When Writers Can’t Write, They Pretend

Teresa Wiltz, Washington Post Staff Writer, reports:


Usually, the Rayburn Building is the kind of place reserved for all sorts of serious goings-on conducted by sober-looking folks in suits. The people who think they're running the country. Which is to say, it's not too often that you see the likes of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) donning a ZZ Top-esque beard and proclaiming "solidarity" with the people who really matter — entertainment types.

You know, the ones who've single-handedly consigned the nation to endless reruns of "Law & Order: SVU" and marathon episodes of "Celebrity Apprentice," "American Gladiators" and "The Biggest Loser." The self-described "creative, socially awkward malcontents" who've pretty much rendered the need for DVRs obsolete thanks to the never-ending Writers Guild of America strike. (Do we sound bitter?)

So, yesterday, you had writers from "The Daily Show" coming to the Hill to face off against scribes from "The Colbert Report" in a kind of meta-debate about the two-month-long strike: "Resolved, [the aforementioned malcontents] deserve to be paid for the work they produce, however it is distributed." It was a way to lobby their cause — specifically compensation for work distributed over the Internet — milk a few laughs and keep the creative juices flowing.

It was also a way for certain Democratic congresspeople to insert themselves front and center in the debate — particularly those whose districts just happen to be populated with members of the WGA or the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.) declared that he wanted "the studios to do well," adding that "you can have a successful company and share that success" with the not-so-rich people who make it happen — writers. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) ticked off statistics: Studios made $95 billion last year, he said; writers, an average of $62K. Schakowsky did her bit with the beard (a homage to David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, who grew strike whiskers).

Rep. Steve Cohen (Tenn.) stepped up to tell everyone he had fun on "The Colbert Report," and Rep. John Hall (N.Y.), a onetime singer-songwriter, reminded everyone that for professional scribblers, "This is a feast or famine business for all of us."

"It is the writers that make us laugh, or make us cry," Schakowsky said. "They're the engines that keep the show going. The wizards behind the curtains."

Once the formalities were dispensed with, said wizards were finally given the floor, with "The Colbert Report" writers playing the sushi-loving, morally challenged members of the AMPTP ("First of all, I would like to say unequivocally that I had no idea what substance my trainer was injecting into my buttocks," said one role-player) and "The Daily Show" members portraying the insufferably intellectual, ink-stained wretches ("When the Hegelian dialectic is imposed on the current labor negotiation we're left with a kind of floating signifier. . . . What I'm trying to say is: I went to Cambridge").

Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, a onetime writer for "The West Wing," played moderator — and managed to keep a straight face.

"We saw 'Charlie Wilson's War' last night," said "The Colbert Report's" Peter Grosz, playing a studio suit. "We were really disappointed by the lack of strippers and hot tubs here."

Ultimately, this was a decidedly one-sided debate, with the "producers" coming off none too well: "We've reevaluated our stance on the Internet. We now believe it exists. Therefore, we are prepared to increase our offer to the writer from nothing to next-to-nothing." The WGA-ers denied charges of nerds' revenge, defended unions ("Without unions, American workers wouldn't have . . . the 40-hour workweek . . . and hilarious Dilbert cartoons") and, amid the jokes, managed to insert their reason for being there:

"This strike is obviously difficult, because we're fighting just a very small number of very powerful media companies," Tim Carvell of "The Daily Show" said. "It's almost enough to make you wish there were an organization that could — I don't know, for want of a better word, 'legislate' restrictions on those companies and their ability to monopolize an industry."

"Well, who could do that?" asked Jason Ross, also of the "The Daily Show." "Who has that sort of power?"

"Beats me," Carvell said.

Pause for pointed looks at the lawmakers in the audience.

This was a hearing for those who are in on the joke, the ones inside the Beltway and the ones inside the story conference rooms. So everyone laughed when a man in a pink T-shirt ("The Daily Show" writer Kevin Bleyer) stood up and shouted, "I have no cause to advocate! I am just a lonely man who was not held enough as a child!"

Then Protester No. 2 ("The Colbert Report" writer Peter Gwinn), clad in a green tee, bellowed, "I call upon security to please escort the other protester from the room!" and "Ron Paul for president!" because, of course, that's what you expect on the Hill.

Things wrapped up with a Q&A from the audience. A ponytailed man wanted to know how things were going for the writers. You know, like, how broke are you?

"Have you sold your car?" he asked. "Are you burning up your savings?"

"Everyone has different means," Grosz said. Then, playing to the audience, he added, "We can't discuss what we're doing to get by. It's very . . . embarrassing."


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