Todd Masterson wakes at noon to the usual alarm clock. His pug, Braddock, nudges his bearded face, begging: Take me outside. It's the stand-up comedian's only real routine since, one year ago this month, he and seven of his Fashion Police co-writers — fed up with low wages, a growing workload and an increasingly hostile boss — began striking. Masterson, a West Hollywood transplant from rural Missouri, checks Twitter and sends a plea into cyberspace: "Is anybody hiring for anything anywhere? Uncle Toddo still needs a job. #OneYearOnStrike."
In North Hollywood, Dennis Hensley, former Fashion Police consultant, chips away at a script — his first paid gig in two months, commissioned by Princess Cruises — and dreams of Italy, where he'll soon produce an on-ship play called The Dangerous Hour off the coast of Venice. It's a nice distraction from the strike, the first anniversary of walking away from his steady office job at E!.
The cruise-play's plot: A talk show host is murdered, and the show's writers are all suspects.
Across town, Ned Rice waits for his unemployment check. The comedy scribe, a senior Fashion Police staffer who has penned jokes for Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel, considers selling his West L.A. house. He has worked just 13 weeks since last summer, on a Comedy Central show that never aired. His savings are drained. The job boards, fruitless. He didn't think it would last this long.
"People think it was resolved a long time ago," Masterson says. "My industry friends say, 'Wait — that's still going on? For a year? Why?' "
After scabs took over the show, after protesters stormed E!'s L.A. headquarters, after a $1.5 million labor lawsuit (and the subsequent settlement), after contract negotiations between E! and the Writers Guild of America, West, ground to a seeming halt, the Fashion Police writers strike lulled to writers' limbo.
"That this is allowed to happen is a threat to our entire industry," says Rice, the Hollywood veteran. "I didn't go on strike for me. I went on strike for writers everywhere."
Fashion Police first aired in 2010 and quickly became one of E!'s top shows. The reality-driven network's total audience rose 5 percent between February 2013 and February 2014, according to a recent ratings report; the "core franchise" was a "key growth contributor."
The premise: Joan Rivers, the potty-mouthed host, and her co-stars — Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne and George Kotsiopoulos — are shown photos of celebrities at the Oscars or the White House Correspondents' Dinner or Coachella and, like couture-hungry hyenas, tear their outfits apart.
Rivers has declared, "Of all the times I've said, 'Wow, that's a lot of white on Paris Hilton,' it's the first time I've meant fabric." Of Halle Berry, Rivers once tossed out, "She looks like an art deco vibrator!"
Of course, Rivers' lines aren't completely improvised. Before the strike, Fashion Police employed two full-time writers — a lead writer, who still works on the show, and Hensley, the cruise-ship playwright, who was credited as a script consultant. The other scribes, including Masterson and Rice, were hired part-time.
Each week, they were assigned to come up with 200 jokes (or 10 jabs per outfit-on-famous-body), and Rivers selected the best ones to deliver to her audience. She demanded perfection, the writers say. But the work required to please her — the all-night writing and rewriting sessions — wasn't reflected in their pay per episode: $610 a week for most of the team.
The gig was supposed to have been supplemental income for the comedy writers. But E! never set any parameters on how many hours the scribes would be expected to log per episode. And overtime pay wasn't provided.
"With all the meetings, the rewrites, the extended special episodes — we were working between 30 and 40 hours each week," says Eliza Skinner, who is part of the strike. Skinner — a relative rarity as a female joke writer — has since launched a new career as an on-camera and onstage comedic talent, including appearances on Comedy Central. She explains, "We could no longer balance other jobs. We sometimes worked 16-hour days. We asked [E!] for pay that reflected that. Fair pay. Not special treatment."
"I had to quit my sales job just to keep up," says Rob Nolan, another striking writer. "This was no longer supplemental income. If I wanted to keep writing, I had to be willing to go broke."
The tension festered until February 2013, when Rivers and the Fashion Police staff gathered at the Pacific Palisades home of the show's executive producer, Melissa Rivers, Rivers' daughter, to polish jokes for that week's show.
But the crew members had a surprise in mind for their boss. The writers had privately agreed it was time to speak up.
Rice, speaking for the group, told Rivers they wanted to discuss joining the Writers Guild. Their earnings fell far below the union's minimum weekly compensation for comedy-variety shows, which can bag a full-timer $3,000 to $3,900. They were earning one-sixth of that. The network, they believed, would listen if Rivers — the legend, their boss, a longtime guild member — brought their grievances to E!.