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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?

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14 comments on this post

I’ve noticed that the Daily Show seems a lot less ‘pacey’ since coming back from the strike, ie. everything seems a lot slower and more drawn out, like you say devoting more time to interviews (with less well known people than they’d usually have).

I think after a while, once the pressure has built a bit (from having to constantly improvise), the quality might drop a bit.

Can’t agree more, these shows hardly need writers. And with the networks turning to reality TV for the rest of the season and the movie scripts still stockpiled in the vaults, the writers sure seem unnecessary for the time being.

What they’re doing is important though, because the SAG and DGA are very likely to strike as well if its not resolved by their contract renewal date. Theres no getting around either of those strikes

Reagan knew how to handle strikers best. Just toss em.

These millionaire crybabies make me sick. Fire them all, and find people who will work for what the studios are paying.

“These millionaire crybabies make me sick. Fire them all, and find people who will work for what the studios are paying.”

Writers. Are. NOT. All. ‘Millionaires’.

The millionaires are the studio executives, NOT the other way around.

Reagan was the person who would gladly support human rights-violating dictators abroad, who would not think twice about torture, and who passed economics legislation to benefit the rich over the poor… sounds very similar to Saddam Hussein

“Writers. Are. NOT. All. ‘Millionaires’.”

Just to chime in, all politics aside, I seriously doubt that even most of them are millionaires. Perhaps a fraction within a fraction. Outliers on the graph. And I’m being very generous with that estimate, since I’ve never really ever encountered or heard of any millionaire writers. There very well may be some out there, but I bet that writing is not their only job description. And they certainly don’t represent anyone on a large scale.

Most are blue-collar, and are many are not reliably employed for years at a time in the same place in the way that many other careers are.

After doing research into the situation, its pretty clear to me that the writers have every reason to put their foot down. The Internet is not a “wild and unknown medium”. We all know it. Its the future. Its paying, and paying big, and there are videos of media conglomerates explicitly saying so, citing figures in the millions and billions.

Writers don’t get a dime of any of that, even when entire episodes are streamed online with commercials.

Youtube has some great videos that explain the situation. The Colbert Report and the Daily Show writers made their own stuff on there.

Guys, not to be rude, but please back off the extreme politics and put your feet on the ground. Its essential to understanding any situation objectively.

I despise far-right rants as much as I do far-left.

I have to admit, I was wondering the same thing- while Stewart/Colbert may not be reading off an autocue anymore, it’s clear they have prepared and are coordinated with the graphics guys. I don’t think the quality has gone down too much, although obviously I miss the scripted segments. If they are ad-libbing, they’re both doing an amazing job.

That said: Can’t wait for the strike to be over. Commenter Jason clearly doesn’t understand how much power the WGA has in LA. Any writer breaking the strike would suffer some serious future consequences.

“And at what point does brainstorming cross the line into writing?”

Well, the final season of Alias was clearly brainstorming, and it didn’t even begin to cross the line into writing. And there wasn’t even a writer’s strike. So what the hell was the excuse for that final season?

I used to watch Letterman every night (Well 90% of the time anyway), and I always felt that some nights were strained, and some nights were good. Different batches of writers working different days? Or is it because of the news stories of the day are not very interesting?

With Letterman for example, I’ve seen him a few times say things like “Oh I know there’s a problem tonight!” and make general comments about the writing of material that didn’t get a big laugh.

So if the host of the show is criticising the writing, then why the hell has the show GOT HIS NAME IN THE TITLE? Why is it his show? What does he contribute? This isn’t aimed just at letterman, but all the shows with a name in the title. What do they do for the show other then present it? If they write material, then how does that affect the writer’s strike? If they do write material, are they in the union? If not, why not. If they are not in the union, then surely they can write as much as they like?

The average screenwriter makes around 50,000 a year. That is barely middle-class in L.A., and almost poverty in NYC, the two places where all the tv writers live.

Don’t believe me? Believe the US Department of Labor:

They are hardly ‘millionaires’.

Yeah the Daily Show’s first show back was a bumbling mess, but since then its been spot on as if it was 3 months ago.

$50k salaried average is pretty good for any industry, and shouldn’t be striking anyway.

Again, Reagan knew what to do with crybabies. Fire em.

I’d say ‘the starting salary for writing is $50k’.

Then that’s that. No more strike, and some people that might appreciate their jobs more in hope of raises down the road.

I think that IS what they have said. And now they have no writers.

Why would you hope for a raise ‘down the road’ when the people who would give you that raise are so happy to have you work for free?

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