Let’s make one thing clear: Of all the people affected by the strikes in Hollywood, talk show hosts are not to be pitied. These are well-known, well-paid people who, as a rule, will be fine.
But this is definitely a tough time to host a talk show or, if you are jimmy falloneven No host one.
The pillory for presenters who restart production in defiance of their writers’ pickets is filling up. The latest addition, Bill Maher, tried to cushion the advertisement that his HBO talk show, “Real Time,” was returning to the air with lavish praise for its striking staff.
“The show I’ll do without my writers won’t be as good as our normal show, period,” he said. “I love my writers, I’m one of them, but I’m not willing to waste an entire year and see so many low-income people suffer so much.”
Nice words, but a little hard to take at face value given what Maher recently said on his podcast that the strikers were making “eccentric” demands on the studios and seemed to “believe that you owe your life as a writer.” The Writers Guild of America announced a “Real Time” picket; commentator Keith Olbermann called Maher is a “bastard”. Monday Maher Announced that “would delay the return of ‘Real Time,’ for now.”
Among daytime talk shows, “The View” returned to the air due to protests from the WGA. (The actors are also on strike, although in one of the many complications By affecting daytime shows, the Screen Actors Guild does not consider hosting to be a violation of their strike.) “The Talk” and “The Jennifer Hudson Show” announced their return and then reversed their plans shortly before their premiere dates.
Drew Barrymore got the largest audience recoil — even from the National Book Awards, which disinvited her as host – for announcing the resumption of its daytime program. On Sunday, she changed coursesaying that he had “listened to everyone” and was “making the decision to pause the premiere until the strike is over.”
There was once a time when a host who had returned without writers in the middle of a strike, citing concern for the rest of the show’s staff, could be forgiven and even treated as a folk hero. That time was (check the calendar) May.
That’s when, at the beginning of the current writers’ strike, posters on social media circled clips since Conan O’Brien’s return to NBC’s “Late Night” during the 2007-08 writers’ strike, when he bought time by twirling his wedding ring on his desk and singing “Kentucky Blue Moon with a cowboy hat. O’Brien was called a “legend” for drawing attention to how much he needed the writers from him (he didn’t make his solo work look easy), not to mention, digging in your own pocket pay about 75 employees.
But as this year’s strike progressed, the guild and its supporters made it clear that any hosts who restarted their shows during this strike would not be showered with likes. The guild operated under different contract language in O’Brien’s time, and WGA members has said that something like its return to the air today would be considered a strikebreaker because airing the show inevitably involves creative work that constitutes writing.
The producers of today’s returning talk shows, of course, disagree. I cannot resolve this dispute as a lawyer. I can say, as a writer, that physically writing words is the easiest part of the job (even for a hunt-and-peck typist like me). Planning, shaping ideas, taking notes, generating questions, generating original concepts: all of this is the work of writing, whether you consider it the act of writing or not.
In any case, I do not believe that the current reaction is the result of the wording of the contract or a philosophical change in the nature of the scribe’s craft. Support for unions across the United States is rising: A 2022 Gallup poll found it in its highest level since 1965 – which has resulted in 72 percent of Americans siding with the writers about the studies. And like any strong feeling these days, this one is amplified on social media, especially when there are famous faces like Maher and Barrymore to target.
He the talk show returns 2007-08 were not without controversy. Ellen Degeneres and jay leno They were criticized by the WGA for doing stand-up comedy. (David Letterman returned to the air with his entire staff because his production company, Worldwide Pants, reached its own agreement with the writers.) Even Jon Stewart, in his late-aughts icon prime, received some criticism for “crust”. But overall, these episodes of stymied strikes were seen as testaments to the need for writers, and occurred more with sadness than defiance.
Today expectations have changed. When Johnny Carson, who practiced cold neutrality, he returned without his writers During the 1988 strike, he was not seen as a hypocrite who contradicted his principles on air. In the most stubborn nightlife of 2023, when the hosts have made political good faith As part of your actions, your audience is more likely to expect the way you walk to match the way you talk.
So it’s safer for them to do it by speaking through a podcast, as sidelined hosts Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and John Oliver did with “Strike Force Five,” starting in August. (Conservative Fox News late-night host Greg Gutfeld, who has non-WGA staffremained on the air during the strike, although I doubt it would have been in the group chat anyway).
In theory, the podcast sounds like the late-night equivalent of “The Avengers.” In practice, it’s more like “Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee,” decaffeinated. It’s a friendly, shapeless session of five buddies breaking hands, exchanging business talk, and occasionally reading sponsor ads like those of today. Joe Franklin.
But aside from its mission statement (raising money to support the hosts’ unemployed staff) it’s rarely about the strike. In the third episode, Colbert surprises his co-hosts by having an artificial intelligence simulator read ads in his voices. “This is why the Guild has to hold the line, this is why SAG has to hold the line,” he says. “Because they were all it will be replaced by robots for Christmas if we don’t.”
“Strike Force Five” is a solution to a practical problem: raising money for unemployed workers. But it’s also a solution to a celebrity problem: giving its hosts a public presence and voice without making them the bad guys. The 2007-08 work stoppage had hit beards; This one has an attack pod. (The latter, 15 years later, is as exclusively male as the former.)
After all, one of the dangers of the strike for talk show hosts is that it disrupts the illusion on which their shows depend: that the host is their friend, not someone’s boss.
Talk show hosts are authorities whose job it is to act as if they have no authority; They play jokers, confidants or sarcastic strangers who throw cream pies in the face of power. But even if they are hired and sometimes fired by the networks, even if they openly support the unions, they are still managers.
This became uncomfortably clear with the recent Rolling Stone Exhibition under the conditions of Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” whose employees described a “toxic workplace” where miserable employees used guest locker rooms as “crying rooms.” Fallon later apologized to his staff in a virtual meeting and joined DeGeneres in the talk show club with likable public figures and a hell of a boss reputation.
That particular hot topic has yet to come up in “Strike Force Five,” at least in some of whose recent episodes They were recorded before the Rolling Stone article appeared. (Meanwhile, we’ve learned that during the strike, Fallon considered reading “Moby-Dick” and “got into kebabs.”) but it would be worth acknowledging in a podcast aimed at supporting night workers.
Talk shows, even the most topic-oriented ones, are in some ways escapes. But for the moment, it’s hard for them and their audiences to escape an essential truth: your favorite show is someone else’s workplace.