For Strikers, the Agony of Spare Time

Striking Writers

“OF course I have time to talk to you,” Kevin Bleyer, a writer for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,”

said at the beginning of a recent interview. “Let me just put down this

copy of ‘War and Peace’ that I now have time to read.”

Like his fellow members of the Writers Guild of America

East, Mr. Bleyer, 36, has been on strike for nearly three months. He

was joking about “War and Peace,” though not about having enough hours

to embark on a project of that magnitude. As the fight has dragged on

between the guilds — East and West — and the Alliance of Motion Picture

and Television Producers over compensation for the use of material on

the Internet, cellphones and other new media, he and his compatriots

have had to find ways to fill their days, and their wallets. At press

time, writers and producers had just started informal talks, the first

meetings since early December.

“Writers don’t tend to be very good at time management or

organization — if they were, they’d be producers, and therefore evil,”

another “Daily Show” writer, Sam Means, wrote via e-mail. “So I think a

lot of people are pretty frustrated right now, and some are downright

bored.”

Mr. Means, 26, who has been using his spare time to pitch cartoons

to The New Yorker, has been fortified, financially and creatively, by

the fact that a satirical book he wrote, “The Practical Guide to

Racism,” was published this month (under the pseudonym C. H. Dalton);

his advance has helped offset his unemployment, he said.

For his part Mr. Bleyer has covered the primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina for National Public Radio

and an online humor site, 23/6, an offshoot of The Huffington Post.

Like most striking writers who have turned to freelancing to keep busy,

he did it mostly for professional growth, and still frets about

finances.

A few writers have returned to gigs they had hoped to forget:

waiting tables, bartending, copywriting, tutoring. Some who began as

performers have returned to the grind of auditioning for commercials.

Many — especially on the West Coast, whose guild recommends 12 hours a

week on the picket line (less is asked of the East Coast contingent,

especially in the cold) — have discovered that striking is nearly a

full-time job in itself. And as the picketing has continued, whatever

excitement there was at its outset — The solidarity across genres! The

networking opportunities! The Web videos! — began to fade.

“There’s definitely a winter malaise setting in,” said Bryan Tucker,

a writer for “Saturday Night Live.” “The fun group dynamic that we had

the first week or two has dissolved. It’s tough to see any kind of hope

on the horizon.”

Mr. Tucker, 34, was speaking from the Upper East Side home he shares

with his wife and two young daughters. A veteran comedy writer whose

credits include “The Chris Rock

Show” and “Mad TV,” he has been struggling to keep afloat, and has

returned to his roots as a stand-up comic to keep busy and funny.

Performing in comedy clubs, he said, he has been paid “between nothing

and $100,” averaging about $20 to $40 per gig. He has also written

humor articles for newspapers and magazines. But, he said, “if I added

all the money up for all those, it probably would not make a week’s pay

for what I make writing in television.” Though his wife, Rachael, has a

secure job in finance, they are cutting back; even joining a gym to

make the most of the time off was deemed too costly. At one union

benefit performance Mr. Tucker joked about having to be a temp worker,

a solution he later said he would seriously consider: “I’m certainly

not too proud to go back to doing that.”

Aaron Solomon, 32, who lives in Burbank, Calif., has weighed the

same option. Mr. Solomon, who has written questions and host patter for

“The Weakest Link,” “One Versus 100” and “The New Pyramid,” has

actually been on strike since August, when he and three other union

members walked off “Temptation,” a syndicated pop culture game show.

The show’s production company, FremantleMedia, would not negotiate a

guild contract. (About half of all game shows are covered by the guild,

a union spokeswoman said; most reality programming is not.)

Mr. Solomon went on unemployment, earning the maximum compensation,

$450 a week — about a quarter of what he made in TV — but that is about

to run out. His prolonged joblessness, and unexpected car repairs, have

nearly wiped out his savings, he said. Still, he serves as a volunteer

strike captain, spending up to 20 hours a week picketing, attending

meetings and sending e-mail updates. He has also turned down seven

invitations to be interviewed for reality-show jobs, he said.

“I don’t believe in contributing to the genre that we’re trying to

get covered,” he said. “They work as hard but don’t get any health care

or the same salary, or even the respect of being given the title of

writers. I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

So he has cut back on expenses and started eating at two Los

Angeles-area restaurants, the Bob’s Big Boy in Taluca Lake and

Swingers, where an anonymous celebrity benefactor has offered to pick

up the tab for any card-carrying writer. He has also looked into temp

work as a closed-caption writer.

Career shifts may be more common in the coming weeks, as residual

checks dwindle. Depending on many factors — including the length of the

show and whether it is on cable or a network — payments can be

lucrative for first-time reruns, but they decrease exponentially with

each broadcast. Still, for people like Nina Bargiel, who wrote 17

episodes of the Disney hit “Lizzie McGuire” a few years ago but isn’t

currently working in television, that money is much appreciated. “If

they’re doing a marathon, and they play six of your shows, that’s

$300,” she said. “I’m lucky if I make that in a week.”

The unions have tried to stress that, while some of their

12,000-plus members nationwide are Hollywood-level talents, with

multi-million-dollar incomes to match, many more are middle class.

According to union statistics, nearly half of the West Coast members

are unemployed at any time. (There are no such statistics for East

Coast members, but the union spokeswoman said the figure was similar.)

Among the unlucky in Los Angeles are Ms. Bargiel, 35, whose last

guild writing job, for the Nickelodeon show “Romeo!,” was in 2003. She

has also been employed by nonguild shows like “The Grim Adventures of

Billy & Mandy” on the Cartoon Network, but by 2006 those jobs had

dried up. She wound up working part-time behind the desk in a gym where

she was once a member, and software testing for an Internet start-up

while hustling for more television work. She also pickets four or five

days a week, which sometimes means working from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Because any settlement is not likely to be retroactive, “I

personally may not gain anything,” she said. “But ideally the person

who comes behind me will not be scrambling to get from the gym to the

software beta-testing job to the picket line.”

One benefit of the strike, said Michele Mulroney, a screenwriter,

“is, you’ve inadvertently radicalized a bunch of otherwise mellow

people. Like, maybe we will make our own Internet content.”

Ms. Mulroney, 41, quickly added that she and her husband and writing

partner, Kieran Mulroney, were among the privileged few who could ride

out the strike: they have polished scripts for films like “Mr. and Mrs.

Smith,” and were juggling three projects when the walkout began.

But newcomers like Andrés du Bouchet, 36, who joined the union in

August, when he received his first television writing job, on “Talkshow

With Spike Feresten,”

a new late-night program on Fox, may not be so fortunate; he has not

even finished paying his initiation dues yet, and the lag might cost

him career momentum. Also, he’s not much of a self-starter at home. “I

get easily distracted,” he said.

Having writers like these march side by side on the picket lines has

thrown some of the industry’s class differences into sharp relief. (Ms.

Bargiel admitted feeling “a little embarrassed” about her recent career

turn, though she added that everyone picketing, from a Farrelly brother

on down, has been welcoming; she also emphasized that she considered

having day jobs par for the course for a writer.)

And there is a sense that complaining about the fine print on a job

that many would jump at is whiny or elitist. So despite the malaise

that comes from being in a professional limbo — and the increased

opportunity for procrastination that a life without deadlines affords —

some writers have seen a silver lining.

Mr. Tucker, from “Saturday Night Live,” is actually able to spend

more time with his family. “It’s nice to have the kind of life that

most people have, where everyone is home and we have dinner together,”

he said. Mr. Solomon, the game show writer, just formed a new band,

Super Duper, which includes a percussionist and reality-show writer

(employed), and a horn player and sound editor (unemployed). “On the

upside we have more time to rehearse,” said Mr. Solomon, who plays bass

and does some songwriting.

Ms. Mulroney has gone back to writing a play and said many friends

had picked up “passion projects,” like unfinished novels, children’s

books and developing screenplays. After the strike “the town will be

flooded with new material,” she said.

As Mr. Bleyer of “The Daily Show” put it: “I believe it was Lisa

Simpson, on ‘The Simpsons,’ who said, ‘This is a crisatunity.’ It’s a

small crisis and I’m looking for an opportunity.” He thought a minute

and added: “Are you offering? You need a ghostwriter? I could be a

ghostwriter for a journalist. I could punch it up.”