When the Writers Guild of America strike started, the late night talk shows were the first to panic. They got hit the fastest, since their shows are produced on a day-by-day basis, with no backlog of unaired shows to give them some breathing room. In the intervening months, it was the late night talk shows that made the first move to reconcile with the guild, with some cutting individual deals to get their writers back on the job while the strike with all the big parent companies continued.
Most of the talk shows have been unwilling or unable to make side deals with the guild, but have gone back on the air anyway just to remain competitive and keep everyone else who isn’t a writer on the show working. They figure they can get by on interviews and Q&A with the audience alone. Caught in the middle is Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. They’ve returned without their writers, but given the nature of their programs, they can’t get by on interviews alone. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been among the most vocal hosts to support the writers and their strike, so what are they supposed to do when their bosses insist they get back to work and put on a show?
Apparently, the answer is scab it up.
If you’ve watched either of those shows this week, you’ll have seen that it’s mostly business as usual, despite their frequent mentions of the writers strike and their slightly altered formats. In fact, by Thursday it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the old shows and the new shows. The Daily Show was even back to doing video reports with its correspondents.
How does all this new material not constitute writing you might ask. Well, it seems their position is: if you predetermine things to say and do and then ready a bunch of props and graphics and video clips to go along with your jokes, this doesn’t constitute writing. Nothing’s written down on an actual piece of paper, so that’s not “writing” right? …right?
Bull fucking shit it ain’t. Trying to pass off this week’s shows as a testament to Stewart’s and Colbert’s brilliant improvisational skills may well be the biggest joke ever told on Comedy Central. Despite their repeatedly stated support of the strike, clearly they’ve crossed the picket line, and these hosts — both of them guild members — are unambiguously in direct violation of the WGA walkout.
But it’s hard to hate them. They’re so sorely needed right now, you want to give them a get-out-of-jail-free card. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report provide an invaluable service to the American public, especially during an election year like 2008. It’s the only legitimate national news service they have available down there. Seriously. Fox New is fiction, MSNBC is a joke, and CNN now devotes all its air time to Larry King interviewing celebrity train wrecks, Lou Dobbs bitching about Mexicans, and Anderson Cooper visiting war zones and disaster areas to better analyze their long term effects and ramifications on Anderson Cooper.
My biggest concern with Stewart and Colbert being shoved across the picket lines by their bosses to do a show but not write it (wink wink) is that viewers will really start to wonder why anyone needs writers at all. It just feeds the misconception that actors and directors make it all up as they go along. To my horror, I’ve actually had conversations with all-too-average television viewers who don’t fully understand what people like me contribute to the medium. I know it’s a difficult concept to grasp, but all that stuff you see on the screen when shit happens and people say words — unless it’s an interview with a real person, someone wrote it all down first. They thought about it, they made it up, thought about it some more, they typed it, reread it, and edited it. What’s going on in the aforementioned shows is the exact same stuff, minus all the typing.
Even then, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some pretty substantial notes jotted down amongst the contents of their recycling bin and shredder basket. Shhh. Don’t tell the guild, they’ll just get all pissed off and picket some more.
They both desperately need writers. One of them just needs to learn how to read first. And speak.