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Watercooler Talk: What is the definition of "writing?"

by Bob Sassone, posted Jan 8th 2008 12:04PM

Rolling Stone magI'm behind the writers 100%, but that doesn't mean I understand what's going on.

The WGA rules state that during the strike, the hosts of the late night shows cannot write their own material or do their monologues (except for Letterman and Ferguson, who made their own deal to get their writers back). Leno is in trouble for writing his own jokes. Leno says he got some special deal from the WGA, but the WGA says that he can't write a monologue. But what exactly is "writing?"

Last night, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report returned to Comedy Central, without writers. Both shows were very entertaining. Stewart talked a lot about the strike and even interviewed a strike expert, and Colbert did a running bit about not having anything on the teleprompters to read and then he interviewed The Atlantic Monthly's Andrew Sullivan.

But it got me thinking: why are Stewart and Colbert allowed to do even that much material? Isn't that writing? Even though they're not obviously "scripted" bits, they're still bits. You mean to tell me that neither Stewart nor Colbert (nor O'Brien, Kimmel, and Daly, for that matter) planned any of those words ahead of time? Not the interview portion of their shows, I'm talking about the comedy bits they did. Just because there isn't a script in front of them or words on a prompter doesn't mean that they're just winging the whole thing from the top of their heads. Of course they planned some of this ahead of time. I can understand why Leno is getting flack, because he not only admitted that he's writing his jokes but you can tell clearly that they are jokes because they're in a monologue format. But what Stewart, Colbert and the others are doing ... why is it OK to do that with the strike going on?

Just so I'm clear, I don't see anything wrong with what they're doing. Not at all. I'm just trying to figure out exactly where "ad libbing" ends and "writing" begins, what amount of writing is acceptable and what amount goes against WGA rules.

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"I'm behind the writers 100%, but that doesn't mean I understand what's going on."

If you don't understand what's going on, how can you possibly support one group or another?

January 13 2008 at 7:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yeah Bob, I wondered that too. I think Colbert and Stewart should've stood up against that mini-company Viacom and, in the process, get their shows cancelled, so we can finally return to Fox News and enjoy unbiased reporting.

Speaking of unbiased reporting... ah wait. Wrong blog-entry to do that...

To be blunt: get over yourself. Is blogging about the strike not writing? Shouldn't you support your fellow writers by not blogging? Shouldn't Ken Levine fully shut down his blog? No? Why? Is not-blogging about American Idol good or shouldn't he stop blogging altogether, since writing is writing is writing? Or is writing just writing when you publish your stuff on TV? Is a newsbit on BBC America, which Levine was proud of recently, not writing for TV? Or is BBC America just not "US TV"?

Or, to sum it up: BLAH!

Ít's bad enough we had to live without Colbert and Stewart for 10 weeks. Go bash Leno, he's a nitwit. It's an election year, you should be glad we finally get some sarcastic insight again on the BS that's on the news-channels.

Seriously. Chucking Colbert and Stewart in the same category as Leno is blasphemy. Shame on you.

January 09 2008 at 5:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This has got to be the most useless discussion ever. It is their show, if they want to "write" for it that is their perogitive. I generally support labor, but everything has a limit.

January 09 2008 at 1:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Well apparently John Oliver will be deported if he strikes, so maybe he's taking over writing duties at The Daily Show??

January 09 2008 at 12:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Apparently Letterman and his own independent production company struck a separate deal with the Guild in which he accepted their terms and the writers for his shows went back to work.

January 08 2008 at 11:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David Woods

Can someone explain why Letterman is allowed to work a deal with writers? I am confused.

January 08 2008 at 9:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to David Woods's comment
Brent McKee

Letterman's company is the sole producer of The Late Show and The Late Late Show. That is to say that there is no co-production deal with CBS. In fact during the strike, not only was Dave paying his staff salaries and paying insurance for them, he was also paying rent on the Ed Sullivan Theater. While the other hosts have their own production companies - Big Dog for Jay Lenno, Conaco for Conan, Busboy for Jon Stewart - their shows are done with the networks as co-producers. The WGA wants a deal with all of the production companies involved with the show and that deal must include all of the shows that those production companies (and their corporate owners) produce. So deal for "The Daily Show" would not only mean a deal with Busboy, but a deal for all of the Comedy Central shows and (since Comedy Central is owned by Viacom) all of the Viacom shows.

January 09 2008 at 3:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think it has to do with the "capacity" in which the host is acting. I seem to remember reading something about how material that would normally be written by the writing staff on the show is considered written material, and material that would not normally be written by a writer on the show is not considered written material. Hence, a monologue, which would normally be written by the writing staff, is written material, even if the host just does it himself. When something is done by a host who is also a writer, and it is not something his writing staff would normally have written for him, they don't consider him as doing it "in his capacity" as a show writer, but in his capacity as the host. Pre-written monologue, normally done by writers = writing. Extemporaneous monologue or interview, not normally written by writers = hosting, not writing... at least that's how I'm understanding this thing, anyway. Clear as mud, right?

January 08 2008 at 9:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think the writers (and I do support them) need to place their focus on someone else besides the backlash that Leno is having to take. Yes, he's been writing his monologues, but I do believe (and my improv actor friends will concur) that whether it is improvised or not it is still "writing". Improvisation is usually what sparks the creative process in these types of shows. And have we forgotten, that only two days into the strike Ellen returned and followed the same format of her show with or without writers? Set aside the excuse that her show is syndicated, she returned and wrote for herself under the same creed that Leno used. "As host you are allowed to write for yourself".

Again, I support the writers, but I think their focus is on the wrong people. Leno has always been a class act and has always been an integral part of his show (he shows up at 8:00 in the morning and I wouldn't doubt if he's one of the last to leave with his staff). Let's ask the writers what they received from Leno when he celebrated his 10th year as Tonight Show host...

I just want to get back to work and it's becoming a silly feud over $$ between the writers and producers when it's those of us who are the below the line folks who are suffering the most.

January 08 2008 at 5:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Colbert has a background in improv so his teleprompter bit could of been made up that second and we couldn't tell. Look at Whose Line is it Anyway, sometimes that comes off as written comedy but its all improv.

As for the graphics Stewart had to of written that, but it was during a speech about the strike so the WGA may not call him on it because like every other host he was explaining the situation. Those explinations had to planned out somehow and the WGA didn't yell at them for that (even Leno). They were yelling at Leno for doing what he usually does, a full monologue planned out completely. None of the other shows are doing that. They seem to be going, "Lets do this and see what happens." After that its all unwritten.

January 08 2008 at 2:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joey Geraci

It's fairly clear, as the hosts can't prewrite whole segments, but they can get the bare structure of the show down beforehand. Leno crossed the line because he clearly was reading his monologue and other segments directly off the teleprompter, which means they were entirely written beforehand. I thought it was really low class. He could have tried at least one day to do the show the way the WGA wanted, and if it was a horrible disaster, he could have gone the way he ended up anyway, with more support from the WGA. But he didn't even try, and I think he deserves to be bitten in the ass because of it.

It is less clear on the Daily Show, Colbert Report. Clearly some of the show was prepared beforehand, but how much writing was completely finished is unclear.

January 08 2008 at 2:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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