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One Man Against a Monologue

With the return of Letterman and Leno, the writers' strike hits home.

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Until last Wednesday’s return of The Late Show and The Tonight Show, I’d contend, the WGA strike has had little or no effect on most fans of pop culture. Sure, not having Jon Stewart’s wry asides during the election season has forced some people to get their news from non-satirical sources (and Stewart too will return to the air, writerless, on January 7—though you have to guess his wry asides will target the higher-ups who’ve forced him back on the air). But for the most part, the consequences for fans have been theoretical and remote: We can imagine a far-off day when there might not be quite as many new shows or movies to watch. But at the moment, just as we finally plowed through the fourth season of The Wire on DVD, a new season premiered. There are still (for now) new episodes of Gossip Girl. Meanwhile, we can comb through NBC.com for SNL digital shorts we may have missed. (If you haven’t seen “People Getting Punched Just Before Eating,” I highly recommend it.) It’s like trying to imagine a famine while seated at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The AMPTP, the awkwardly initialed producers’ association, may have hoped that the looming cancellation of the Golden Globes and, more cataclysmic, the Oscars would provoke fans to turn against the WGA, just as the cancellation of the World Series in 1994 during the players’ strike galvanized the anger of fed-up fans. But a better comparison would be the 1987 football strike that inspired the movie The Replacements. Football’s owners, faced with a player walkout, decided to field teams made up of nonunion players, on what became known as Replacement Sunday, and the owners wound up embarrassing themselves and the sport they claimed to defend.

Then David Letterman, whose production company negotiated a separate deal with the guild, returned with a full complement of professional comedy writers, and Jay Leno returned writerless. It’s as though Letterman returned to air fully clothed and Leno was forced to appear naked. (Savor that image.) I was prepared for Replacement Wednesday. It didn’t quite happen. It’s not that Letterman blew Leno out of the water creatively—both shows, by this point, travel in well-worn ruts. But Letterman’s moral victory was clear. Leno may be the ratings leader, but Letterman wears the crown, able to broker his own deals and return to air fully loaded, while Leno was left to entertain Emeril and whine about Letterman’s power, casting himself as “one man against a monolith” during the monologue he wrote himself (then got spanked publicly by the WGA for doing so). If this was the NFL, Letterman looked like Joe Montana, while Leno looked like Joe Pisarcik.

The WGA, through its blogs and Web videos and celebrity-endorsed “Speechless” campaign, has been trying to convince us that a world without writers would be a bleak place. So far, we haven’t heard them. In the weeks ahead, as the novelty wears off of the writerless talk show, I think it’ll become all too apparent.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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