ABC's 'Dancing' waltzing through WGA strike



Here's a "Dancing With the Stars" pop quiz: Which of the following performance critiques was delivered by effusive judge Bruno Tonioli before the Hollywood writers strike, and which came after?

Quote A: "That's what I like to see! The boy from Brazil is going bananas!"

Quote B: "That was a cliffhanger, riding the fine line between love and hate!"

If you picked the alliterative "bananas" line as writer-scripted, well, sorry, you're not moving on to round two. That's a post-strike quote, while the less snappy one predates it -- and Tonioli devised both.

It seems his comments, along with those of fellow judges Len Goodman and Carrie Ann Inaba and the wry quips of host Tom Bergeron, have been largely spontaneous all along.

ABC's "Dancing" is one reality show that's real, or as real as any sequin-studded Hollywood production can be. Who knew -- until the WGA's job action pulled back the curtain and revealed that the show had a single union scribe.

That has allowed TV's No. 1 show to waltz through the walkout.

"Oh, I wish!" Tonioli responded when asked if his lines were fed to him. "Even if you wanted to (prepare), it's a live performance. Anything can happen."

"You respond to what you see," Tonioli said.

His creativity was unabated on Monday's show. "That was a menacing tango. That's a truly Scary Spice there," he told Melanie Brown of Spice Girls fame. Goodman got into the wordsmith act: "Your hips -- I was hypnotized," he told Brown.

Sometimes a script doctor would help. But even they might be hard-pressed to craft the true drama that has shadowed this season: Jane Seymour's Malibu house was imperiled by a wildfire, then she lost her 92-year-old mother. Osmond fainted on camera; two weeks later, her father died at age 90.

Tears and heartache abound, but the show goes on. In recent weeks, it's been topping the TV ratings with more than 21 million weekly viewers.

While "Dancing" steps gracefully, the strike has left other shows limping or worse. Many dramas and comedies face a dwindling supply of new episodes. Late-night talk shows, minus their sprawling writing staffs, have retreated into reruns.

The syndicated "Ellen" is on the air without its union writers, to the WGA's publicly stated displeasure, but host Ellen DeGeneres was sweating it on the first episode taped after the strike started Nov. 5 (with digital-media residuals a central issue).

DeGeneres extended her trademark opening dance Friday for lack of a monologue, then launched into a laundry list of guest Vince Vaughn's attributes ("tall," "very, very tall"). Seven minutes to kill until the commercial break, she was told.

DeGeneres' next line: "How many pints are in a quart?"

The strike's ripple effect has even hit the news programs that fall outside its boundaries. ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," which routinely features a "Sunday Funnies" showcase for political humor from Leno, Letterman, Stewart and others, was at a loss last Sunday with their shows sidelined.

Stephanopoulos issued a call for viewers to rescue the fixture.

"If you see something funny on the Web or want to get in on the act yourself, record your comedy riff on this week's political news on video, webcam or cell phone and upload it to us" at, he said.

The only viewer aid needed at "Dancing" remains the phone, text and online audience votes that help decide the celebrity contestants' fates.

David Boone, the show's WGA member who walked off the job along with thousands of other movie and TV writers in Los Angeles and New York, was scripting material including introductions and descriptions of upcoming episodes, a task Bergeron said now is handled by producers.

Boone also served as a "wonderful" sounding board for impromptu jokes during the live broadcast, said the host; the longtime friends had worked together on "Hollywood Squares."

Bergeron used to lean heavily on canned patter until realizing, early in season two, that the approach wasn't working. (Co-host Samantha Harris fills the role of earnest partner.)

"You can see I'd walk on after a dance and have a line ready to go," Bergeron said. "Sometimes it was a very good line, but it wasn't organic to what was happening. ... We don't do that anymore. Now, I'm watching the dance and responding to it and what I felt about it."

He enjoys playing ball with the excitable Tonioli.

The judge's "right arm sweeps over his left shoulder and I know he's about to let loose with an extremely clever or pained metaphor," Bergeron said, comparing himself to a batter "waiting for a good pitch."

Contestants provide inspiration as well, such as sexy soap star Cameron Mathison's tongue-in-cheek vow to dance in a thong if he makes it to the Nov. 27 finale.

"And that special edition of 'Dancing with the Stars' will be pay-per-view," Bergeron intoned dryly when the camera swung his way.