Late night laugh-in
If David Letterman were on the air now, he might offer this wry commentary about the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike: “Everyone in New York City is behind the writers. Today, I was walking through Central Park, and I saw a squirrel picketing his nuts.”
That joke, by “Late Show With David Letterman” writer Bill Scheft, was instead posted on a blog created by 10 of the late-night program’s writers, who are drawing on the humor they usually bring to their jobs to cope with the walkout.
Eric Stangel, who is co-head writer and a producer of the show, along with his older brother, Justin, launched LateShowWritersOnStrike.com recently as a creative outlet for the staff.
“This was a good chance for these guys to get their writing styles out there, communicate the message of the strike and also show how funny they are,” he said.
Plus, “we’re a bunch of guys who work 12 hours a day, all year round, and all of a sudden we have nothing to do,” said Justin Stangel.
Since the bare-bones blog went up, the sardonic chronicle of life on the picket line has not only given the “Late Show” staff a platform, but it also has emerged as an effective guerrilla weapon in the public-relations battle between the union and the studios.
With a mixture of offbeat jokes and familiar Letterman bits (the unflappable Hello Deli owner Rupert Jee has video cameos), the writers offer up self-deprecating anecdotes about their strike experiences, peppered with jabs at their corporate adversaries. (One entry by Steve Young, “Talking to Children About the Writers’ Strike,” suggests assuring them: “The Writers Guild will always love you very, very much. The media companies would sell you to the Gypsies in a second if they thought it would boost their share price.”
Quipped Young: “It’s all the fun of working on the show, without the stress or the pay.”
By the end of its second week, the site had logged more than 60,000 hits and had received fan e-mails from as far away as Australia and Germany. (The blog was even noted on an Israeli website, much to the amusement of the “Late Show” writers, who cross-posted the all-Hebrew entry on their own site.)
“It started as an outlet because we were going nuts from walking in a circle,” said Scheft, a 16-year veteran of the show. “Then, with the firestorm of hits and the awareness, I think we realized there was a bit of responsibility that came with it.
“We are fighting for the Internet, and we’re getting the message out about the strike through the very thing that we’re fighting for. The response just shows you how ingrained this is in people’s lives.”
The “Late Show” blog is a prime example of the array of new media such as viral videos and fan websites that striking writers are utilizing. Most have sprung up organically, the products of creative people with too much time on their hands. But taken together, the satirical sendups of the networks -- especially their claim that they’re not making money from digital media -- appear to be outmatching the producers’ professional public-relations campaign.
When the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers announced plans to resume talks today, one factor that apparently contributed to the detente was the fear among some studios that the blogs and videos were effectively casting them as villains.
“They’re our version of electronic samizdat,” said Michael Winship, president of WGA East, alluding to underground publications distributed in the former Soviet Union. “The humor is devastating.”
Perhaps the most prolific purveyors have been writers for late-night comedy shows, who are accustomed to quickly satirizing current events.
“We have the rapid-response model,” explained Rob Kutner, a writer for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” who worked with his colleagues on a “Daily Show"-esque video report about the strike, delivered by writer Jason Ross from a makeshift set in front of the picket line.
“It is important to us that people understand what we’re doing and that we’re not just willfully taking their shows off the air,” said “Daily Show” writer Tim Carvell. “But it also just felt so good to write jokes again.”
A few days later, “The Colbert Report’s” writers posted their own video, a purported blog of a smarmy entertainment industry executive, a la lonelygirl15.
The videos, which have been viewed tens of thousands of times on YouTube, gave the pent-up writers a welcome opportunity to exercise their comedic muscles.
“We’re used to writing a ton, so it was pretty jarring in a way to go from 60 to zero,” said “Colbert” writer Laura Krafft, who added that she’s been commiserating with her fellow scribes about all the good material they’re missing while on strike.
“They just had the Democratic debate -- that’s always fun,” she said wistfully. “And the Giuliani-Kerik stuff was really lovely,” referring to the latest controversy involving Republican presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani and his former police commissioner, Bernard Kerik.
For the Letterman writers, the blog offers a rare glimpse of one another’s raw material. Most of the time, they labor alone in separate offices on the 14th floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater, churning out jokes that are culled by the head writers.
“It’s great insight for us into each other,” Scheft said. “It’s not ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ We don’t sit around the table and riff all day.”
When they do get together, the “Late Show” scribes -- all men, and almost all in their 30s -- have the easy banter of a group of friends with a shared comedic sensibility. Sitting in a cafe across from their shuttered theater on a drizzly afternoon, the writers tossed out a flurry of droll observations about the oddity of marching in a circle for hours on end.
Eric Stangel: “I want to know who the person is who gets to decide what direction we walk in. There have been a couple days where I think we’ve been going the wrong way.”
Lee Ellenberg: “I don’t understand the sign that says, ‘On Strike.’ It just says what we’re doing. It’s like holding a sign that says, ‘Holding a Sign.’ ”
Justin Stangel: “I’m surprised how many people bring us food. Normally, if a stranger just walked up to you on the streets of New York and gave you a bag of food, you never in a million years would take it. But you just wolf it down.”
Beneath their jokes, however, is a strong undercurrent of gloom.
Eric Stangel, 36, is expecting his first children next month, and his wife “obviously wants this over quickly,” he said.
For the Stangel brothers -- who longed to work for Letterman back when they were kids growing up in Westchester, N.Y., taping his show every night so they could dissect it with friends -- the labor stoppage has brought their dream job to a staggering halt.
“You go home and sit in your house and say, ‘I have no job. I don’t know when it’s going to be over,’ ” said Justin Stangel, 38, who joined the program with his brother as a writer in 1997. “It’s really just a miserable time.”
Although Letterman is paying the salaries of other members of the show’s staff until the end of the year, the writers are not getting their paychecks, as many have assumed.
But they insist they don’t expect to be paid while they are striking, and they are quick to praise Letterman, saying he has backed them by staying off the air and continuing to support the rest of the staff.
It remains to be seen what the talk-show host thinks of his writers’ newest material. Scheft told Letterman about the blog several days ago.
“I said, ‘We have a website, and I think you’ll get a kick out of it,’ ” the writer recounted. “He said, ‘Oh, I guess that means I have to buy a computer.’ ”