(The following post was contributed by Steve Young, a television writer for Late Night with David Letterman, and the father of star Writopia Lab writer, Rebecca Shubert. He also wrote The Simpsons episode "Hurricane Neddy" and won an Annie Award in 2000 for his screenplay that was produced by Matt Groening, Drew Barrymore and Fox Family Films. He has been generous enough to share his thoughts with us on the life of the TV comedy writer--and on the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike.)
Hello, Writopia Community!
I’m honored to have the chance to offer my observations on being a professional comedy writer. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have time to write this, because I’d be working 12 hours a day writing funny stuff for television. But since early November I’ve found myself with a lot more time. I’m a member of the Writers Guild of America, and I’m on strike.
I’ve been a writer for “Late Show With David Letterman” (and before that, “Late Night With David Letterman”) since 1990. It’s a peculiar kind of writing. The assignments constantly change as new needs and emergencies arise. Within an average hour, I might switch from writing jokes for the Top Ten List to coming up with new ideas for something to do outside with a camera to writing a script for some live bit on the show to writing phony “Fun Facts” to writing a script for something to shoot with Dave after the show…plus I’ll be running to the edit room to oversee the production of a fake commercial or meeting with Dave to refine the monologue. It’s a lot of pressure, and I don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to hit. When something’s needed, my mind has to be able to start churning out material right away.
Most of what we writers come up with doesn’t make it onto the show. Thousands of jokes and ideas get tossed aside each week. That can be depressing, but we get used to it. Despite the shockingly high rejection rate, there’s practically nobody else on the planet who can do this particular job the way it needs to be done. If we’re not funny or productive enough, we can be let go every 13 weeks, but for those who can handle the job, it can be fun, exhausting--and lucrative.
Part of the reason we’re paid well is the Writers Guild of America. TV and movie writers who work on Guild-covered projects get benefits and protections we wouldn’t have otherwise, like a pension and health insurance, minimum pay per week or per script, and residuals. In case you’re not familiar with residuals, they’re payments we receive when a show or movie is re-run or sold on DVD. Residuals are the main reason we’re on strike. The big companies are always looking for ways to pay us less, and now, with the rise of the internet, they think they’ve found it.
You can buy shows and movies on iTunes or watch episodes on a network’s website. We’re not getting paid when this happens. The big companies are making boatloads of money (and boasting about it to their shareholders), but then they turn around and tell us it’s too soon to see if the internet will be profitable. Our position is, simply, if you make money from our work, we should make money too. This isn’t an attempt to grab more cash. We’re just trying to replace the residuals we’re losing as the business changes and everything switches to the internet.
Years ago, we took a bad deal on DVD’s—writers get about 4 cents from every DVD sold—because we trusted the companies when they said they’d do a new deal if DVD’s turned out to be profitable. Well, guess what. DVD’s ended up being a goldmine, but somehow, the companies never got around to revisiting the bad deal. We won’t get fooled again.
The internet isn’t the only issue in this strike. We’re still trying to fix that bad DVD deal, and we’re working to get other kinds of shows covered by the Guild. We want to unionize more animation writers. And we’re fighting to get jurisdiction over reality shows, which right now are the television equivalent of sweatshops. We need to move ahead on a lot of things, but the big media companies are hoping to push us further back.
It’s true that some Writers Guild members make good money. However, 48% of WGA members don’t make the $31,000 a year required to earn health insurance coverage. At any given time, half the Guild membership isn’t employed. Residuals enable writers to survive in the months or even years between jobs. I’ve been very lucky in having a long-term steady job, but I know that may not always be the case. I’m on strike to fight for other writers, present and future, as well for as my own future.
Now instead of writing jokes about Britney Spears, President Bush, or the New York Jets, I’m marching on a picket line several days a week. Even though it’s often cold and grim, I’ve enjoyed catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. Despite the socializing and free coffee and donuts, it’s not really a party. People are getting hurt by this strike. But we all agree it’s a fight we have to continue and win if being a TV/movie/internet writer is to be a decent profession in the decades ahead.
What’s that? You’re saying “He doesn’t seem very funny for a comedy writer”? Yeah, sorry, I wanted to make sure I got all the serious stuff covered. After all, maybe someday these issues will affect you. But rest assured, I’m still hilarious. Check out www.lateshowwritersonstrike.com and see how we’re keeping our comedy muscles toned with strike-related humor. Also, visit www.wgaeast.org for more information about the strike and the issues involved. And finally, visit www.clearfour.com/condiment/ if you’d like to view an online museum of condiment packets.
Feel free to ask any questions about comedy writing or the strike.