For some late-night hosts, the laughs come cheap

"Beautiful day in New York City," David Letterman mused on the "Late Show" recently. "Am I right about that? A gorgeous day. It was so nice today that AIG gave a bonus to Al Roker."

That joke, part of Letterman's March 17 monologue, wasn't penned by the late-night host or one of the dozen writers on his staff. It was written by Phil Johnson, a freelance writer and Web developer, sitting at home in Boston.

Johnson says he has gotten more than 160 of his jokes on the "Late Show With David Letterman" and, before that, "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

The 39-year-old is part of an underground network of comedy writers who supply the late-night programs with a constant stream of material. If one of their jokes gets on the air, they get a check for $75 or $100. What they don't get is any credit or union pay.

That doesn't daunt Matt Little, an unemployed comedian who spends hours each day scouring news websites in his Brooklyn apartment, crafting one-liners that may never air. The 28-year-old got his joke-writing start while working as a page at the "Late Show," where he persuaded the head monologue writer to let him submit material.

Little still remembers what it felt like the first time Letterman used one of his jokes. The quip: "It was so hot out today that Rupert Murdoch bought Dairy Queen."

"I was in the balcony paging that day, and I had to run off in the corner where it was really dark and kind of jumped around, trying not to scream like a little girl," he recalled.

For each of the 15 or 20 jokes that he's gotten on the air, he's received a check for $75 from Worldwide Pants, Letterman's production company. In the memo line, it reads "one joke."

"You pour so much time into this," said Little, who also submits material for the "Weekend Update" segment of "Saturday Night Live." "And you don't find out until the show airs if you got a joke on or not. I like to say that it's like you're holding your lottery ticket in your hand, hoping that the words match up."

An open secret

Known colloquially as "faxing into a show," because the jokes were submitted by fax until e-mail became ubiquitous, freelance joke writing has been a fixture of late-night television, quietly flourishing for decades. It is widely acknowledged in the industry that jokes told by Leno, Letterman, Jimmy Fallon or SNL's Seth Meyers might originate with a wannabe joke writer eager to break into showbiz and not with a credited Writers Guild of America member.

Letterman and Leno declined to comment on their use of freelancers, as did executives at CBS and NBC, which also airs Fallon's program and "SNL."

Although the union says the practice violates its contract, the guild has never made the issue a high priority, even as it has worked to organize unaffiliated reality show writers. That's in part because it receives few complaints from freelancers happy to get on the air, regardless of the low pay and the difficulty of policing what is a clandestine activity.

Steve Bodow, head writer for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," which does not accept freelance jokes, said it's "not a bad way for people running shows to test new writers out under something approaching real show-making deadlines."

But Bodow, who has never freelanced jokes himself, also sees the downside: the "potential for producers to unfairly exploit the many hungry writers out there -- stringing them along, paying them for piecework, and never creating real staff-level jobs."

The issue has resurfaced as Conan O'Brien prepares to succeed Leno on "The Tonight Show" on June 1. O'Brien is one of the few late-night hosts to refuse freelance jokes, and East Coast guild officials used his move to privately remind their California counterparts of the prohibition.

"Conan is one of the key players in this industry, and we knew he was pure on this issue," said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the WGA, East. "This was just an opportunity to let the West know that this was a culture that was moving west. We just want to encourage that culture."

"It's a question of really maintaining employment opportunities for guild writers," he added. "Some people might say, 'What's a joke or two?' But that's what our folks do -- they write a joke or two or six."

While the guild's contract permits the hiring of freelancers, it requires that they must be paid union minimums -- $3,215 for a comedy sketch under 10 minutes -- if they are employed as professional writers on a guild-covered show.

Many freelancers don't think to complain about their status; they're just happy to have a foothold in the business. Among them is Greg Volk, a 28-year-old writer in New York, who has been working as a freelancer for "Late Show" since 2004 and has gotten an estimated 100 jokes on the air. Thrilled to be writing for the likes of Letterman, he color-copied the first check he received for a joke.

"That is still my biggest credit, and I owe anything I've done since then to that," added Volk, who said having the freelancing on his resume helped him land jobs at the Onion News Network and VH1. "It's helped me get tons of jobs, except for at the 'Late Show.' I'm resigned to fact that I probably won't ever be a staff writer there."

Not organized

Indeed, few freelancers win the big prize: a late-night staff writer job. That troubles Dawna Kaufmann, a former stand-up comic and staff writer for "Saturday Night Live" and "Mad TV" who has worked as a freelancer for Leno. A self-described "fax person" in the late 1990s, Kaufmann said she sold hundreds of jokes to Leno and other late night show hosts, receiving $50 to $100 per joke. "To me, writing for Leno and others was a full-time job, and it bothered me that I and others like me weren't put on staff and paid under a union contract."

Other freelancers echo her frustrations.

"I would love to be in the WGA. I'm a professional writer who needs a union," said one freelance writer in an e-mail to The Times. The writer, who said he routinely pens jokes for Leno's monologue, spoke on condition he not to be named in order to protect his career.

In the past, the union has taken action against shows that used freelancers. The guild lodged a complaint with ABC in 2003 over the use of freelancers on "The Jimmy Kimmel Show." The show's producers agreed to stop the practice.

The union also warned Leno not to solicit freelance material on "The Tonight Show" after a staff writer lodged a complaint in 2001. At the time, Leno maintained he was buying freelance jokes to use in his stand-up act at a comedy club in Hermosa Beach, where he performs most Sunday nights.

Peterson said he believed none of the New York-based shows employ freelance writers. When informed that The Times had spoken to writers who freelance for several, including "Late Show" and "SNL," he was taken aback. "Wow, that's disturbing," he said, vowing to "follow up on the matter."

Tough to enforce

It's not difficult to find comedians who submit material on spec to the shows. Johnson sends in dozens of jokes each week and publishes the ones that make it on the air on his website, Chumworth on the News/. For now, he doesn't mind the small stipend as long as it comes with the thrill of hearing his jokes on the air.

"Any time someone has made an allegation, we've tried to investigate it," added Patric Verrone, president of the WGA, West, an ex-writer for Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." "The problem we run up against is that the show denies it happens, and the writer who did it won't come forward to provide us with concrete evidence."

Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director for WGA, West, said that it was "unacceptable" for the late-night hosts -- who are some of the guild's most prominent members -- to use material from freelance writers but added that he did not know of any who were doing so.

"Anyone who is a joke writer knows this is going on," said Kaufmann. "It's an absolute abrogation of everything the guild should be about."

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matea.gold@latimes.com

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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