Writers, Where Art Thou?

“Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”  Ricky Ricardo, from the television show, “I Love Lucy,” 1951

I write this as a lover of television and movies.  While I have always loved books, I have never been one to shun the visual media.  As my friend, Max, once said, “Just stick to TV and movies, and you’ll get by.”  For many of us, especially in America, we love TV — but we love it as it used to be.

It’s been almost 20 years since the last Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike.  The 1988 new fall season in  was postponed and writers stopped writing for television and the movies for 22 weeks. That strike cost the industry about $500 million dollars. Another strike is scheduled to begin today. It’s estimated this writers strike will cost at least twice that much.

When the WGA strikes it will mean that any talk type shows that use writers will go into rerun including late night talk hosts like Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart. They are comics and are very funny off the cuff, but they are writers, too which means they will go on strike.  

The landscape is very different than in 1988 and so are the demands.  Last time the writers wanted increases in traditional compensation.  This time it’s about residuals from DVD sales.  Many forget that America turned off their sets in disgust during the 1988 strike and it may have set the stage for the inevitable increase in alternative media, giving it the boost it needed.  Network first run numbers have never recovered from that 1988 strike.

What kind of new content will we do without in this strike?  Last week, Sarah Silverman, the raunchy comedian with a show bearing her name, brought back God to her program–Silverman’s God is a one-night stand (from an episode last season) who she takes to her high school reunion. This “god” smokes pot, drinks, kills a man with a remote control and calls people crude names. Is this the kind of cutting edge writing we’ll be missing with a writers strike?  What these folks don’t get is the fact that we won’t miss them at all. I say bring it on.

More and more we are forced to accept as “mainstream” this kind of humor that used to be reserved for places that nice people didn’t frequent. David Letterman referred to producers, who are the villains according to the WGA, as "cowards, cutthroats and weasels" on his Thursday program.  It doesn’t matter to Letterman that the producers are the ones that put up the money and risk the capital to put guys like him on the air.  David Letterman may be a proven commodity, but how many names you never hear any more had to come before him to pave the way and how much money was gambled and lost before the Letterman’s of Late Night could make the big bucks?  

Jay Leno on the other hand, approached the strike with a little more decorum. He quipped on his NBC Tonight Show Friday, "They call it the toughest time for comedy writing since those three weeks back in the 1990s when Bill Clinton stopped dating. Remember that?"

I long for the days of really good writing that was clever, funny and mainstream.  It had jokes that made the adult think and the child laugh, there was something for everyone.  In preparing for this column I went back and read over a number of scripts from “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver.”  I laughed out loud and to be honest there were jokes I get now as an adult that went right over my head as a kid watching these shows.  

This week, Duane “Dog” Chapman, was suspended indefinitely from his A & E show, “Dog, The Bounty Hunter,” for using a racial slur in a conversation with his son.  Let’s be honest, did we really expect anything better from a guy like Duane “Dog” Chapman.  We have lowered the bar so much in media entertainment that we have no standards at all.

So let’s get back to those writers.  The Teamsters Union might walk out with the writers which would mean not only there would be no new material for TV shows and movies in production but for the projects that have already been written; nothing can be delivered to the sets which would bring the entire industry to a standstill. In theory, a bad economy in the land of fruits and nuts wouldn’t bother me, but the entertainment industry is a good example of the free market except for the requirement of a union card for most jobs.  

Let’s get ready for a possible holiday season of reruns and enjoy the guilty pleasure of laughing with Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel again.  Let the writers strike: we’ve got plenty to watch.