Wednesday, December 05, 2007

No Position on the Writers' Strike

THE THING PROBLEM. Peculiarly, the Carson Daly show Last Call has become a flashpoint for the issues surrounding the strike by the Writers' Guild of America:

Carson Daly may not have won over any friends at the Writers Guild of America, but he no doubt just got a bit tighter with his buddies at NBC.

Five weeks into the writers' strike, the Last Call host returned to the airwaves Monday night sans the cue card-worthy quips of his staff's union scribes, becoming the first late-night emcee to cross the picket line.

Daly taped the show last week—and was excoriated by the guild, especially for trying to solicit material via phone and email. But until the episode aired Monday, the 34-year-old had remained largely mum about his motivation.

"If I had not been back on the air tonight, 75 members of my loyal staff and crew were going to get laid off," he said at the show's open, adding that NBC execs told him, "You either come back, or they're laid off.

"I said, 'Let's turn the lights on, I'm gonna come back.' It's that simple."

Daly had no reason to doubt that NBC would make good on its cleaning-house threat, as the network effectively laid off the nonguild staffs of its other two late-night talk shows, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

The news article can't seem to decide if Daly is a villainous scab, a network toady, or a victim of circumstance, although their preference seems to be the middle choice.

I tend to think the right answer is "None of the above." He's a guy trying to make the right decision without a big safety net. Leno, Letterman, and to a lesser extent, Conan O'Brien are able to have their cake and eat it too. That's one of the prime perks of being fabulously rich. You can sympathize with the writers who are endangering everyone's livelihood, but you can also pull out your personal checkbook and protect the staffers whose mortgages are being thrown under the bus by the current labor action. Carson Daly isn't rich enough to pay his way out of a very real dilemma. He has my sympathy for being in that fix and still deciding to make a decision.

I also sympathize with the writers. They've been treated like dirt throughout the whole history of Hollywood, despite the obvious fact that there would be no movies or TV shows without them. The same fact holds true in the world of print publishing, which is even more outrageous, because books, magazines, and newspapers can't pretend that their product is as much a function of directors, actors, set designers, cameramen, lighting technicians, and special effects wizards as it is of writers. Yet even in publishing, writers always get the short end of the stick, routinely stuck with take-it-or-leave-it contracts that give them no rights about when they'll be paid, who does the accounting, and whether or not they'll even be consulted by the writer wannabes who control marketing budgets, sales strategies, and publicity campaigns. When it comes to the abuse of talent, no category of artist has been more systematically used, defrauded, and, yes, raped to a fare-thee-well than writers.

On the other hand. (There's almost always another hand.) I have to admit that the idea of being a member of a writers' union seems directly at odds with the whole idea of being a writer. Writing is mostly a solitary, cerebral, and intensely private and personal calling, not at all like being a welder on an assembly line. Writing isn't a job. It's the thing writers can't not do. Which tends to reduce the amount of economic clout most of us have in the marketplace. The prospect of writers picketing, writers beating up scabs, writers forming the usual unruly mob scene favored by unions the world over just seems a hopeless oxymoron. And if there's anyone who can be expected to lose sleep over the unintended peripheral victims of a strike -- the non-celebrity staffers who hustle cameras for Steven Spielberg and book guests for Jay Leno -- it's probably the writer who has spent his life getting inside the heads of the real people who carry the thankless daily burden of being responsible without being dramatically overpaid for it. Writers are nature's bleeding hearts. It's unsettling when they deal out pain without seeming to feel it themselves.

That's why Instapunk can't manage to concoct a position on the writers' strike. There's a bit too much fantastical Atlas Shrugged atmosphere about the basic premise. It makes me think of Aristophanes's absurdist parable Lysistrata. It makes me imagine an economic ultimatum-cum-riot by Picasso, Matisse, and the rest of the Paris local of the Federated Union of Cubists/Moderns of Europe (FUC/ME). A great basis for a satirical book or movie, perhaps, but essentially ludicrous in the real world.

Don't misread me, though. I wholeheartedly believe writers should share in the profits of the high-tech media bonanza. And I love the idea of all the showbiz loudmouths rendered suddenly mute by the removal of the puppeteer's hand from their backs.

Is that solidarity? Maybe semi-solidarity with a side order of self-conscious irony.

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