Monday, January 07, 2008

Stewart and Colbert return - unwritten

The 2008 presidential sweepstakes is in full swing.

Current Republican frontrunner Gomer Pyle Mike Huckabee looks to be the village idiot. Following the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Huck called for tightened security on the Mexican border, lest any Pakistani terrorists get through. Once the laughter died down, his camp tried to backpedal, saying that he doesn't have any foreign policy experience. No, I'm not making this up.

Bottom-of-the-pile fear monger Rudy Giuliani, upon coming in almost dead last in Iowa last week, brushed off the caucus results, claiming that the Iowa outcome didn't scare him as much as "9/11" did.

Self-appointed 'mouthpiece of God' Pat Robertson claims that the almighty spoke to him and already gave His endorsement for president. But Robertson was coy about it, claiming he was keeping it a secret. Incidentally, Pat supports the dead-in-the-water Giuliani for president.

And in much more important news, Britney Spears went apeshit again last week. The reports of an ambulance hauling the pop princess to the hospital last Thursday night almost upstaged the Iowa Caucus on the so-called news channels.

With all this silliness in the world, we need more late night comedians to talk about it. More than ever. Unfortunately, there's a writer's strike going on.

In the past week, late night hosts have begun to return to work. David Letterman scored a coup when his production company, Worldwide Pants, which owns his show and that of Craig Ferguson, struck an independent interim deal with the Writers Guild of America to resume production, with full writing staffs, bits, monologues, etc. intact. Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel, who's shows are owned by the networks, returned to work, but without support of the Guild. As all three are Guild members, they are heavily restricted in what they could do. They're restricted in even writing their own material!

These limitations are going to hold back Comedy Central political humorists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as they return to the airwaves tonight after being sidelined for two months. Stewart and Colbert, both members of the Guild, are staunch supporters of the strike. Two weeks ago, when both shows announced their imminent return, then added, in typically ironic fashion: "We would like to return to work with our writers. If we cannot, we would like to express our ambivalence, but without our writers we are unable to express something as nuanced as ambivalence." Considering that their shows are heavily dependent on crack writing staffs and scripted material, it may well be the equivalent of shuffling cards while wearing boxing gloves.

Sure, they could just stick to extended interview segments. But that's another problem. Campaigning politicians, particularly those on the Democratic side, may not be too keen on pissing off valuable union supporters by crossing WGA picket lines to appear on these shows. So far, only Huckabee has been willing to do so, appearing for two whole segments on the guest-deprived "The Tonight Show" last week. A-list celebrities, who often appear on late night shows, are members of the Screen Actors Guild and won't cross picket lines either.

So, what will these shows do without their writers? And without high-profile guests? All while abiding by WGA strike rules?

"The Daily Show" is a news parody show. "The Colbert Report" is a mockery of blowhard cable news pundit shows, ala Bill O'Reilly. Unlike The Tonight Show and others, these are much more dependent on writing staffs. Leno can go on and play with wild animals, cook with Emeril Lagasse and introduce bands while waiting out the strike. Leno and Kimmel will even make appearances as guests on each others' shows this Thursday. With the Comedy Central shows, it gets a bit trickier.

Under WGA rules, Stewart and Colbert are technically not allowed to write their own material. Leno, a guild member, has gotten quite a bit of flack for writing his own monologues the past week. He insisted he had gained approval from the guild. The guild's not too keen on that, and has vowed to take some form of action, as yet unspecified.

"Leno will not get a pass. The guild has told him he can't write his monologues," said Sherry Goldman, a spokeswoman for the Writers Guild of America East.

Stewart and Colbert, both members of the guild, are barred from writing anything. How much they will be allowed to improvise is also unknown. Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox said, "Stephen and Jon are still figuring out what they're going to do on Monday night's show."

So far, the strike continues on. The best hope is to bypass the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and deal with production companies individually. Worldwide Pants so far has been the only production company to agree to an interim deal with the guild. United Artists, headed by actor Tom Cruise, struck a deal with the guild earlier today. Dick Clark Productions, producer of the Golden Globe Awards, has attempted to do likewise, but NBC, which was originally slated to run the show this coming weekend, claims that the guild turned them down. The result, in lieu of the Screen Actors Guild boycotting it, was the outright cancellation of the event. Rumor has it independent film studios, such as Lion's Gate, Weinstein and Lucasfilm are currently looking into interim deals with the guild. For the bigger conglomerates, such as NBC Universal, Disney/ABC, CBS/Paramount, Time Warner and others, resolution may become a bit more problematic.

Why are the late night hosts returning to work, in defiance of the guild? To support the many behind-the-scenes employees of each show, who aren't members of the guild or any other union. Without shows to work on, they are effectively laid off. Many of the hosts paid those employees out of pocket for the first few weeks of the strike, but with threats of employee furloughs, the hosts returned to keep the shows in production.

Here's hoping that the guild and the Hollywood studios and television networks can once and for all get together and put an end to this whole thing. The striking writers aren't asking for a whole lot, and deserve a fair deal involving new media. Let's hope a resolution comes soon, since there's a lot of comedy material ripe for the picking on the campaign trail.


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