Being an ethical late-night comedy host during a writer’s strike is stuck between a 30 Rock and a hard place. On the one hand, you want to support your underpaid writers, the witty women and men who fool America into thinking you’re hilarious most nights of the week. On the other hand, closing your show in solidarity puts many other people out of work – the cameramen, makeup artists, cue card holders and countless others who depend on your show to pay the rent. You’re damned if you do your show and damned if you don’t – unless, like the late night comics that came before you, you find a way to thread that needle.
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There is a way out – and that is by making comedy out of your need for comedy writers. OK, sure, that sounds counterintuitive, but it can be done. Exhibition A: David Letterman. Way back in the 1988 writers’ strike (at five months, still the longest WGA work stoppage in history), the show turned to veteran Letterman director, the personality-challenged Hal Gurnee, for his comedy needs.
In the very first episode of “Hal Gurnee’s Network Time Killers,” the boring gentleman with the headphones rocked viewers to la-la-land late at night with a recitation of the day’s events in history straight from the wires of the Associated Press : In 1776, Virginia’s state constitution was passed. All my children Ruth Warrick turned 72. And then “for the ladies,” Gurnee pitched to a decades-old industrial movie full of disgustingly easy ways to cook meatloaf.
“Congratulations on this wonderful new segment,” said Letterman. “I think it’s really going to take off like there’s a Writers Guild strike.” And just when you thought a writer-less Late at night it couldn’t be worse, crew member Pete Fatovich played “Lady of Spain” on his accordion. Viewers must have flooded the NBC phone banks with pleas to “settle this strike now!”
Two decades later, Letterman’s comedic godson Conan O’Brien took over and let fans know how badly Conan needed his comedy writers. Do you think it was bad that Hal Gurnee recited Virginia history? During the 2007 strike, have Conan spin his wedding ring on the host’s desk.
The sheer stupidity of the stunt earned Conan some laughs. “Again!” cried an audience member.
“Believe me,” said Conan, “there’s time to do it again.”
In case his idiotic attempts to show how bad things can get without writers were misunderstood, Conan reinforced his support for the union during his monologue. “This has been a really tough time, not just for our show but for a lot of people in the entertainment industry,” said Conan. “Good people are out of work. And perhaps even worse, with all the late-night shows off the air, Americans are forced to read books and occasionally even talk to each other.
A good reminder to pray that the current strike is resolved quickly, for all of us.