The diversity issue hindered UCB in every way," she said, including "diversity of ideas." Hughes, who had a very popular YouTube channel, offered to help UCB with getting their own YouTube channel off the ground, but said she never received a reply to her emails.
Keisha Zollar inherited the Diversity Coordinator role from a grad student who'd become too busy and asked Zollar if she was interested. Zollar, like Hughes, had started classes at UCB, but took a break. For Zollar, she was tired from being the only person of color in her classes, and joined "a group of ragtag East Villagers above a drag restaurant" which she found to be both ambitious and cathartic work.
Zollar had spoken at length about UCB's lack of diversity with her father, who told her not to return to the institution and complain if she had no plans to change it. So upon her return, she began hosting diversity meetups, and eventually took on the coordinator role.
During her time there, Zollar describes a common feeling for Black people in white spaces: developing fluency with a comedic language that was not her first tongue, with rote jokes about Nantucket and boat shoes being the default.
"For a long time, in most of my classes, I was the only Black person," Zollar said. "I ended up finding a community when I found Doppelganger [a trio she'd formed with Sasheer Zamata and Nicole Byer], I actually felt free and felt like myself on stage. Like, 'Oh, this is improv!' I don't have to think twice about it." Zollar was also part of the UCB's first all-Black House team, called Astronomy Club, that later became a series on Netflix. She's also written for shows such as The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, and acted in Orange is the New Black.
"For me, my passion for diversity comes because I really want to see it. I mess with it because frankly it's more interesting, more thoughtful, there's something else brought to the table. I've lived in white Western narratives my whole frickin' life."
"There's so many things I've gotten from UCB: things I've learned, friendships for life, and people I respect," Zollar said.
"On the flip side, I didn't understand how much pain I was in until I woke up one morning and was so upset I tweeted," she said, referring to her thread, in which she felt the pain of "years of being invisible, in service of an institution that I cared about." Zollar says the issue is still unresolved, and she is uncertain how it can be remediated in the future.
"Talking about restorative justice around these things, which feels so glossy, in context, because these are theaters that make you ha-ha," she said. "Jokey jokes."
In an attempt to tackle "the questions of systemic racism and inequality within the theaters," the four founders of UCB, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser, and Matt Walsh, announced they would "no longer handle day to day operations of the training center," as of August 1, as reported by The New York Times, handing controls over to a new group of “diverse individuals." In response to the open letter, Second City acknowledged the demands and said the company is "prepared to tear it all down and begin again." On June 26, the company announced its hiring of a diversity, equity, and inclusion partner.
"Right now, it's hard for me to see what the future is," Zollar said, "because some folks see Black people and people of color, and other marginalized groups expressing their pain as an attack."