Leno strike 100

TUESDAY 12:30AM UPDATE: I’ve learned that both Jay Leno and the Guild investigating panel asked WGAw President Patric Verrone among others to make the final report public, including full transcripts of the hearing. But Verrone et al refused. So why was the Guild’s excuse “confidentiality” since Leno willingly waived his? Or was Verrone more concerned that his own questionable conduct would be exposed?

MONDAY 6:30PM UPDATE: Prompted by my post today, the Writers Guild, West, finally released its trial committee report after refusing to do so because of “confidentiality”. So why now? Only because I was releasing some of its findings — among them that Jay Leno had been unanimously cleared. The WGAw report determined that the Guild owed Leno a public apology because Jay had been “done a disservice and his reputation harmed by these proceedings”. I believe that the WGAw was purposely withholding this report because it presented President Patric Verrone in a bad light, which would have been damaging during the Guild elections. I can report that a key person complicit in this was WGAw staffer Neil Sacharow, who in my opinion should be fired. It was Sacharow who phoned me in consternation after seeing my midday advisory that my WGA vs Leno reporting was about to post.
(More on the report below).

MONDAY 12:30 PM: Few issues during the November 2007/February 2008 writers strike stirred as much anger and emotion as whether WGA member Jay Leno violated Guild strike rules during his return to hosting The Tonight Show. The WGAw’s investigation into what Leno did and not do was conducted with the utmost secrecy during and after the strike. It was only 18 months after the strike, on August 11th, that Hollywood found out that the union had cleared Leno of all charges – and only then because his name did not appear on the press release detailing who had been charged by the trial committees. Now I have been asked by sources close to Jay Leno to relay the information to Hollywood that he was unanimously cleared by his peers at the Writers Guild, which certainly puts a different complexion on the ugly face of strike-breaking. [I have asked the WGAw to confirm this and am waiting for its response.] “I have no problem with them bringing charges. But the unfair part is that when you’re innocent, because of all the secrecy, no one shakes your hand and says, ‘Welcome back into the fold’,” Leno was quoted by my sources as saying. These sources tell me that Jay maintained throughout the investigation by the WGA trial committee that “they [Guild officials] really told me I could do my monologue” and claims 17 writers testified to that effect. Leno also had “the man who wrote the law” come in and testify that hosts of late night shows had the right under an AFTRA clause allowing performers to write material that they perform. Jay also denied working with scabs and maintained he turned off the fax machines. Instead, he told the trial committee that he ”went through 17 years of material and rewrote that.” In his defense, Leno testified at one point, “in a business as transparent as this, you can’t get away with anything.”

I don’t understand why Leno himself won’t go public with this news. Because it might go a long way to healing the wounds created during the strike when almost every working writer except Jay’s own staff was hating on him. And that animus has only intensified since the Jay Leno Show was announced because writers blame him and the network for stripping NBC’s schedule of 5 hours of scripted primetime programming a week and thus depriving scores of WGA members of badly needed jobs. Leno is looking for absolution from his Guild peers. He’s telling my sources, ”I understand why these guys are still mad at me. I know what the animosity is about. But, if I wasn’t on, NBC would still program 5 nights a week of Dateline or Biggest Loser. As it is my show has 22 WGA writers who are working in the top 5% in terms of pay for 46 weeks a year. For whatever reason, the network doesn’t want more scripted drama. So The Closer, The Shield, Burn Notice, all these wonderful shows are on cable.”

I do feel that Deadline Hollywood owes Leno an apology, so even though he has never asked me for one, I offer it to him now. I chronicled Leno’s many visits to the picket lines, often with cups of Starbucks and boxes of donuts, in the first months of the strike when The Tonight Show was dark. But I became one of his harshest critics after he went back to work in early January 2008. That’s when the rumors began flying.

My email box became filled with allegation after allegation of strike-breaking by Leno. Soon after, WGA members brought formal complaints against Jay of violating guild rules against writing for struck companies, and the Guild’s Strike Rules Compliance Committee (SRCC) began its investigation. Leno became the only one of the late night hosts who faced a review which focused specifically on how he was able to keep doing his nightly monologue. He was questioned at length on two occasions in February and June by a WGA West trial committee, which consisted of 5 rank-and-file guild members. The final decisions on the penalties recommended by the trial committees rested with the WGA West board of directors.

I recall that during the strike, there were so many rumors about Leno and the WGA that it became impossible for me to check out each of them. One of the most persistent was that WGA West President Patric Verrone had previously worked for Jay on The Tonight Show and therefore given him a “pass” for the monologue. While Verrone had indeed worked for The Tonight Show long ago, it had been for host Johnny Carson, not Leno. I can report that, at one point, members of one late night show’s writing staff contacted me because they’d heard directly from a writer in the room when Verrone met with Leno ostensibly regarding Letterman getting that WGA waiver for Worldwide Pants (because Dave owned his and Craig Ferguson’s late night shows, while Leno worked for NBC) and to tell the Guild he was being pressured by NBC to go back to work. It was claimed Leno matter-of-factly told Verrone that he was going to be writing his own monologue once back on the show. The writer in the room claimed Verrone seemed fine with it. Rumors also reached me that one of the late night producers had called Verrone to complain, and that Verrone had told him the union would not go after Jay. That is until I broke the story of the Leno-Verrone meeting, and then “Verrone had to pretend to be outraged,” the sources told me.

At the time, tempers were high within the late night world. And everyone inside it was furious with the WGA for seeming to not take any action against all the hosts who’d returned tp work, but especially against Leno. “The union has demonstrated to every striking writer that there is no punishment for violating their rules, opening the door for across-the-board scabbing,” one late night writer wrote me. “Verrone has put his personal relationships ahead of the cause.” There was even a call for Patric to step down.

The reason why the situation reached critical mass around Leno was because Jay had been a credited member of The Tonight Show writing staff for most of his tenure behind the desk. And, as such, had by Guild rules to put his pen down and not hire scabs and not ask his writing staff to perform work while the strike was on. It didn’t matter that on the air that first night back, Jay respectfully acknowledged the worthiness of the WGA’s demands. But at the same time he admitted his own strike-breaking creative process whereby “I write jokes and wake my wife up” in order to try them out on her. That’s why, on January 3rd, the WGA told Leno that he violated its rules by penning and delivering punch lines in his monologue.

Many of the rumors also centered around Jay’s staff of writers, who were regularly walking the picket line while the accusations flew. Head writer Joe Medeiros, also a respected strike captain for the WGA, would deny the allegations, insisting that he and the writing staff were not preparing material for Leno as some maintained. In fact, Joe sent a letter to the WGA strike captains on January 8th, 2008, that read: “No Tonight Show writers have been, are, or will be writing jokes or anything else for Jay Leno or The Tonight Show during tis strike.” And still the rumors kept on spreading. Madeiros also claimed that Jay was not receiving material from scab writers even though it’s widely alleged in the writing community and comedic circles that he “undermines” the WGA through his use of hundreds of freelance writers who are non-Guild (and who send in their stuff via those infamous Tonight Show fax machines). While most of the late night hosts use some freelance material, it’s claimed that sometimes over half of Leno’s Tonight Show was penned by freelancers who earn money that is not subject to guild pension and health payments. Instead, Medeiros insisted that Jay was simply recycling old material from past monologues and just updating it. And he refuted claims circulating that he or the writing staff or Leno had ever considered going fi-core.

Today, I can state that the trial committee report on the Leno case details most of what I was able to confirm amid all the rumors and posted during the strike (see links below): how at that meeting with WGA leadership on Dec. 31, 2007, Leno was told by Verrone that the guild was grateful for Leno’s public support of the strike and that he would not face disciplinary action for writing his monologue since Jay was being pressured by NBC to return to work. (I’m told that nearly all of Leno’s writers who were at the meeting, as well as WGA executive director Dave Young, and even Patric Verrone, gave written or verbal testimony — under oath — to this.)

But it was only after protests from furious WGA members over the Guild allowing Leno to write during the strike that Verrone told Leno to stop penning his own material, according to the report. Leno was described as ”stunned” by Verrone’s reversal and ignored the warning. A week later, WGA executive director Dave Young called Leno to warn him again. Young also claimed the AFTRA clause did not apply to Leno. As a result, Jay replied that he “might have to resign” from the WGA, the report said.

But the trial committee disagreed with the WGA’s interpretation of the AFTRA clause and decided it did indeed cover Leno. “The wording of the exception seems quite clear to us,” the report states.

Leno also was given conflicting information by Verrone and Young that the WGA would not cut an interim agreement with Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, but then did on Dec. 28, 2007.

Even more damning, the report found that Verrone did not keep his promise made in the presence of Big Media CEOs Peter Chernin and Bob Iger who were negotiating to end the strike with the WGA bigwigs, as well as the AMPTP’s Carol Lombardini, that Leno would not be brought up on WGAw charges. Verrone told the trial committee that he never communicated that discussion to the WGAw board or the strike rules committee and that he felt it wasn’t in his “purview” to do so.

Given the circumstances, the trial committee cited the public apology as the way to clear Leno’s name and the “adverse stigma” which followed him from the charges. ”We know there was no ill intent on anyone’s part in this dispute but feel Mr. Leno’s reputation and solid service as a loyal union member have been damaged in the eyes of many not knowing the facts as we do.”

So the WGAw did conduct an investigation, and it cleared Leno. Like it or not, that chapter of the strike story is now closed. Get over it. But what WGA members should not put behind them is that their Guild didn’t want them to know the details of its own Leno-related screwups because of this September’s election. As someone who has urged the Hollywood unions again and again to practice transparency, I believe the withholding of this trial report should not be tolerated.

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.