News Guild agonizes over Writers Guild strike

Readers of entertainment news have been hit with some startling contradictions lately. Jay Leno, that jovial late-night comedian, may be in trouble with the Writers Guild of America for writing his own jokes. Leno’s case is complicated by the fact that as a member of the Writers Guild, he is prohibited from writing his own material when the union calls a strike.

The writers are just asking for their share of Internet sales, but for me, an illusion is at stake. I want to believe that entertainers are not reading from cue cards or a teleprompter, even though I know they are. It’s like Toto pulling the curtain aside to reveal the real Wizard of Oz, a puny little guy pushing buttons.

Strike is a harsh word, and I am no stranger to strikes. As a child of the Depression, I knew the fear that arrived with heavy black headlines when John L. Lewis announced a strike by the United Mine Workers. My father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, so when there were no coal trains, he was laid off.

Our family never knew exactly where he was working during the layoff because he took different day jobs wherever he could at any of the manufacturers in Lock Haven at the time. We knew when he worked at the dye-works, though, because he’d come home with hands stained crayola colors such as maize and magenta. We made it through hard times without going on relief only because our neighborhood market let us run a bill.

I have been on both sides of the line. When I was looking for a teaching job, the principal of a striking school district asked me to come in to work. I didn’t have to think long before telling him I wouldn’t cross a picket line. Scab is an ugly word.

But if someone asked me to write a television script, especially a soap opera, I might be tempted. After an opener like “Victor may go to prison,” the rest of the scene would comprise expressions like “Oh,” “Really” and “So” using different intonations. Every so often I’d add a “Bingo!” for punch. Long takes and lengthy pauses would stretch things out, and I wouldn’t get in trouble with the union.

“Pioneers in Television,” a series running on WPSU, peered behind the curtain to reveal the secrets of the first late-night comedians. Steve Allen was a genius. He went on the air cold with only a one-page outline in front of him, and he was hilarious.

In the best of both worlds, writers would be paid their fair share and some slack would be cut for the people in front of the cameras.


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