Monday, December 10, 2007

A Comedy Writer on Strike


(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.

-Steve Young

5 comments:

Lily said...

wow, i hardly had any idea that this was happening. i think it's very admirable to be doing the picket line stuff and the best of luck! i'll be sure to check out some of the links.

Andrea said...

Steve,
Thanks so much for your insightful post! I've been following the lead-up to the strike and the strike itself, as have some of my friends. (we're very much all film department geeks at school.)

It's especially interesting to hear the perspective from WGA East; it seems as though it has been eclipsed by the West division in much of the coverage.

I was wondering if you could shed any light on your perspective regarding the success of the WGA's organizing power of this strike. I don't know much about previous strikes except for what I have read now, which often focuses on the support that this strike has received from actors, showrunners, directors, etc. Clearly, it seems like the residual issues have been a long time coming and deserve such support, but has the WGA reached out to these groups in ways that it did not before?

Also, it seems that the press is presenting coverage that is much more in favor of the WGA than the AMPTP. Do you think that this public opinion will have any substantial weight at the negotiation table?

Wow, and I've realized I have a lot of questions, so I'll just leave off with one more. What is the reaction on the picket lines, especially among late show and talk show writers, towards the Ellen DeGeneres show and Last Call, which have gone back on the air?

Thanks so much. We support you.

Michael said...

it must be pretty difficult writing so much comedy at such short notice. how do you get inspiration for all your jokes? what happens if your personal life is going badly and you have to write a hilarious piece about something and you can't get out of the depressed mood your in? are there any ways that you try to deal with that? also, i haven't really written too much humor (I'm mostly a memoirist) but you've given me inspiration to try. i'll see how it goes!

Steve Young said...

Hi Andrea--

It's only natural that the WGA West be in the news more (except maybe in NYC). They have 2/3 or 3/4 of the 12,000 total membership, and the photos of their picketing arguably look better, since their spiffy WGA t-shirts aren't hidden under thick layers of cold, damp clothing. But the picketing in NYC has been well-organized and well-attended.

I was not a working writer yet in 1988 when the WGA last went on strike, but everyone tells me we're much better organized this time around. Also, the issues have been communicated clearly to the membership, and the membership is strongly united because the stakes are so important. In 1988, I've heard, many writers weren't sure what the strike was about (I think it was about VHS tape royalties and foreign residuals). We have a powerful new weapon this time: the internet. As you're seeing, we're using it to present our case through factual explanations as well as humor. The big companies maybe didn't realize there would be so many blogs and YouTube videos cleverly making our points.

I don't know if public opinion will be a deciding factor, though the polls show it's on our side. In the end what decides this is economics and who can't afford to keep fighting longer. If public opinion translates to less viewership and fewer ad dollars, then that will help us. The support of the actors and directors is very welcome, but not that surprising, because their unions' negotiations are coming up soon. If we get a good deal, it sets a precedent for them getting a similar good deal. There has been significant outreach to the DGA, AFTRA and SAG, probably more so than before, and it's helping.

Re Carson Daly: he's not a Guild member, so it was not so bad for him to go back on the air, though we would have preferred he stayed out and supported his writers as other hosts have done. I think NBC had more leverage over him to force him to return. His big mistake was actively soliciting scab jokes. I'm less clear on the Ellen situation, though it's been pointed out that she canceled as many shows over a dog as she did over the writers' strike. She claims her contract forces her to deliver shows, but that's true of other hosts who have stayed off the air.

Thanks for your support and interest! --Steve

Steve Young said...

Hi Michael,

Ah, inspiration, that mysterious ghost in the machine. I've been writing comedy for so long that the joke-o-tron in my mind reliably fires up and produces material even if I'm in a bad mood. I'm not saying I'll necessarily write great stuff, but I'll write stuff. Sometimes adversity ends up being inspirational. But as I mentioned in my piece, I've gotten used to plunging in and working even if I don't feel inspired.

Comedy on the Letterman show involves a lot of current events material. So the beginnings of inspiration are in the news. We have the set-ups handed to us: Britney Spears shaves her head. Dick Cheney shoots an old guy in the face. In these cases we've got something to grasp onto and work with. But the difference between a predictable, so-so joke and a really new, surprising, distinctive joke is some elusive mixture of inspiration and innate talent and even just persistence. Sometimes I write a set-up to a joke, think hard, and then put something down that I'm not really thrilled about. Maybe I'll move on to another joke, but some part of my mind will be still turning the puzzle over and over. If I'm lucky, I'll give it another look and a better joke will float up from the depths of my mind.

There are some people who believe that being funny can't be taught. That may be true, but I do know that a talent for comedy can be shaped and polished and vastly improved. Like other kinds of writing, there's a lot of craft that's brought to bear.

Some of the comedy on the Late Show is non-topical, and is just weird, out-of-the-blue. Often that's my favorite, because that's a chance for my own individual sensibility to run wild. But that's the most intimidating, too: just starting from a blank computer screen without any Britney Spears embarrassment to help me get going. But that blank screen doesn't scare me anymore. I'll come up with something, because I have to.

Good luck with your writing-- Steve