Who’s (not) writing late-night TV?
Last week, Conan, Leno, Letterman, et al, all went back on the air, and this week, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” came back. All these shows, with the exception of the Letterman productions, whose production company struck an independent deal with the WGA, are back to work without their writers.
My question: Who’s currently writing these shows, and how do you define “writing”?
I watched the opening act of the first writer-free Conan, and it did indeed feel like a show done more or less on the fly: Conan talked about the strike, and his “strike beard,” which he said he grew as a sign of solidarity with his writers. He then used the opening act, generally devoted to his monologue and a comedy sketch, to wasting time with dancing, wedding-ring-spinning, and talking about how he was, well, wasting time. It felt more improvised and fliller-like than usual.
Similarly, “The Daily Show’s” first outing back was a little different, with Jon Stewart talking about the strike and devoting two acts to his first show to a guest interview rather than the typical single act.
But as the week went on, particularly on “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report,” the shows got back into their groove and seemed much more like their usual selves. Individual writer-heavy bits have been suspended, like Colbert’s “The Word” segment, but the shows seem professional and prepared and are funny.
But who’s writing this material? I can tell you this: It’s not all being improvised in the moment. It’s too polished, and the usual splicing of news clips and graphics prove that these shows have been well prepared in advance.
Well, where do you draw the line between preparation and “writing”? Are Colbert and Stewart allowed to write on their own shows under some exemption? Leno has been writing and delivering his own monologue, and the WGA cried foul. Leno pointed to an exemption that allows hosts to write their own material apart from WGA rules, or something. I don’t believe this his been resolved, but I haven’t been following it closely through the week.
But when you look especially to the satire natures of Stewart and Colbert, it seems impossible to me that there isn’t writing of some sort involved. How can there not be? Is “brainstorming” allowed as long as there are no scripts? And at what point does brainstorming cross the line into writing?
One thing seems clear to me: Stewart and Colbert et al without writers, while different, is not hugely different than with writers, and the longer they’re on the air without writers, the less “necessary” writers for their shows will seem. By being on the air during the stirke, late-night TV hosts seem to be — whether intentionally or not — hurting the bargaining position of the WGA. After all, if these hosts can turn out viable shows without their writing staffs, what incentive do the producers and networks have to end a strike when they’re still getting new product?