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DAVID LETTERMAN: He walked onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater in midtown Manhattan sporting a full beard and moustache and a WGA-written monologue backed by a chorus line of high-kicking showgirls wielding WGA picket signs. Wow, what an opening! The show was screened for NYC press at the Worldwide Pants offices but not for LA-based journalists. And there’s no transcript. But his show opened with a cameo by Hillary Clinton intoning: “Dave’s been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers strike. Tonight he’s back. Oh well — all good things must come to an end.” (A jab at the fact that she hasn’t been the butt of his jokes for two months now…) Dave explained to the audience that yes, “this crap is written” and briefly explained about the strike. The last line of Letterman’s short monologue went, “The strike has gotten ugly. Earlier today, at ABC, a bunch of writers tipped over Regis.”
Behind his desk, Letterman first off thanked the WGA. His production company Worldwide Pants, of course, obtained an interim agreement so that his two late night shows could return on air with writers. (Only Dave and Craig Ferguson enjoy that luxury right now.) I’m told that, at the end of their first day back, The Late Show writers decided to donate a percentage of their salaries every month until the strike ends to the WGA Strike Fund and the Actors Fund. “The Strike Fund for obvious reasons, and the Actors Fund because it is need-based for all of those collaterally damaged, including below-the-liners,” Letterman writer Bill Scheft just told me. The show’s writers also decided to keep doing a daily picket line shift representing the show until the strike is settled. “The writers as a whole plan to contribute in whatever small and large ways we can,” Scheft says.
Also, as the strike captain, Scheft did a bit called “Strike Questions and Answers”. I’m told that, after the last question, Dave almost reveals a whacky prop pair of electric underwear and Scheft interrupts him, saying that although Dave’s writers are back, the strike is sadly still going on. Scheft proceeds to talk a little bit about the strike, then revs up to this: ”So, to the arrogant media moguls who’ve gotten so fat off our sweat-soaked toil that they can no longer fit behind their oversized mahogany desks, I say, stop spending all your money on cufflinks, cocktails and whores. Stick a crowbar in your wallet and start bargaining in good faith with the writers. Maybe then America won’t be denied seeing David Letterman hold up a pair of flaming underpants.”
I’m told there will be even more ridiculing of the Hollywood moguls and Big Media CEOs on the other side of the writers strike over the next days. Oh, goodie!
Letterman’s venerable Top 10 list was delivered on air by 10 of the real-life striking writers who picket almost daily with the Letterman scribes. Here it is:
Top 10 Demands of the Striking Writers
10. The Daily Show‘s Tim Carvell: “Complimentary tote bag with next insulting contract offer.”
9. The Colbert Report‘s Laura Kraft: “No rollbacks in health benefits, so I can treat the hypothermia I caught on the picket lines.”
8. Soap writer Melissa Salmons: “Full salary and benefits for my imaginary writing partner, Lester.”
7. Law & Order: Criminal Intent‘s Warren Leight: “Members of the AMPTP must explain what the hell AMPTP stands for.”
6. The Colbert Report‘s Jay Katsir: “No disciplinary action taken against any writer caught having inappropriate relationship with a copier.”
5. The Daily Show‘s Steve Bodow: “I’d like a date with a woman.”
4. Writer/director Nora Ephron: “Hazard pay for breaking up fights on The View.”
3. Law & Order‘s Gina Gionfriddo: “I’m no accountant, but instead of us getting 4 cents for a $20 DVD, how about we get $20 for a 4-cent DVD?”
2. Late Night‘s Chris Albers: “I don’t have a joke – I just want to remind everyone that we’re on strike, so none of us are responsible for this lame list.”
1. Writer Alan Zwiebel: “Producers must immediately remove their heads from their asses.”
Finally, Robin Williams came on, and Dave showed a picture of the film comedian picketing with the writers. They talked about the strike for a bit…
JAY LENO: Back in Burbank, he didn’t miss a beat during what was a funny monologue. But the big question is who wrote it: WGA members or scabs (i.e. the usual contingent of joke writers who hang out around Jay’s kitchen table)? Leno addressed that issue during the monologue: “You know what I’m doing? I’m doing what I did the day I started. I write jokes and wake my wife up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Honey, is this funny?’ So if this monologue doesn’t work it’s my wife’s fault,” he explained. “We are not using outside guys. We are following the guild thing… We can write for ourselves…”
That sure sounds like an admission by Leno that he broke the WGA strike rules as spelled out here: “The Strike Rules, among other provisions, prohibit Guild members from performing any writing services during a strike for any and all struck companies. This prohibition includes all writing by any Guild member that would be performed on-air by that member (including monologues, characters, and featured appearances) if any portion of that written material is customarily written by striking writers.” (See my previous: WGA Reminds Returning Jay And Conan: No Monologues.)
Leno also talked about Letterman coming back with writers. “See Dave was able to get a deal. Because Dave has his own company. I don’t blame him for getting a deal, God bless him. We have to go by ourselves up against the CBS machine. One man against a monolith…”
But Jay also did a pretty decent job explaining to the audience at least a little about the writers strike and making fun of boss Jeff Zucker — which was way more daring than anything Conan O’Brien did (see below). According to the transcript, which I’m excerpting here, Jay began, “Folks, lets get right to it. A Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim walk into a bar. The Jew says to the Muslim… See, I have no idea what they say because there’s a writers strike. We don’t know what they say. As you know, we are in the middle of this writers’ strike here in Hollywood. It’s already cost the town over a half a billion dollars. Five hundred million dollars! Or as Paul McCartney calls that, ‘a divorce.’ Of course, the strike is especially hard on NBC. Do you know there are actually more people picketing NBC now then watching NBC right now?
“I was able to sneak my camera phone into one of the negotiations between the writers and producers. The writers’ are correct, by the way. I’m a writer… I’m on the side of the writers. I got some cell phone footage. This was not pretty. Just to give you an idea how the negotiations are going. Take a look… [scene of South Korean parliament brawl]
“People want to know why we came back on the air when we did. Well, we were off for two months… As I said, I was on the strike every single day while they were talking. Then a couple weeks ago the talks broke off. No new talks were scheduled, so we had to come back because we have essentially 19 people putting 160 people out of work. We continue to support the guild…
“When you live here, in Hollywood, you see the disparity between the writers and the producers. The writer’s guild tried to make a deal with our boss Jeff Zucker… You know how tough he is. I went over to Jeff’s house. I want to show you Jeff’s house. [mansion] His butler couldn’t have been nicer… Then, over this past weekend, I took my video camera and I went over to the writer town. Kevin, have you been to writer town? Writer town is on the other side of the hill. That’s where all the writers who write the TV shows live. I want to show you the difference between Jeff’s house [and] the writers’ houses. Take a look. [shanty town].
“Another reason we had to come back was a lot of people get their news from the monologue. We cover a lot of the stories that the mainstream media will not cover. For example, did you know that just three weeks ago, Idaho Senator Larry Craig married Britney Spears? Did you know that? See, no one knew! This is the only place you will find that out…” And with that, Leno went into a typically topical monologue.
Then Jay filled up time with a “Jib Jab” animated segment and then took audience questions and all the while looked like he was relieved to be back before the cameras. GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee crossed the picket line to be lead guest as expected. Immediately, the WGA issued this statement after the show: “The Writers Guild is disappointed that Mike Huckabee crossed the WGA picket line today at NBC. We welcome the statements of support he has made for striking writers, but we ask him to respect our picket lines in the future and urge the media conglomerates to return to the bargaining table to make a fair deal that will put writers and the entertainment industry back to work.”
CONAN O’BRIEN: In Rockefeller Plaza, Conan O’Brien also sported a strike beard. (Shown here earlier.) But it was his lame opening that really surprised me. Forget that it was not funny at all. Which clearly meant no writers were used to prepare it, WGA or scabs. But I thought it bizarre that Conan had barely referred to the writers strike, even though he has been a WGA member for some time. But then I discovered that when NBC gave me the “official” transcript of O’Brien’s remarks, they left out every sentence he said in support of the writers. That’s right — NBC didn’t provide me with the whole transcript of Conan’s monologue. Now they’re trying to claim it was just a giant mistake.
So here is what I never was informed Conan said: “Let’s talk for a minute about the situation we find ourselves in. As you know, two months ago the Writers Guild of America went out on strike and we took our show Late Night with Conan O’Brien off the air in support of the writers. This has been a tough time not only for our show, but for a lot of people in the entertainment industry. Good people right now are out of work. And possibly worse, with all the late night shows off the air, Americans have been forced to read books and occasionally even speak to one another, which has been horrifying.
“We’re back now but sadly, we do not have our writers with us. I want to make this clear, I support their cause – these are very talented, very creative people who work extremely hard and I believe what they’re asking for is fair. My biggest wish is that they get a great deal very quickly and get back here because we desperately need them on the show. Think about it: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, The Masturbating Bear, The Walker Texas Ranger Lever – it’s all writing. Well, not the Masturbating Bear. That’s just instinct. Which brings us to the big $64,000 question of the evening: What do we do now?”
But here are the only excerpts from the partial transcript of Conan’s monologue which I received: ”Everywhere I go in the city for the last couple of days I hear, ‘What are you gonna do? You got a whole show to do. What are you gonna do? You got no writers.’ We have no writers and an hour show to do every night. Well ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to start by talking about my beard. …I grew it out of solidarity for my writers, and to prove that I have some testosterone. The biggest comment I’m getting the last couple of days is that I look like the character of Kris Kringle in ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’ [There's a split screen showing the similarities.] I’ve been taking a lot of flak for this beard, but I think you’ll find that if you look closely at this beard, it’s actually quite amazing. Let’s do that now in a quick Strike Beard Moment.” O’Brien finished the top of the show by demonstrating his wedding ring spinning prowess and showing a video package of what he and his skeleton crew staff have been doing during the strike. The main guest was even lamer than the monologue: Bob Saget. No, I’m not kidding.
JIMMY KIMMEL: He started the show at his desk (as opposed to standing which he does to deliver the monologue). “Perhaps in other places no one cares about the writers’ strike. But essentially what it is is the writers would like to get money for things that go on the Internet and the producers would like writers not to get paid anything for the things that go on the Internet. And so hopefully we’ll strike a balance somewhere in the middle.”
Then Kimmel did a real departure: he defended his fellow late night hosts who were returning without their writers. “But there have been writers striking outside The Tonight Show, and Conan had people striking outside, which I — by the way, I don’t want to depart too much from the party line — but I think it’s ridiculous. I mean, Jay Leno paid his staff while they were out of work, Conan did the same thing and um, I don’t know. I just think at a certain point you back off a little bit.”
Kimmel also introduced a new segment called “Greatest Moments For Which Residual Payments Are Made To Our Unemployed Writers”. It shows previously aired bits so that his writers are ensured of receiving residuals for them.
CRAIG FERGUSON: Taping in LA, he decided to forgo guests in favor of an all WGA-written and -produced comedy show. Helped by writers, Craig’s monologue was refreshingly tasteless and lighthearted. “It’s a great day for America. We’re back. We are back!!!,” the Scottish comedian exulted on air. “Most of you probably didn’t notice this, but we were away for awhile. Writers strike still on, but we got special pass. It is the TV equivalent of diplomatic immunity. I’m like Switzerland in TV. ’I’ll hold the jackets and your money you two continue to fight.’ This is the way they talk in Switzerland. My boss, David Letterman – I know he’s my boss! – made a deal for our shows to return with the whole staff. And if anyone in America can get a deal made, it’s David Letterman. I found that out when I was making deal to work here. I tried to be tough, but Dave made an offer I couldn’t refuse. I woke up and found Paul Schaeffer’s head in my bed. Luckily it was still attached to Paul. Oh, we made beautiful music together.
“People are saying that this show and Dave’s show are going to get all the A-list guests as a result of this deal. I read that on Internet — that means it’s true. I want to send a message to all the D-list celebrities, you’re always welcome here. We’ll still have Kathy Griffin on, the guy who invented the electric cheese cutter, people who can fart musical notes. This show won’t change a bit. It will be garbage. I make you this pledge people of America. We will not improve this show. It will not be funnier. It will not be better.
“So I had two whole months off work. Two months – it was horrible. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Well, I knew one thing to do, but once you do that one thing. After that, you have the rest of the day. Grew strike beard. Got itchy so I shaved it off. Then grew it back again. That was just the 1st day. Was tough for me not having an outlet for whatever this is. Went into Starbucks every morning, did monologue for people who worked there… I can now blame the WGA for every lame thing I do.
“I grew up in an environment of strikes. Britain in 1970s, everyone on strike. Coal miners, postal workers, the dentists. I’ll never forget the British dental strike of 1979. It’s still going. They never resolved it. But when the British miners went on strike, it was very violent. They set fire to cars. When my writers went on strike, they set fire to their farts.
“Strikes are not the same in LA. Strikers on the picket lines bring their yoga mats to the picket lines, they wear sexy outfits & high heels. Alright, that was just me – but it was fun. Was fun and Eddie Murphy gave me ride home. I might have made that up myself. You have to be careful during a strike cause emotions run very high. I was glad to see the writers doing things to try and lighten the mood. Some of the picket lines have different themes. Saw a science-fiction themed picket line. People dressed like characters from Star Trek. I was amazed. Who’d have thought that a TV writer would have his own Star Trek costume? What a surprise! That’s like saying Donald Trump owns a wig. Do you know what else they had? They had a ‘Bring a Celebrity To Picket Line”. Really. I called to see if they wanted me to show up. They said, ‘Fine, but who are you bringing?’ Thought that up myself.
“No one knows how long this strike will go on. The two sides aren’t talking to each other. It’s like being married. Have to go to bed at night without anything happening, play rerun in your head. It’s good to be back, but not really business as usual. No guests tonight. None. [reaction from crowd]. Don’t you ‘oh’ me – you’ll get your money. Tonight it’s all comedy. And we use that term loosely here. Whatever the hell we do – drama and funny costumes. God it is good to see you!!!”
Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.