Hollywood assistants aren’t in the writers guild. They’re still hit hard by the strike
It was billed as a comedy show, but a recent night of improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade drew inspiration from Hollywood horror stories. One performer recalled interviewing for a job that required hand-delivering scripts every night to an actor in Malibu who did not use email. Another recounted having to track down golf carts that had gone missing after joy rides on the studio backlot. And more than one story involved an unfortunate encounter with fecal matter — of both animal and human origin.
Some of the performers at “Lunch Is Late” had never met before taking the stage together during a performance in August, but they shared at least one thing in common: They’d all worked as assistants and coordinators — otherwise known as support staff — in television. The improv show, which raised money for Entertainment Community Fund, a nonprofit that offers emergency grants to out-of-work support staffers, was intended to shine a comedic light on some of the most grueling, poorly paid jobs in the industry. But it was also a vehicle to showcase the storytelling skills of assistants and coordinators.
“We’re all funny and talented. But when you work these support staff jobs … most of your job is not writing or performing,” says Molly Kiernan, 33, a script coordinator who co-produced “Lunch Is Late.” (The title of the show is a nod to the daily task that often falls on writer’s production assistants: ordering lunch for the writers’ room.) “You become bogged down, and especially times when you’re working a really busy job, you forget about your own talent.”
Assistant and coordinator gigs in writers’ rooms have traditionally been viewed as stepping stones: a training ground for learning the craft of being a TV writer and eventually getting staffed as one — that’s the hope, anyway. But many in these roles have found themselves moving laterally for years, working for low wages, temporary contracts and no guarantee of ever landing a coveted TV writing job. Some of the same factors that led TV writers to go on strike in early May — smaller staff sizes, shorter and fewer seasons of television, fewer overall opportunities for employment, let alone promotion — also have made work more tenuous for support staff.
They get paid far less than TV writers and, unless they’re given an episode to write, generally are not eligible to join the Writers Guild of America. Some roles, like writer’s assistant and script coordinator, are organized under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees; others, such as writer’s P.A. and showrunner’s assistant, typically are not unionized, which has further contributed to inconsistencies in pay from one gig to the next. But nearly all assistants and coordinators aspire to someday become television writers and join the WGA, which means the outcome of the strike could determine their futures in the industry.
“I think a lot of us feel in limbo because for a lot of us [support staff], it’s not our union yet,” says Jorge Thomson, 30, a showrunner’s assistant and a co-producer of “Lunch Is Late.” “But a lot of what the WGA is fighting for means more writers in the room, which will hopefully help me [and other assistants] to enter.”
Thomson got his start as a casting assistant in 2016. He worked his way up to office production assistant, then writer’s production assistant, followed by overall deals assistant and, more recently, showrunner’s assistant. He was furloughed from his job on the Peacock show “Twisted Metal” when the strike started. “I’ve had a lot of these milestones that say you’re on the right path, like, you’re close, which I’ve really valued,” says Thomson, who’s done scriptwriting fellowships with the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Starz. “But I think right now it’s a harder time to break in than ever. And the ladder’s a bit broken in terms of support staff moving up.”
The way TV writer-producer Liz Hsiao Lan Alper sees it, the ladder is broken not just for support staff but for people working at all levels of the entertainment industry. “The jobs that people are aspiring to — whether that’s agent, whether that’s manager, whether that’s creative exec or producer — those jobs are seeing their pay decrease drastically because of what’s going on with the studios,” says Alper, who got her start as a writer’s assistant on the Fox TV show “House” more than a decade ago. “So we have an entire generation of support staffers who are working toward a career that is not sustainable, full stop.”
The brokenness in the industry, which Alper attributes to its shift toward Silicon Valley- and Wall Street-driven business models, spurred her to co-found the advocacy organization Pay Up Hollywood in 2019. “We had reached almost a tipping point in Hollywood where pay for assistants was at an all-time low,” says Alper, who has worked as a writer on “Chicago Fire” and as a writer and co-producer on “The Rookie.” “It hadn’t been a sustainable career in a while, but because there was the uptick of mini-rooms and the first real glimpses of cost-cutting measures from the studios, the assistants were the first ones to feel that squeeze.”
Pay Up Hollywood, which began as a hashtag of the same name, conducts research and shares resources in an effort to help Hollywood assistants and shine a light on their working conditions. Its most recent survey, from 2021, found that more than 80% of support staff made $50,000 or less per year, which the federal government classifies as low-income in Los Angeles County. In the survey of more than 500 support staffers, more than 75% identified as white, and more than a quarter of survey respondents said they were between the ages of 30 and 35; nearly 13% were older than 35.
“If you cannot survive on the absolute bare minimum, you will not be able to go after these [support staff] positions,” says Alper. “That sort of system only benefits people who come from historically privileged backgrounds.” Alper looked to tackle this issue in 2021, when she and other writers and producers partnered with the Writers Guild Foundation to create a program aimed at training members of underrepresented groups to become support staff.
“These are word-of-mouth jobs, so there’s a lot of gatekeeeping,” says Thomson. “They’re entry-level jobs, but they also want you to have experience.” The result, he says, is a lack of diversity, particularly in rooms where many of the writers also started out as assistants and coordinators. He remembers working as a writer’s P.A. on a popular sitcom and being the only Latino in the writers’ room during its final season, despite the fact that the show featured a character from Colombia. It meant that he often felt the burden of representation, on top of his role as support staff.
Writer’s assistants are tasked with taking notes on everything discussed in a writers’ room, from pitches and jokes to story arcs and plot developments. They’re often the first people in the writers’ room every morning — with the exception of writer’s P.A.s, who set up the room but aren’t always staffed on shows — and the last people to close their laptops at night after cleaning up and distributing their notes to the writers. Script coordinators, sometimes considered a step up from writer’s assistants, are tasked with knowing a TV show’s script from front to back, proofreading it, flagging changes and sending it out to the cast and crew. These roles can be demanding and all-consuming. But to a lot of support staff, they’re worth it if it means getting closer to a writing career.
“I would say 99.9% of people working in that job are doing it so that they can eventually become a writer. … I don’t think anyone in their right mind would really do that job [otherwise],” says Kate Zasowski, 28, who has worked as a writer’s assistant since 2017 on shows including “Busy Tonight,” “Atypical” and “I Love That for You.” “It is the ultimate crash course. I don’t think there’s a much better way to learn how to work in a writers’ room.”
Excelling at the job, though, can be a double-edged sword: It can mean getting recommended for future jobs, but not necessarily as a staff writer. “It’s a joke around the assisting community of like, you don’t want to be too good [at being an assistant] because you’ll be stuck there forever,” says Zasowski. “Because obviously if you’re an assistant who’s good at pitching and good at writing, then someone can save a lot of money by keeping you an assistant and also getting jokes and getting stuff written out of you.”
Zasowski found her calling in comedy at a young age. She’d recently switched from Catholic school to public school and she started memorizing jokes and reciting them to classmates in the hallways and on the school bus. “It’s not a recommended way to make friends, but I did develop an appreciation and a love for comedy,” she says.
She interned at Comedy Central while in college and later moved to Los Angeles and took a job as an office production assistant. Onstage at UCB, she shared a story from one of her first industry gigs, which at one point involved driving around town to find a specific kind of wrapping paper for her boss to wrap a present. It was a far cry from writing, but she figured it was a step toward becoming a writer’s assistant, which was a step toward becoming a TV writer. “I remember just being in the car and driving on that errand being like, ‘Wow, this is really my life right now,’” says Zasowski. “This is the paying-my-dues part that I’ve been told about, so I’m gonna do it.”
It’s the same thing Kiernan told herself when she started taking comedy classes in her mid-20s and decided to pivot from working in nonprofits to working in television. Her first gig involved setting up a writer’s room for a producer, which was less glamorous than it sounded: Mostly, she sat in an apartment and waited for deliveries to arrive. Still, she says, “I busted my ass because this was my chance. And it did really propel a lot for me, because I did a good job and kept getting hired at this company.”
Kiernan eventually landed a job as a writer’s assistant, which led to multiple stints as a script coordinator, including on “Broad City,” “The Conners” and “Lopez vs. Lopez.” She’d been pushing to get staffed as a writer when the strike started. Over the last few months, she’s kept busy attending themed picket lines, including one for UCB performers and another for Taylor Swift fans. (Her beaded bracelet, which spells out “pay writers,” is a souvenir from one such event.) She’s also working with a writing partner on a “Broad City”-style comedy about their respective struggles with epilepsy and an eating disorder.
“The ultimate dream would be making that show, for sure,” she says. “I think what keeps me going is feeling like eventually I’ll be able to hopefully be at the helm of my own creative project.” Kiernan looks over to Thomson, who nods in agreement. He’s hoping to someday develop his comedy pilot, “Sorta Rican,” about growing up half Puerto Rican. “I think we both want to eventually be in the position where we can give other people opportunities and hire big diverse rooms and make what we want,” Kiernan says.
She and Thomson say they’ve been inspired by the WGA strike and the solidarity it’s created throughout the industry. They hope that by the time they go back to work, the studios will have agreed to staff more writers and make longer seasons of television, creating more opportunities not just for the writers but also for their assistants. Until then, their years of experience, at the very least, have provided plenty of material for improv.
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