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His Moment of Zen

On the barricades with the head writer of The Daily Show.

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At The Daily Show, I’m paid to sit around in an office with a bunch of other entertaining nerds and make fun of the news. Except now we’re on strike, which means that I’m not being paid at all, and I’m duty-bound to march on a picket line for four hours each day. What changes when you go from writer to striker? You care more about the weather, for one thing. Turns out picketing in 60-degree sun is very different from picketing in a damp 49. I won’t lie: Time off has some advantages—as fun as it is making The Daily Show, it’s also relentless. But that’s easily canceled out by certain frustrations. Not drawing a paycheck is one thing. Not being able to write jokes about Pat Robertson endorsing Rudy Giuliani? That hurts.

None of the 2,500 or so New York film and TV writers wanted to walk out. The depth of our, er, disagreement with the studios and networks—the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, as they’re called, or just “the producers”—made the walkout unavoidable. We writers think we should get paid when our work is used online, as more and more of it is; the producers don’t. That they’re being such hard-liners about it only convinces us more that new media must be a gold mine. Which makes it worth fighting for. We know it can seem a bit unbecoming: people with creative, rewarding jobs striking to get paid even more. But just because we’re privileged doesn’t mean we can’t also be taken advantage of.

Worse is that a lot of nonunion producers and editors and assistants get caught in the cross fire. When we’re on strike, their shows are off the air. Which makes us feel guilty. At least on the last day prestrike, the Daily Show staff seemed to understand that this deadlock is the intransigent moguls’ fault at least as much as it’s ours. Nervous though our colleagues were, they were pulling for us. Here’s hoping they’ll stick with us if the thing drags on and truly jeopardizes their jobs. We wonder if this is part of the producers’ gamble: What if they’re counting on us feeling bad about our nonunion colleagues and caving? That notion just pisses us off more. Fat-cat motherfuckers aren’t going to push us around!

So we stay on the barricades. The phenomenon of picketing writers is a peculiar one, and there’s something anachronistic about actually marching around with signs about fair pay. You know, “Clifford Odets called; he wants his earnestness back.” But it’s also fun hanging out with the New York WGA crowd. Last Monday at Rockefeller Center drew not only dozens of my late-night colleagues but also Law & Order writers and 30 Rockers and local screenwriting legends. I ran into friends I hadn’t seen for years, novelists and actors and playwrights, all of us earning our livings off the demon tube. Warren Leight—a playwright who’s now show-runner on Law & Order: Criminal Intent—was there, and he offered a protest chant: “What do we want? For the girls in high school who rejected us for the jocks to finally see how wrong they were! When do we want it? Then!” It didn’t quite catch on, but only because it doesn’t rhyme.

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