UCB Faces Backlash After Receiving Coronavirus Bailout, Not Rehiring Employees At The Comedy Theater/School

File: Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, and Matt Walsh attend the UCB's 20th Annual Del Close Improv Marathon Press Conference at UCB Theatre on June 29, 2018 in New York City. (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

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The Upright Citizens Brigade laid off most of its 79 Los Angeles staff members after COVID-19 closures hit the acclaimed comedy theater and training school. According to data released this week by the Small Business Administration, UCB received a loan from the government's Paycheck Protection Program of somewhere between $350,000 and $1 million in early April for its L.A. location — but they say they don't plan to use that funding to hire back their staff.

While the stated intention of the government's Paycheck Protection Program is "a loan designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll," companies are not obligated to do so. Many haven't used the funds for payroll for a variety of reasons, including not being able to fully reopen their businesses and the long lag time between applying and receiving these loans. Companies that take the loans and don't use at least 60% of the funds on payroll have to pay the money back to the federal government — although at a low interest rate.

That's what UCB plans to do, according to a letter sent to members of the UCB community by the theater's founders. In the letter, they say they plan to use the PPP funds as a low-interest loan to cover the costs of the small number of staff and teachers they still employ, as well as to cover their rent through the current pandemic.

They note that they chose not to rehire staff because of the additional unemployment benefits (an extra $600 a week) provided through the end of July by the federal government. They said the amount was more than the majority of UCB's staff earned while working at the theater/training school.

News of the loans, and the decision not to bring back staff, didn't go over well with some former UCB staff, fans, and performers.

The backlash is the latest in a series of troubles for UCB, owned by actor/comedians Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts. Beyond the recent closing of their New York theater, they previously made cutbacks at their L.A. theaters and moved their annual improv marathon to L.A. while reducing its size. Last month, following complaints of systemic racism and inequality within the organization, they announced plans to hand over leadership to a diverse board (and pursue nonprofit status).

A GoFundMe launched in March raised just over $60,000 to help UCB L.A. staff. UCB's New York theater and school, which employed 81 people before UCB laid off the majority of its staff on both coasts, took out another similarly sized loan worth between $350,000 and $1 million. Then they decided to close permanently.

UCB's current staff, according to advocacy journalist Seth Simons, includes Academic Director Johnny Meeks, a school director in Los Angeles, and a finance manager in New York City. They also continue to employ part-time instructors to teach classes, which have long been a far more significant source of income for UCB than its live shows.

Other L.A. comedy training programs and clubs have taken bailouts in the same range, including the Groundlings, the Comedy Store, and the Laugh Factory. Burbank comedy club Flappers took out a smaller government PPP loan between $150,000 and $350,000.

It remains to be seen what financial position any of these theaters will be in once theaters are allowed to reopen. In recent interviews with LAist, UCB teachers expressed concerns about the theater's future and indicated the current pandemic may lead to a shrinking of the improv scene. However, UCB owns one of its L.A. theaters and pays considerably less rent for their other L.A. theater than they did for theaters in New York, according to UCB co-founders Matt Besser and Ian Roberts in a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter.