What Do You Call A Group of Comedians?
The Benefits of Formally Associating

Posted on 15 November 2012

Comedians have a lot of practical issues to contend with when writing comedy or putting on shows. How do you maintain reasonable relations and receive fair treatment from venues? How do you manage salaries when you have a team working with you on tour? What can be done to ensure proper wages for comedy writing work done on the behalf of radio, television, or advertising? Where can you skill up, where can you network?

These sorts of issues are often addressed by guilds, societies, associations, and/or unions. However, at the moment Australia does not have any such organisations specifically for its comedians.

In the US New York formed a union. Basically, comedians working in that city had not seen an increase in their wages since 1985 when in 2004 they decided to organise. The New York Times published a fascinating article on the development of their coalition.

The British Society of Comedy Writers is structured more like the various writers centres in Australia, only focusing on comedy. They hold conferences, put on workshops, offer discounts, email bulletins with job opportunities and informative articles, have online forums, and more.

Our neighbours in New Zealand have an active comedy guild to support their comedians. Australian comedians could benefit from some sort of organisation of this nature. So, I contacted NZ Comedy Guild president Aaron Beard and asked him a few questions. I’m hoping this will give us something to think about and inspire discussion.

What were the circumstances which prompted the founding of the NZ Comedy Guild?

Aaron: From our website: “The New Zealand Comedy Guild Incorporated was established in March 1999 by Michele A’Court to promote and protect the interests of the professional stand-up comedians and live comedy performers in New Zealand’s entertainment industry.”

This sums it up nicely and Michele may be able to give more insight about what was happening at the time, but I believe one of the key drivers was to ensure that venue owners and promoters understood that if you are dealing with one of us, then you are dealing with all of us. It’s hard as a single artist to try and stand up for basic rights on their own.

With that said, I also believe that NZ has a unique comedy community, as we all lookout for each other and genuinely support each other…well, 95% of the time anyway. International guests, particularly those from the states, are amazed that we all hang out in the same bar and have BBQs. So the guild was quite a natural thing to form and I applaud Michele for having the vision and brains to put it together.

Why are you a “guild” and not a “union” or “association”.

Aaron: I think “guild” is a strong title and it makes it sound like the New Zealand Guild has been around for 300 years. Being a union has a kind of negative feel and I think it changes how people see the role you wish to play. Association sounds fine, but I think all the cool kids are calling themselves guilds.

Sounds simple, but democracy plays a huge role in the set up. Important that everyone knows it is THEIR guild and they are just as responsible for it as the board and President. Also, we kept the title of President instead of Chairperson because it sounds so much cooler.

What sorts of issues have you dealt with over the years? Dealing with venues? Pay rates for television appearances?

Aaron: We’ve dealt with many things as the guild tends to be whatever the members need it to be, like dealing with internal disputes over who owns what material, to venues who think they can bully performers (and vice-versa). Negotiating pay rates has also been a real strong point for us, we’re not an official union and I doubt you will ever see the headline “NZ comedians go on strike!”, but we do have a strong voice in the industry. The guild has established certain performance rates for venues and networks, these create a starting point for negotiations with individual performers. Each performer still decides their own worth, but the guild encourages good pay rates as this encourages good comedians. So, everybody wins.

What specific services do you offer? Legal aid? Liability insurance? Newsletter? Networking? Job listings?

Aaron: We are whatever the members need us to be and I guess we often act as a central hive mind for NZ comics. Each year we also host our own awards evening called “The Guildies”, and these are highly sought after awards as it is voted on by your peers in the industry. Usually held in late December, it also serves as one hell of a Christmas party and we all go bat shit crazy. A lot of bonding and merriment is had by all.

What are the primary concerns of your members?

Aaron: The NZ Comedy Festival is always a hot topic, it is run by an organisation called the “Comedy Trust” which is run by promoters and not comedians. The Comedy Trust has its own rules and goals but the guild works alongside the festival to ensure comedians are treated fairly and the NZ comedy brand is promoted strongly. For the most part we get on pretty well and enjoy a strong relationship.

How are you structured? Do you have AGMs? Conferences? How does your voting work?

Aaron: As a non-profit incorporated society we have a board of six people, a President(aka the Chair), a Vice-President, and a Secretary. All positions held in the guild are voluntary(unpaid) and we seek funding for projects when appropriate. We are required to hold an AGM each year but our rules also allow for voting by email, since a lot of our members are spread across the globe.

What have been a few of your greatest moments as a guild?

Aaron: Personally I enjoy the challenge of negotiating with big networks and successfully finding ways to make it work for both parties. It was before my time as President, but a major achievement was when the guild sat down with our two major networks and established a minimum on-air performance rate for stand-up comedy.

Tell me about your funding schemes.

Aaron: Currently we are seeking funding schemes to help grow the talents of new and upcoming performers, there is a lot of good NZ stand-up on air and in venues, so we want to ensure the next batch is ready to go when needed.

Where do you see the guild going in the future?

Aaron: Ideally we would like to receive higher funding levels to allow us to step up to the next level: hosting regular workshops, maybe looking at expanding the profile and scale of our annual awards.

Would you be up for helping an Australian guild forming?

Aaron: Definitely, the NZ comedy community is strong because we support each other and act as “one voice”. If we had an international comedy community then we could achieve greats things indeed!

Thank you Aaron for your insights!

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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