Why I’m Quitting UCB, And Its Problem With Diversity
Preface: This is a LONG read. There are issues outlined within that you may not agree with. They will maybe upset you. Read at your own risk.
They say people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This past week, members of the UCB and comedy community at-large (myself included) heaved boulders at the status of Late Night television — predominantly white hosts with white writers. “But where are the women?” we cried. The irony was not lost on me. Look a little closer to home and you might as well shout, “but where are the people of color?”
As a queer international person of color, I myself am not entirely sure. For the past several months I have sat back and observed, many others have too but most of us have been afraid to come forward, afraid to rock the boat. “What if speaking up casts me in a negative light?” As someone who is not a current performer at UCB and likely never will be, I have nothing to lose. I will gladly sound the alarm. UCB does not care about black people or minorities. It does, has done and will continue to do the bare minimum when it comes to maintaining diversity not unlike the entertainment industry at-large. As nine openings on house teams quietly came and went, not one POC was added, despite the fact that in the past year, two POC have stepped down. We are technically less diverse from a racial standpoint.
In the past 24 hours, I’ve spoken with performers, teachers — current and former, and the students who help fill out the UCB system. To protect their privacy, comments will be anonymous with the exception of one student who in response to my questions directed me to her blog post written on Diversity at UCB (or this even). It’s a pretty sad and enlightening account of what many students of color currently experience.
So what are the actual numbers? Looking at Lloyd, Harold Night and the weekend teams 21/171* or 12% of performers at UCB are people of color. If you look at Maude Night, 12/80 or 15% of performers are POC. Characters Welcome currently features 0 performers of color. (I should also say, I have no idea how many POC submitted and what the selection process is or isn’t.) Quick note — this only speaks to NYC, I cannot speak on UCB-LA.
In case you’re wondering, the racial breakdown of New York City is 33.3% White, 28.6% Hispanic or Latino, 25.5% Black and 12.7% Asian. UCB’s numbers are well, incredibly poor in contrast. I’d find some entertainment stats for you but why? We already know. Google SNL + diversity. That said, diversity cannot work from a top-down approach, if we want to change anything it’s going to have to start at the lowest possible levels.
The Diversity Program
Nearly six years into my stay at UCB and it is very much unclear what the purpose of the Diversity program is at UCB. Is it to remain compliant? To give the illusion that they care about diversity? I have taken several workshops and 17 classes at UCB since 2011, a few of them were paid for by this scholarship. So it can definitely help finance your journey through UCB — but that’s only if you choose to stick around, re-apply and get selected.
You see, a lot of people who accept these diversity scholarships do not in fact stay, so much so, that the Diversity program had to incentivize students with a second free class if they took the first within six months or year. Why you ask? Because a lot of POC show up the first week of class — don’t see a lot of folks like them and drop out. For context, I was the only person of color in my first four classes at UCB.
But I’m an anomaly. I stayed because I immediately fell in love with UCB in spite of its lack of diversity, believing somewhere along the road it would change. After all, wasn’t I funny and diverse? If I could succeed, others would too. They just didn’t get it yet. Wasn’t the diversity program helping with that? If the goal was to create more talented students who are POC, how are there no talented students at the advanced levels? Again, the purpose of the Diversity program is very much unclear (at least to me). If i’m being honest, for the longest time, I was blind to the diversity issue at UCB, because like most people, I was focused on my next practice group, my next show, my next class and ascending the levels (not unlike this Going Clear parody). It wasn’t until I took a step back and looked at a much larger picture that the image became a lot more clear.
Because of the lack of diversity on stage — which also serves as the teacher pool at UCB, there are very few POC who teach, you can count them on one hand. I believe there are 5? Question mark only because I could be wrong and there may be less. In 17 classes, i’ve only had the opportunity to learn from two of them. That’s incredibly sad.
The breeding ground for the future talent of the UCB stage is found in the Advanced Study pool of students, or so it has been said. While I can’t speak for everyone — I took levels 101–401 only once and was passed into the Advanced Study section of UCB within my first year of taking classes. Since 2012, I have taken a sketch class and 12 Advanced Study classes, 5 of those were Advanced Study Performance classes or what used to be a direct funnel to the UCB stage. Maybe it still is? But not if you’re a person of color, apparently. In the 5 ASP classes i’ve been fortunate to take, I’ve seen a lot of diverse, funny, talented players. Tessa Hersh. Ryan Ramirez. Lily Du. Trumane Alston. Alise Morales. Jon Monje. Tahlia Robinson. William Martinez. Glo Tavarez and the countless other minorities I am too tired to mention. Why aren’t they on teams? I DO NOT KNOW. I will also say that talent is subjective. The UCB system is subjective. Comedy is subjective. To paraphrase something Will Hines once said, if you have two talented students and one of them happens to be a minority, why not chose the minority who happens to be far less represented? Good question.
Racism In Class and On Stage
This one always gets the UCB brass hot and bothered. Covert racism is a thing, look it up. I’ve been discriminated against in classes and during shows. The first white person I met in 101, became friends with and later lived with said his first thought upon meeting me, without hearing me speak (I have a British accent ps) was, “oh great, a sassy black person from the bronx. This is gonna be fun!” That is something he said to me. That is something he thought. It is a thing a lot of people think.
I recently asked why there were less diverse performers represented on stage and much to my shock, the person’s response was “because there probably aren’t enough funny minorities in the system.” I nearly exploded. But it made me think, if this guy thinks that, HOW MANY OTHER PEOPLE THINK THAT? That is scary.
In an advanced study class, my teammates once made the choice for me that I was stealing from a store. All I did was walk into a scene, alarms sounded and I was arrested. What does that say when the only person of color in a scene is immediately arrested?
I’ve heard people use the N-word with and without justification. Everyone at harold night knows my laugh as much as they know my audible groan. Le sigh. You guys are better than this. But not always. Sometimes you’re just racist. Recognize that. By all means, push boundaries with comedy to explore sexist, homophobic and racist themes but also recognize when you’ve strayed out of your depth and just come across as sexist, homophobic and racist. The audience will let you know, and personally, if I know you and see that show, I will let you know.
Astronomy Club and Soul Glo
A little over a year ago, a group of black students, fed up with the lack of diversity at UCB decided to do something about it. They formed a practice group, practiced regularly and got placed on Lloyd Night by the former AD Nate Dern. It was incredible. POC now had a team they could watch. New students now could go to class and talk about a team that looked like them doing comedy. If no one wants to admit it, I will admit it. Astronomy Club was more groundbreaking than Detroit — the all-female lloyd team because prior to Astronomy Club there weren’t 8 black people total doing comedy on either stage at UCB. Diversity immediately shot up because Astronomy Club got on. Earlier this year they were disbanded (along with all the other Lloyd teams). That concrete symbol of diversity was now gone. One of the first shows I went to and maybe even the first show I did outside of K-scope, was Soul Glo. It was a diverse variety show where non-white men got to do comedy and ended with an improv jam. It no longer has a home at UCB.
So where exactly is diversity going and how do POC feel about it? Here are some responses to questions I asked students and teachers.
How do you feel as a POC at UCB?
“Don’t get me started.”
“For me there is a lot of joy. I get to bring in a very unique take to most scenes, because the majority of improvisers don’t have common experiences.”
“Read my tumblr.”
“White people are killing it in the UCB system right now.”
“What’s a n*gga gotta do to get on? (ha -i’m playing, but not really)”
“My comedy is not on game.”
“As a person of color, I don’t feel comfortable talking about racial disparity at UCB and that’s sad.”
“Like no one gives a fuck about my experience or how I feel.”
“I can’t play black but I walk into a scene and i’m made black, does that make sense?”
Does UCB have a diversity problem?
“It does have a diversity problem, but not because the UCB’s system has created one.”
“UCB is a product of a society with a diversity problem.”
“Yeah. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more outrage about it.”
“UCB’s efforts at diversity are so transparently bad.”
“Yeah. It shouldn’t be this hard to put POC on teams when there are GOOD POC in the system.”
“Yes. Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.”
“The problem is UCB doesn’t care about recognizing they have a diversity problem. You can’t change until you recognize the need for change.”
“There’s a black president. Diversity was solved on a national level, UCB has no more work to do.”
I doubt anybody of merit (read: the actual members of the Upright Citizens Brigade) will read this but they should. They should know what’s going on and how people feel. I will say anyone who knows me, knows me as a “company person.” I have bled UCB through and through. I have sat through countless back to back harold nights, cabbed between theaters because the F train was fucked and met some of the funniest and most talented people I will ever meet in my life. But today I resign that distinction. I’m no longer a company person, i’m a free agent. Until UCB makes a concerted effort to truly embrace diversity on its stage and elsewhere within its ranks, it doesn’t need my support. My advice to other POC looking to take improv classes — go somewhere else. I’m hearing incredible stuff about Annoyance lately. Why pay $400 at a school and in a system which doesn’t value you? Furthermore, make your own shit. If you’ve taken 4 classes at UCB — you probably understand comedic premise. You’ve met collaborators. Create your own content and be your own brand of funny. In the last six months, I focused exclusively on stand-up and creating my own content and it’s working. UCB will always be there to take credit though.
*On 9/23 a performer who identifies as a POC and was not previously recognized requested to be identified as such. The percentage remains unchanged.