I should have known. Just this morning, I praised lefty standup comic Sarah Silverman for a new video where she encourages underpaid women to “ask for more.” It’s the perfect free-market antidote to perceptions of unequal pay.
In the video, from the Levo League, Silverman tells of a male comic being paid six times what she was on the same night, in the same club, for the same amount of work.
But the comedy club owner who allegedly underpaid Silverman back in 2002 tells a significantly different story about that night. He says Silverman actually got paid a little for what 99% of standup comics do for free.
Here’s the tale as Silverman tells it, in a video from the Levo League (below):
“I was doing stand-up, you know, just around town. And I did a show — I was out with my friend Todd Barry and we were doing sets around town together. And you know I was pretty well known already, and we both did back-to-back 15-minute sets at this club, the New York Comedy Club, and he paid me 10 bucks.
It was a Saturday night. I didn’t think anything of it, you know. And we were outside talking and Todd somehow brought up, you know, mentioned that he got 60 bucks. He just got $60, and I just got $10. We did the exact same time back-to-back in the same show.
And so I went back inside and I asked the owner, Al Martin, and I said “Al, you why did you pay me $10 and you gave Todd Barry $60?” And he, you know, it was so perfect: He goes, “O, did you want a $60 spot.” It was symbolic. I didn’t need $60. But it’s … um … you know, it’s pretty shitty.”
On the phone Tuesday afternoon, Al Martin — who sold the New York Comedy Club about eight months ago, but still owns the Broadway and Greenwich Village Comedy clubs — said he and his wife remember that night about 13 years ago, because it was the start of a longstanding “grudge” he’s heard that Silverman still holds against him.
In Martin’s telling, comedian Todd Barry was booked, in advance, to perform a set that night, for which he would be paid $50. Barry arrived with Sarah Silverman, who Martin knew from their early days doing open-mic standup.
“We have a budget and he [Todd Barry] was included in the deal,” Martin said. “Sarah came in, saw we had a good crowd, and asked to do 10 minutes.”
The common practice in comedy clubs, said Martin, is if you ask to perform, you do it for free. Even big names never expect to get paid for guest spots.
Afterward, Martin said he looked outside: “I see her [Silverman] outside talking to Todd Barry,” he said.
Martin assumed they were talking about how well they did with the crowd. He was wrong. Silverman came back into the club, and here’s what Martin remembers (written as dialogue so it’s a bit easier to follow.)
SILVERMAN: You didn’t pay me.
MARTIN: Pay you? It was a guest spot.
[“So I gave her 10 bucks,” Martin said. “I didn’t want to piss her off.”]
SILVERMAN: What the f— is this?
MARTIN: What do you mean what the f— is that? It’s cab fare.
SILVERMAN: You paid Todd $50.
MARTIN: Todd had a booked spot.
SILVERMAN: I did the same amount of time he did.
MARTIN: If you did the same time, you went over your time.
“Ever since then she’s had a grudge,” Martin said. “My intention wasn’t to pay her less because she was a woman. My intention was to shut her up so she would come back.”
Martin said Silverman never came back.
“At the time that this even occurred,” he said, “she would not have been on my regular roster of people that I would have booked for a full-paid spot. She was a very different comedian back then.”
However, he added that later, as Silverman’s career took off, he would have booked her.
Martin said that on Monday when he saw the wage gap video, “I was shocked. I don’t get why she took things the whole wrong way. I didn’t think she equated this with a man-woman thing. She comes out with this video and turns it into a whole gender thing. It’s not believable. Everybody knows what the going rate is.”
Martin said he’s married to a woman, has three daughters, and he has hired many female comics at the full-pay rate over his 20+ years in the business.
Coincidentally, just last night his Broadway club served as the venue for an all-female comedy show, produced by a woman, called “Broadly Funny.”
NOTE: I reached out by email, Twitter, Facebook and phone today to Sarah Silverman, the Levo League, and Todd Barry, but have not yet heard from any of them. I’ll update this story if they respond.