Striking writers take act to Washington

Times Staff Writer

The striking writers behind Jon Stewart’s fake news show and Stephen Colbert’s fake talk show came here to explain to real lawmakers Wednesday a strike that has crippled creative television and threatens to wreck the Oscars.

But knowing it can be difficult to get a lawmaker’s attention when not in a Learjet or on the links, the brains behind two of Comedy Central’s most-watched shows couched the issues in terms Washington could understand: a mock debate.

On one side, in shirts, was the striking Writers Guild of America, played by “Daily Show” writers Rob Kutner, Tim Carvell and Jason Ross. On the other side, in suits, was the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, played by “The Colbert Report” writers Michael Brumm, Peter Grosz and Tom Purcell.

Crashing out of the starting gates, the shirts argued it would cost the suits less than 1% of their total revenue to give the writers everything they wanted. For Paramount Pictures, that comes to $4.6 million, or “half the amount it takes to get Reese Witherspoon into a movie.”

“I ask you,” one writer noted, “which is more important to a movie -- a script, or half of Reese Witherspoon?”


The studio suits thought for a second.

“Which half?”

Now it was the studios’ turn to make their case: “I had no idea what substance that was that my trainer was injecting into my buttocks,” one suit boomed, getting an elbow from his colleague who mumbled, “Wrong hearing.”

“Point of order!” a starving writer blurted. “I was told there would be a free buffet lunch?”

The debate, held in a House hearing room and moderated by former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers, was intended to raise Washington’s awareness of a nearly 12-week strike that has 10,500 writers out of work on both coasts, not to mention tens of thousands of support crews and industry-dependent workers.

About half a dozen lawmakers showed up in solidarity -- including Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), in a fake beard to honor writers who put down their razors with their pencils, and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who recently appeared on “The Colbert Report.”

“If I found Osama bin Laden and brought him in shackles to George Bush, the thing I would best be known for in my district would be being on the Stephen Colbert show,” Cohen said.

Washington is rich fodder for the writers of both shows, and they arrived with creative juices bottled up, muzzled during one of the most competitive presidential campaigns in memory.

They released some pent-up urges with a skit that cleverly made their case, sketched out over sodas Tuesday in a guild meeting room in New York, then brought down by train for Wednesday’s performance.

Hearkening previous occasions when industry types graced the halls of Washington, Myers asked if any of the debaters was now or ever had been a member of the Communist Party.

The studio execs rushed to respond:



“Hell, no.”

The writers bowed their heads, sheepishly.



“Are we under oath?” the third asked, learning he was not. “Then, no.”

It was noted more than once that the studios collectively brought in $95 billion last year, whereas the average writer earned $62,000.

To establish just how rich the producers were, Myers asked them to reveal how much they made.

The suits huddled.

“I don’t recall.”

“I don’t recall whether I recall.”

At the heart of a stand-off that has stalled talks between the two sides is the guild demand that writers be fairly paid for work distributed over new media, such as the Internet, cellphones, digital video players and the like. Hollywood has a history of creative minds who failed to envision such innovations as television reruns, and who earned no residuals on shows that still aired half a century later.

The studio execs were asked to comment on Internet profits that the writers want a piece of.

“The Internet is a baby and babies don’t make money!” one suit reasoned at top volume, warning that the writers’ demands for a bigger profit share were going to make TV more expensive, causing it to be exported to China.

“And before you know it we’ll be watching ‘Foot-binding With the Stars.’ ”

Myers asked the debaters what they had to say to TV audiences who wanted their regular programs back?

“Great question!” an exec jumped in, announcing a new spring lineup assembled without writers, including: “Are You a Better Surgeon Than a Fifth-Grader?” and “Meet the Crunchers,” a show about a bag of chips.

There were hints that Washington should intervene with some antitrust legislation or similar bills to prevent future guild strikes. The last one, in 1988, lasted almost 22 weeks.

“It almost makes you wish there was some kind of organization that could legislate restrictions,” a guild debater mused. (Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, promptly snuffed that idea, noting that most members of Congress “prefer to let collective bargaining play out.”)

Suggesting that as writers they knew a thing or two about endings (cases in point: Darth Vader was Luke’s father and Bruce Willis was dead the whole time), the fake debate team suggested the following denouement, for real:

“Sit down and work out a deal that pays writers fairly . . . then everyone goes back to work, the Oscars are saved, millions of dollars in financial damages are spared and a new era of mutual respect dawns between producers and creators.”

“Hmmm,” the fake execs said, stroking their chins. They decided that “the part where we give in” was “sort of a downer.” They suggested a rewrite.

“We’ll give it a shot,” the writers agreed.

“Great!” the studio guys rejoiced. “Who wants sushi?”