Let’s be clear: Of all the people affected by the strikes in Hollywood, you don’t have to pity the talk show hosts. These are well-known, well-paid people who, as a general rule, do well.
But it’s definitely a tough time to be hosting a talk show — or, if you’re Jimmy Fallon, even not to host one.
The pillory of animators who restart production in defiance of their writers’ pickets is becoming crowded. The latest addition, Bill Maher, tried to cushion the announcement of the return of his HBO talk show, “Real Time,” by praising his striking collaborators.
“The show I do without my writers is not going to be as good as our normal show, period,” he said. “I love my writers, I’m one of them, but I’m not prepared to waste an entire year and see so many below average people suffer so much.”
Nice words, but a little hard to take literally given that Maher recently said on his podcast that the strikers had “outlandish” demands of the studios and that they seemed to “believe that you have to make a living as a writer. » The Writers Guild of America announced a “real-time” picket; commentator Keith Olbermann called Maher a “bastard”.
Among daytime talk shows, “The View” returned to the air following the WGA protests. (The actors are also on strike, although among the many complications affecting daytime shows, the Screen Actors Guild does not consider organizing a violation of their strike.) “The Talk” and “The Jennifer Hudson Show” both announced their returns, then canceled their plans shortly before premiere dates.
Drew Barrymore received the most public backlash — including from the National Book Awards, which disinvited her as host — for announcing the revival of her daytime show. On Sunday, she made an about-face, saying that she had “listened to everyone” and that she was “taking the decision to suspend the first until the end of the strike”.
There was a time when a host who returned without writers in the middle of a strike, citing concern for the rest of the show’s crew, could be forgiven, even treated like a folk hero. This time it was (checks calendar) May.
It was around this time that, at the start of the current writers’ strike, posters on social media were circulating clips of Conan O’Brien’s return to NBC’s “Late Night” during the writers’ strike. writers from 2007-2008, when he was buying time by spinning his marriage. ringing the bell on his desk and singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in a cowboy hat. O’Brien was called a “legend” for drawing attention to the fact that he needed his writers – he didn’t make his solo work look easy – not to mention that he had dipped into its own pocket to pay about 75 employees.
But as this year’s strike continued, the guild and its staunch supporters made it clear that hosts returning to their shows during this strike would not be showered with likes. The guild operated under different contractual terms during O’Brien’s time, and members of the WGA said that something like his return to the air would be considered a strikebreaker today because broadcasting the show inevitably involves creative work that constitutes writing.
Today’s talk show producers, of course, disagree. I cannot decide 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 scratchy, peckish typist like me). Planning, shaping ideas, taking notes, generating questions, coming up with original concepts – all of this is the work of writing, whether or not you think of it as the act of writing.
Regardless, I don’t think today’s negative reaction is the result of a contract or a philosophical change about the nature of the scribe’s profession. Support for unions across America is increasing – a 2022 Gallup poll found it at its highest level since 1965 – meaning 72% of Americans are siding with writers over studios. And like any strong feeling today, it’s amplified in social media, especially when there are famous faces like Maher and Barrymore to target.
The talk show returns of 2007-08 were not without controversy. Ellen DeGeneres and Jay Leno were criticized by the WGA for doing monologues. (David Letterman returned to the air with a full crew because his production company, Worldwide Pants, struck its own deal with the writers.) Even Jon Stewart, in his prime as a late icon of the 2000s, suffered criticism for “crust”. But overall, these hampered strike episodes were seen as evidence of the need for writers, produced more in sadness than in challenge.
Today, expectations have changed. When Johnny Carson, who practiced cold neutrality, returned without his writers during the 1988 strike, he was not considered a hypocrite contradicting his on-air principles. In the more opinionated nighttime environment of 2023, where hosts have built political bona fides into their actions, their audiences are more likely to expect their walk to match their talk.
So it’s safer for them to do so by speaking via podcast, as 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, whose staff is not part of the WGA, remained on the air during the strike, although I doubt he participated in the discussion of group anyway.)
In theory, the podcast is like the late-night equivalent of “The Avengers.” In practice, it’s more like “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” decaffeinated. It’s a friendly, informal session of five peers busting chops, chatting in-store, and occasionally reading sponsor ads like modern-day Joe Franklins.
But apart from its mission – to raise funds to support unemployed host staff – there is rarely any question of strike. In the third episode, Colbert surprises his co-hosts by having an AI simulator read commercials in their voices. “That’s why the Guild has to hold on, that’s why SAG has to hold on,” he said. “Because we’re all going to be replaced by robots by 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 a voice without them becoming the bad guys. The 2007-08 work stoppage had strike barbs; this one has a strike module. (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 shatters the illusion on which their programs depend: that the host is your friend, not someone’s boss.
Talk show hosts are authorities whose job it is to act as if they have no authority; they play pranksters, confidants or sarcastic foreigners who throw cream pies in the face of power. But even though they are hired and sometimes fired by the networks, even though they openly support unions, they are nonetheless leaders.
This became uncomfortably clear with Rolling Stone’s recent expose of conditions at Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” whose staff described a “toxic workplace” where miserable employees used guest dressing rooms as “crying rooms.” . Fallon later apologized to his team in a virtual meeting, joining DeGeneres in the club of talk show hosts with likable public personas and a reputation as a boss from hell.
This particularly hot topic has not yet been addressed in “Strike Force Five,” at least some recent episodes of which were recorded before the Rolling Stone article appeared. (Meanwhile, we learned that during the strike, Fallon considered reading “Moby-Dick” and “took to kebabs.”) Granted, the subject could be touchy amid the animators’ marriage storylines and stories of teleprompter failures, but it would be worth acknowledging on a podcast meant to support night shift workers.
Talk shows, even the most issue-oriented ones, are, on some level, escapism. But right now, it’s hard for them and their audiences to escape one essential truth: Your favorite show is someone else’s workplace.