Flayed Jay will kick in week's pay
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UPDATED 5:34 p.m. PT Dec. 2
UPDATED 9:25 p.m. PT Dec. 1
Jay Leno will pay out of his pocket for at least the next week the salaries of about 80 staffers of "The Tonight Show" who were laid off Friday, a source said Saturday.
"Tonight Show" executive producer Debbie Vickers is said to have assisted Leno with the logistics of his decision, which came to light a day after disgruntled employees charged that the late-night host had been unfair to them.
Vickers began calling laid-off "Tonight Show" employees Saturday to give them the news, sources said, and phone calls from Vickers and others were expected to continue through today.
Leno was the last among the high-profile late-night TV hosts to make concessions to staffers who -- suddenly out of work -- are seen as collateral damage in the ongoing WGA strike.
David Letterman, whose Worldwide Pants produces CBS' "The Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," is paying the staffs of both shows through year's end. Conan O'Brien on Thursday notified the nonwriting employees on his NBC-produced "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" that he too will pay them out of his pocket on a week-to-week basis, putting him in the same camp now occupied by Leno.
While the other hosts made the moves pre-emptively, Leno's came after the staff of his show was laid off Friday. At a staff meeting, the employees were told that they were not only out of a job but also that there were no guarantees they would be rehired once "Tonight Show" resumes production.
"Some people were crying. Some people were screaming," said one employee, who like many of the laid-off staffers spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
The news came as a shock to the workers who had been assured by Leno in a conference call several days into the writers strike that their jobs were safe.
"He was on speaker phone," a staffer recalled. "He told us not to panic. He said: 'I can't get into details, but nobody will miss a car payment or lose their house. We're family. Trust me. I'm going to take care of this.' "
According to insiders, Leno's early confidence stemmed from several options in the works, including the hiring of guest hosts. Leno himself guest-hosted "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" during the 1988 writers strike, according to the WGA. This time around, comedian Wanda Sykes was a top pick, but she turned down the offer. Using rock stars on a rotating basis also was considered, insiders said.
Another scenario was having Leno do a show without a monologue or writers, relying heavily on musical acts and stand-up comedians.
None of the options, though, came to fruition, and "Tonight Show" has continued airing reruns.
NBC declined comment Friday beyond a brief statement confirming that it had "regretfully" informed the staffs of "Tonight Show" and "Late Night" that they were being laid off.
The events Friday, as well as Leno's public behavior during the strike, are said to have damaged morale at the show and dented the host's previously squeaky-clean reputation as one of television's A-list nice guys.
"A lot of people don't want to work for Jay anymore," another staffer said Friday before Leno's revelation Saturday that he would pay staffers from his own pocket. "His true colors have shown. We were told he won't cross the picket line until David Letterman or Conan O'Brien do so that he can look like the good guy to the WGA."
While he privately expressed concern for the jobs of his staff members, to the media Leno seemed preoccupied with supporting striking writers, including handing out doughnuts to picketers and mugging for press photos, some staffers said.
"He even joked that because of the writers strike, he had more time to work on his car collection," a staffer said. "That didn't sit well with us."
Joe Medeiros, a striking "Tonight Show" writer who has worked with Leno for 18 years, said that Leno made his appearance on Day 1 of the strike at his request. "I asked him to come out and he did. We thought it sent a message to end the strike."
Medeiros wouldn't answer the question about whether writers would object to Leno working without them during the strike in order to save jobs. "The story to me is that the corporations are doing this in order to pit groups against each other and break the strike," he said.
The fact that some of Leno's writers are paid $500,000 or more annually also didn't sit well with suddenly out-of-work, below-the-line staffers who make a fraction of that amount. Writers also are getting residuals on "Tonight Show" reruns that air during the strike.
Another staffer complained that Leno was taking credit for getting employees two extra weeks of work, but those extra days were the result of Vickers making the request to NBC Universal topper Jeff Zucker.
"Jay made his voice known too, and those jobs were held for four weeks," a Leno rep responded.
The final indignation was a Christmas bonus from Leno to his employees last week that was intended to help them get through the strike but that many found lacking. Staffers mostly were awarded about $100 per year of service, roughly the same bonus they earned last year.
Leno's rep defended the bonuses as well, pointing out that they amounted to $500,000 in aggregate out of Leno's pocket. He also noted that Leno handed out $2 million five years ago to staffers in celebration of his 10th year as host, and said Leno has been known to quietly come to the financial aid of some longtime staffers in need.
Madeiros echoed the representative's sentiment. "Jay is a very generous man," he said. "I don't know what people expected. How much more should he give over a situation that he didn't cause?"
But, one staffer said Friday: "When the most powerful man in TV tells you to relax, then you relax. That's why we expected the bonuses to cover us through the strike. He could've at least covered us through Christmas, that would have been nice."
Leno might in fact do just that. Sources said he didn't act proactively on the salary issue because he had been hoping for a settlement of the strike by the end of last week.
Additionally, the Christmas bonuses that were handed out Friday weren't meant to be Leno's final gesture, even if staffers might have believed otherwise. Sources said Leno has been on the phone with Vickers nearly daily brainstorming about ways to assist staffers while also pledging support to striking writers.