Striking WGAE Writers Have Different Story Lines

Unscripted Lives

Striking Television Writers Have Different Story Lines But None of Them Knows How This Chapter Will End

By Paul Farhi

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 30, 2008; C01


Over the course of just a few months last year, Simon Rich went from college graduation to a job writing for "Saturday Night Live." A dream gig, particularly for a 23-year-old self-described "comedy nerd."

The dream, it turns out, lasted a mere 70 days. After working on a grand total of four episodes of the NBC show, Rich joined some 10,500 screenwriters of the Writers Guild of America in a strike against Hollywood's networks and movie studios.

Now, 12 weeks into the strike, he notes, "I have slightly more picketing experience than actual writing experience."

Rich still supports the WGA's goal of negotiating for increased home video residuals and a share of Internet revenues. But after the initial bursts of solidarity and enthusiasm for the walkout that began Nov. 5, he acknowledges a growing reality among the strikers: It's pretty dull being a TV writer who doesn't write TV shows. "I've watched a lot of Prince videos on YouTube," he says sardonically.

Other common themes among the writers: anxiety and apprehension. Writing for TV has never been steady work (the WGA says about half its West Coast members are unemployed at any time), but now nearly all of the guild's members have gone months without a paycheck. Many receive residuals for work they did months or even years earlier. But as the bills mount — and living in New York or Los Angeles sure isn't cheap — many worry about supporting themselves and their families.

An even bigger concern is that the strike might prompt the networks to cancel their scripted shows, or drop projects that haven't yet aired.

Bradford Winters, 36, was developing a new dramatic series for NBC about a multimillionaire financier and adventurer called "The Philanthropist." It was supposed to go into production soon and air next year. Now, he says: "It's on hold." Actually, "it's on serious hold." In the meantime, he's been working on a movie script and writing poetry. Winters isn't worried about his personal finances — at least not yet. "I've been fortunate to be semi-regularly employed" for several years, "so I'm not about to end up on the street," he says. "But crunch time feels like it's coming."

It's still anyone's guess how long they'll have to keep walking. After more than a month of inaction, the studio-network alliance resumed informal talks with the WGA last week. But hopes for a quick settlement haven't been realized.

So the writers keep on not writing. Here are a few of them, picketing outside a midtown studio on a freezing afternoon this month.

The Showrunner

As a "showrunner," or a TV show's writer-producer, Warren Leight, 52, is responsible for just about everyone and everything on NBC's "Law & Order Criminal Intent." "If something's wrong," he says, "it's my fault."

The showrunners' support of writers is critical to the strike. If top creative people such as Leight remain off the job, it's highly unlikely that production on a series can resume.

The strike has probably cost Leight more than most WGA members. Despite the walkout, he's still responsible for paying the rent on offices used by his writers. He's also paying the salaries of "3 1/2 people" on his staff whose livelihoods were cut off. "I will never be covered for the money I'm losing on this strike," he says. The bill, he figures, is already approaching six figures.

How does he feel about that? Leight shrugs, then grimaces a little. Showrunners "make a good living" — he won't disclose his compensation — "so I'm in a group of people who should be complaining the least."

Since walking out, Leight has tried polishing up a script for a play (his last stage piece, "Side Man," won the Tony Award for best play in 1999). But progress has been unsteady. "You're distracted and anxious," he says. "I've been working on the show for six years, so when you stop doing it all of a sudden, it's hard to downshift."

He adds: "I think I'm testier at home. I imagine I'm not the only one who would say that."

On the other hand, he is at home, something he couldn't say when dealing with the round-the-clock headaches of a TV series. One unexpected benefit of the strike is having more time with his daughter, who turns a year old next month. Says Leight: "I've seen her more in the past week than I did in the previous 30."

The Survivor

Bill Scheft, 51, can't help feeling a little guilty. While many of his friends are walking a picket line, Scheft is working again, cranking out gags for David Letterman's "Late Show."

Scheft returned to work on New Year's Day, after Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, struck a deal with the WGA.

"My assumption all along was you don't go back to work until the strike is over," says Scheft, who's written for Letterman for 15 years. The show's writers "had no intention of writing a word" during the strike.

Now, he says, "I feel survivor's guilt. There are still 11,000 people out of work."

Not that he's upset with Letterman. He hails the agreement between Worldwide Pants and the WGA, saying that it gives the writers the residuals that the studios have refused to pay.

"Every time a new technology has come out, the studios have told us: 'It's very frightening. It's from Neptune! It's radioactive. We have to wait and see,' " he says.

Scheft says he and his fellow writers have tried to contribute what they can to those still on strike. They picket regularly. They donate money to a strike fund. They also buy pizza and coffee and doughnuts for the other picketers.

Moreover, they try to put the writers' cause in front of viewers. Scheft appeared in a sketch with Letterman, reciting a lengthy list of the writers' proposals, on the night the show returned.

"It's an unspoken thing," Scheft says. "All the writers and the staff feel an obligation because, let's face it: We got picked out of the line, essentially. We're fortunate."

The Novice

Simon Rich 's r¿sum¿ is pretty short. He graduated from Harvard last January, and his first book of humor stories was published in April. In August, he became the youngest and least experienced member of "Saturday Night Live's" writing staff.

Rich, son of New York Times columnist Frank Rich, is part of the Harvard pipeline that has fed TV comedy-writing staffs for years (such series as "The Simpsons," "South Park" and "SNL" have long been havens for Ivy League-educated writers). Like Rich, several "SNL" writers are alumni of the Harvard Lampoon, the school's famed humor magazine.

"The Lampoon is one of the few places where people without a lot of experience talking to other human beings can sit around and use their encyclopedic knowledge of 'The Hogan Family' and 'Who's the Boss?,' " says Rich. "The people who work there aren't great at getting dates, but they're very skilled at watching TV and programming their TiVos."

Much of Rich's work for "SNL" never made the final cut, but a couple of pieces (written for hosts Seth Rogen and Jon Bon Jovi) were produced.

Then almost as soon as it started, it was over.

"I got incredibly lucky," he says of landing on "SNL." "It was really fun for a very short time. I did it so briefly that it feels like a weird dream."

He's eager to get back to work, but he understands what's at stake. Someday, he observes, "I might be out of a job. But the jokes I've written may still be earning money for someone. It would be pretty unfair if we didn't get our fair share of that."

Two Generations

Courtney Simon and Kate Hall see the strike from opposite ends of a writer's career arc: as a veteran and as a rookie. They also are mother and daughter.

A legend among soap opera aficionados, Simon, 61, has acted in and written "daytime serials" since the early '80s. At one point, she simultaneously wrote one soap and played a character on another. She's received four daytime Emmys and three nominations for her writing on "Guiding Light," "General Hospital" and "Another World." At the time of the strike, she was turning out scripts for "As the World Turns."

Hall, 30, was a self-described "lost soul" who wasn't sure what she wanted to do after college. Among other things, she'd worked as a receptionist in a Manhattan office. When she decided that she wanted to follow her mother into TV, she spent three years churning out speculative scripts that went nowhere. Finally, in June, she got her big break — a writing job on "All My Children," the long-running ABC soap that her mother wrote for, and performed on, more than a decade ago.

"Writing can be very isolating, but, you know, you get hooked," Hall says. "I just love it." Seeing one of her scripts produced "is like having a premiere every week. . . . It's very cool."

Soap writers make their own hours (Hall disciplined herself to work 9 to 5 most days), and tend to work on their own, usually at home. Under the guild contract, a 60-minute script earns a writer a minimum of $3,087; writers negotiate a guaranteed minimum number of scripts over each 13-week cycle. There's also the payoff of knowing your work is entertaining several million dedicated fans.

"My first thought when she started was 'What if she's no good?' " Simon says. "That was my secret fear. But she's got that thing I'm always trying to describe. She knows what to put in and what to leave out. When to go fast and when to slow down. It's hard to teach. You just have to know. She knows."

Hall's big concern now isn't the loss of her paycheck (her husband's employment helps) but the potential loss of her nascent career. She knows she's in a dicey business. When her mother started writing in 1980, there were 13 daytime serials on the air. Now there are eight, and ratings for soaps have declined for years.

A handful of soap opera writers — the guild won't disclose how many — have resigned from the organization in recent weeks, and are continuing to write the serials to keep the shows going through the strike.

Simon and Hall think that's a mixed blessing. It's great, they say, that the programs are maintaining their continuity, lest preemptions or repeats alienate fans permanently. But they know that continued production undermines the WGA's leverage.

What's more, it's hard for Simon and Hall to imagine that the stories and characters they've nurtured could be written by others.

Says Simon: "I'm not angry. I'm just sad."

The Veteran

Andrew Bergman has been through this twice before. He walked out when the WGA went on strike in 1980 (for three months, over pay-per-view residuals) and in 1988 (five months, over home video residuals).

"Every few years, there's a little blood in the streets," he muses, though he doesn't seem amused.

The last strike was particularly painful to him. It sank a sitcom he was developing for CBS Television called "The Dictator" after three never-aired episodes.

Bergman comes at this strike from several vantage points. He's been a producer ("Striptease," "Little Big League"), director ("The Freshman") and writer ("Blazing Saddles") in a career that spans more than 35 years.

Which is by way of saying that Bergman, 62, has beaten the entertainment industry's mortality tables. In a business that values a youthful sensibility, most screenwriters' careers begin to wane in their late 40s. He's one of the oldest writers on the picket lines.

Bergman, however, isn't considering retirement. "For writers, the difference between being retired and unretired is so thin you'd never know the difference," he says, laughing. Bergman spends his time working on a long-shelved stage project, a musical version of his 1992 film "Honeymoon in Vegas."

He isn't hurting, and he isn't complaining. "If you've been in the business for 35 years and can't afford to go three months without work, you've being doing something very wrong," Bergman says. "This business has been good to me and a lot of people."

If there's anyone who understands the value of residuals, however, it's a writer who's earned them for several decades. The strike, Bergman says, "isn't about money. It's ultimately about breaking the union. They [the studios] want to break us."