Monday, February 04, 2008

How does Leno do it? With scab help, of course!

Well our Writers Guild of America strike may be coming to an end soon, but in its wake there will be niggling questions among us rank and file, like why the leadership got distracted trying to recruit reality television and animation writers in the middle of the action against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and why late night hosts like Jay Leno and Jon Stewart were given a pass to defy their union blatantly and continue to write monologues and sketches by scabbing, and getting help from scabs.

Today’s New York Times touches on the latter subject with an odd article by Bill Carter, the chronicler of the late night wars and the one journo we'd expect to have the inside track on the late night show workings. The article about Jay Leno's ability to keep up his ratings and lead over Letterman despite the strike, leave sit a mystery as to how the host somehow manages to come up with something like two dozen fresh, topical jokes per night in his monologues:

"How does he do it?

"…Mr. Leno is performing the opening monologue, his show’s centerpiece, just as he always has, firing off joke after joke— 25 last Thursday alone for example. Many of the jokes were based on the Republican debate the night before. Others were more generic. But to most viewers they probably seemed indistinguishable from a monologue Mr. Leno might have given six months, or six years, ago.

"That has led to speculation about how he’s doing it. After all, the Writers Guild put out word that no new writing could be done during the strike. Mr. Leno met with the guild leadership before the strike and explained that he intended to perform a monologue he would write himself…

"That might not seem to account for 25 jokes a night, but Mr. Ludwin and others associated with the show say Mr. Leno’s three decades of work as a stand-up comic has been the biggest factor in those monologues.

"These associates say that Mr. Leno is pulling jokes from the deep pool of material he has used in his stand-up act, dropping in more generic — or just silly — jokes into his monologues... But he has also, the associates said, used his skills as a mechanic — Mr. Leno’s chief non-show-business passion is working on cars and motorcycles — to retool old jokes. One longtime writer said that Mr. Leno was taking lines he used about earlier politicians and refashioning them to involve contemporary figures.

"Some of Mr. Leno’s competitors still question how he is able to do this all by himself, night after night, especially while also darting off to stand-up gigs. Last Wednesday he flew to Phoenix for a Super Bowl-related performance after taping the show earlier that day…

We’d never have imagined that we’d have more sources in the late night world than Bill Carter, but from the start, we've been told by insiders that Leno is relying on the help of a few topnotch out-of-town jokewriters who fax, phone or email him gags every morning.

There are hundreds of these guys out there, pros who syndicate jokes to morning radio shows and late night show writing staffs alike (just do a Google search for “syndicated jokes” and you’ll get the idea)-- not mention comics on the road, stuck doing two nights at a HooHas in Cleveland, eager to win points from the Big Guy. Woody Allen got his start sending gags to Walter Winchell and Earl Wilson. Rodney Dangerfield would buy “no respect” one-liners for $25 to $100 each.

Weird middle-of-the-night Carson Daly got a lot of stick for seeking jokes from his pals; Leno is taking advantage of a Scab Nation, and just like any big corporation , he’s bringing in the scabs from out of town.

It’s unclear why Bill Carter is being coy, and odd that he left us to find the story between the lines.


Anonymous said...

The thing with Carson Daly was he did it as a bit, just days after the strike started. If I understand correctly, the guild worked quietly with Letterman, allowing his show to move forward with the waiver/back pay agreement because he's an owner-producer. Did the guild tell Leno during those negotiations? Pretty sure Jay found out after. And (not to contradict you or Bill Carter) I don't remember Jay making statements before the strike that he would write his own monologues.

That happened after the Pants deal. Obviously Jay doesn't have much love for Jeff Zucker as NBC has never treated him that well, regardless of his consistent ratings and revenue.

I'm pro-Guild but also pro-Leno...

The guild benefits by negotiating with individual companies, which weakens the AMPTP. In support of the guild though, I don't like the perks and free promotions the Corps get with fresh shows.

Jay has to protect his franchise and show legacy because NBC doesn't really care about him. And if the WGA did help Dave nail down his writing staff without telling Leno at the same time, I don't think that was good considering these two shows are competitors.

Finally (and thanks TB for the space to nosh), Jay lives and breathes comedy. It's his hobby, past-time, interest and what he does when he's not fixing cars. His local comedy schedule is proof of that. Scab writers? These guys, maybe with the exception of Letterman, do use outside writers straight from the fax machine.

Maybe Bill Carter's answer lies somewhere between Jay doing more than just hosting; NBC's shabby treatment; and the guild working directly with his competitor while keeping him out of the loop.

Anonymous said...

I find it highly unlikely that either Stewart or Colbert are scabbing. Anyone who's watched these shows regularly can see that the non-writers versions are substandard, and kept deliberately so. Whatever humor they do retain comes from both Stewart and Colbert's ability to riff.

Not to mention the fact that both shows, like their peers, are practically infomercials in support of the strike.

I'm getting a little (no, make that a lot) sick of the sour grapeiness of the discourse surrounding this strike. It's not going to makes heroes of anyone, or resolve things any sooner.

Brian said...

I don't see how anyone could possibly not realize that Jay leno is a shady human being by now.

His writing staff should all wear these:

"Leno Smackdown T-Shirt"