Comedian Jay Leno was hauled in front of his own union’s trial committee Wednesday to address charges that he broke guild rules during last season’s writers strike, a full year after the alleged violations.
The NBC late-night host was a prominent backer of the Writers Guild of America during the 100-day work stoppage, but he alarmed union officials when he announced on the air that he was penning his own monologues while the strike was still in full swing.
Leno contends that he did nothing wrong. He has the highest profile among a handful of writers whose cases are being reviewed by the committee, which will make a recommendation to the board on whether any action should be taken. Possible penalties include a reprimand, a fine and even expulsion from the union.
Guild leaders said Leno violated strike rules, which bar union members from performing “struck work” that would otherwise have been done by a WGA member.
The incident created internal divisions within the union, which did not want to alienate the “Tonight Show” host, who brought doughnuts to writers on the picket line and publicly championed their cause.
The matter was largely dropped until Wednesday, when Leno was called before the trial committee for a hearing to determine whether he violated the guild’s injunction against writing, according to a source familiar with the proceedings.
A representative of the guild declined to comment.
The source said the committee had been given instructions to judge Leno on the merits of the case and not take his stature into account.
Leno publicist Dick Guttman said he was not aware of the hearing, adding that the comedian would have no comment.
The comic triggered the investigation when he returned to the air without his writing staff in early January 2008, nine weeks into the work stoppage. At the time, Leno said he was penning his own monologue.
“I’m doing what I did the day I started,” he told his audience on his first night back on the air. “I write jokes and wake my wife up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Honey, is this funny?’ ”
“We are following the guild thing,” Leno assured his viewers. “We can write for ourselves.”
But that wasn’t the guild’s position. The union said its strike rules prohibited any members from performing work that would have been done by striking writers. As a guild member and a writer credited on the show, Leno was also barred from writing in general.
Leno and NBC maintained that as a performer, he was exempt from the rules. The network contended that the guild’s strike rules conflicted with its own collective-bargaining agreement with the studios, which specifically excluded from the definition of union work “material written by the person who delivers it on the air” on variety shows.
On Wednesday, NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks said that the network continued to support Leno in the matter.
During the strike, guild leaders said the contract provision cited by NBC applied only to performers who were not also employed as writers.
The dispute led to high-level meetings within the guild, but no action was taken at the time. That rankled many union members on the picket lines, who contended that Leno was being given a pass.