WGA stance on struck work seems more like a write-off


CORRECTED 10:27 a.m. PT Jan. 18

Since the late-night talk-show hosts have returned from their strike-mandated hiatus over the past few weeks, I've been playing this little game with myself called "Can you guess which of these shows has no writers?" The sad truth is that I've lost every time. I haven't been able to tell 'em apart yet.

I mean, of course I know on paper which ones are supposed to be scribe-rich and which are purportedly winging it. David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, by virtue of the WGA's deal with Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company, returned three weeks ago with their writing staffs intact, while NBC's Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel -- without a similar deal -- remain officially writerless.

The same writer-free fate befell Comedy Central's golden boys Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert when they came back on the air Jan. 7.

So how come I can't tell the difference? Actually, that's not entirely true. O'Brien clearly is going the vamping route, admirably making it up as he goes along. Leno initially faced a concerned response from the WGA when he returned to "The Tonight Show" with what was clearly a written monologue. He angrily claimed to have received official permission in advance to wield a pencil as long as he did it himself. The guild has retreated into silence ever since.

As for Stewart, Colbert, Kimmel and HBO's Bill Maher, there is some question as to whether these guys have received the "You must now go improv" memo or, if they did, have been quietly ignoring it.

If you watch the shows, you might be forgiven for thinking that prepared material is being incorporated via clipped monologues, pretaped segments and field pieces. This appears to be the overwhelming impression, anyway, though Comedy Central spokesman Steve Albani maintains, "Our guys are playing by the rules."

Exactly which rules those might be is naturally open to interpretation. The point has been made that field pieces, for instance, are not typically penned by writing staffs but field producers. But during a strike, writing is writing, no matter who might be doing it. And if the guild starts to look the other way with talk shows and the men who front them, does it not water down the WGA's ballyhooed egalitarianism and solidarity in the process?

Jeff Hermanson, the WGA's assistant executive director, makes the point that the guild doesn't comment on alleged strike rules compliance violations until a determination is made and possible disciplinary action taken. He declined to say whether there had been any complaints lodged against Stewart, Colbert, Kimmel or Maher, or if indeed anything they have done since returning constitutes a breach.

"With regard to Leno, we clarified that he isn't supposed to be writing a monologue," Hermanson said this week. "Clearly, he had a misunderstanding of the rule."

So why has the WGA allowed Leno to continue penning a nightly monologue on "Tonight" without making an issue of it? And just whose misunderstanding was this: Leno's or the guild's? Hermanson replies that the WGA isn't taking a position on that at present.

We might surmise from this that the guild has taken to having a sliding scale when it comes to perceived scab writing and enforcement. If you're a high-profile talk-show host on a struck production, it appears to be OK to use your words as long as you don't make it too terribly obvious. And even if you do, just don't rub anyone's nose in it, and nobody gets hurt.