DID YOU HEAR THE ONE about the striking comedy writer?
He’s no joke.
He’s there in the flesh, clanging a cowbell on Pico Boulevard. Gangly, lank-haired Kit Boss is a sitcom scribe (King of the Hill, Carpoolers) who ought to be crying, given the paychecks he’s sacrificing during the Hollywood writers strike, but nooo! Instead, he’s out in a throng of picketers in Century City, yukking it up, tossing zingers at Nick Counter, the studio negotiator, and Jeff Zucker, the CEO of NBC Universal.
“Counter has managed to do something no one thought was possible — get 7,000 writers to agree on something,” Boss quips.
Seconds later, he is reciting a chant:
“Treat us fairly, Mr. Zucker,
We’re not your two-bit hooker.”
Okay, it doesn’t really rhyme, but this is what happens when you take hundreds of comedy writers, get them agitated and give them a foil as massive as big-buck Hollywood studios. Never mind that the writers aren’t writing — or making any money. Never mind that the walkout is serious business, with billions of dollars at stake. The barbs and one-liners keep on coming, mainly because it’s what these people do.
“It’s who we are,” Boss says. “It’s hard to live a day without seeing the irony or the idiocy and the humor in the world around us. And there’s plenty of irony and idiocy and gallows humor that comes out in a situation like this.”
While the picket lines are not exactly a bust-a-gut laugh riot, they’re not the Bataan Death March either. They’re more like an improv road show, a sensory assault of T-shirt slogans, inside jokes, honking horns and chants spanning the whole spectrum of good and bad taste — including one directed at the cryonically suspended founder of Disney (an enduring urban legend):
“Walt Disney was good,
But now he’s dead.
All that’s left
Is a frozen head.”
“That one was nipped in the bud,” says writer Jim Cooper, who admits that it wasn’t good enough to top myriad others, like the one tweaking News Corp. honcho Rupert Murdoch:
“I don’t know,
I’ve been told,
Made of gold.”
Nobody’s pretending to be Robert Frost here. “A lot of these are basically written between lines of the crosswalk. We’re all trying to outdo each other,” says Cooper, author of a black-comedy script, Mort, the Dead Teenager, that he wrote for DreamWorks. (“You take all the crap in high school,” he explains of his script. “One of the characters is dead — you just have fun with it.”)
Picket signs go by: “Suck my pencil!” and “Write this!” — below a photo of someone flipping the bird. A young girl hoists a message: “Pay my mommy! I need my allowance!” Another sign declares, “Nick Counter hates babies and puppies.”
“Even babies are picketing,” someone remarks. A new mother sits with her infant wrapped on her belly. “Writers get pooped on,” her sign says. Meanwhile, writer Elena Tropp strolls among the crowds with baby Rosie strapped to her bosom. Signs tucked into Tropp’s outfit jut above the child’s head like thought bubbles.
“Stop milking us,” one implores; the other alludes to one of the central strike issues, the writers’ demand — unmet so far — for a 2.5 percent share of future Internet earnings: “When I learn fractions, I’ll be pissed.”
“It’s the death of laughter,” Tropp says of the work hiatus.
Not really. It’s just that funny stuff isn’t showing up in living rooms, or being written down. Sarcastic cracks touch off pockets of laughter like showers of sparks, and then it’s gone.
“A lot of chants we did on Thursday we can’t even remember on Friday,” says Cooper. “So we have to make up new ones:
Write the show.”
A couple of dozen writers sprawl on the asphalt in the middle of a street blocked off by police, trying to use their bodies to spell out “WGA,” as in Writers Guild of America, their union. Except they can’t quite get the various arms of the “W” right.
“A bunch of writers who can’t spell — come on!” a writer says.
CONSUMER ADVOCATE DAVID HOROWITZ goes by, grinning: “They’re all doing their own shtick.”
It’s mainly a Rodney Dangerfield shtick — they get no respect. Alan Cohen (King of the Hill) takes a potshot at the president of Fox Entertainment Group, who, according to Forbes magazine, hauls down more than $8 million a year.
“How much do we wanna be earnin’?
One one-hundredth of Peter Chernin.”
Screenwriter Rodney Vaccaro quotes an observation from David Zucker, the noted writer of Kentucky Fried Movie and the Naked Gun series: Things aren’t so bleak, he says, “because we were asking for next to nothing and the producers were offering nothing — so we’re close.”
Erich Hoeber, whose broad-comedy features have been less successful than his action-adventure movies — he has one, White Out, due in theaters next spring — dusts off a few old jokes. “You know the one about the really dumb ingénue? She slept with the writer.” Or maybe you’ve heard about the writer who finds his home burned down. He’s stunned to learn that his agent did it.
“You mean my agent came to my house?”
“Unfair is unfunny,” opines a T-shirt. But the humor is a benign weapon — better than slashing tires — that keeps morale up. It keeps people listening to the message.
“It’s impossible to turn it off,” says Eric Appel, a writer for MTV’s Crank Yankers. “It’s impossible for us to not make jokes, basically. It’s programmed into our brains.” Plus, as grim as the strike is, “You have to have a little fun — otherwise, you go crazy.”
Appel recalls a recent moment when writers picketed the Desperate Housewives set, chanting, “We write the story-a for Eva Longoria.”
“Which, of course, resulted in Eva Longoria coming out and bringing us all Domino’s pizza,” Appel says.
Another chant is heard:
“What do we want? Residuals!
When do we want them? Later!”
Screenwriting guru Fred Rubin, who has written for Family Matters, Diff’rent Strokes and other shows, isn’t the least bit impressed with the writers as chanters. “The chants have been remarkably low quality,” he says, shaking his head. “Writers don’t chant well. If they could, they would have been actors.”
Still, the scene is novel for writers who normally spend their time isolated in small rooms, racking their brains.
“I’ve seen people from every show I’ve ever worked on,” says William Lucas Walker, who lists Cybill, Roseanne and Frasier among his many credits. He totes a sign that he insists his 6-year-old daughter, and not he, wrote (maybe, maybe not): “Christmas list: candy, doll, teddy bear, red sketch book . . .” The final item: “Fair contract for writers.”
Bill Prady, co-creator of The Big Bang Theory, one of the many shows interrupted by the walkout, likens the scene on the streets to a funeral for a favorite aunt. First there’s the delight in seeing old family and friends, and then the dismay at the occasion.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Hey!’ — and, ‘Oooh,” Prady says. It’s heartbreaking, he says, and yet, “We are, by nature, funny people. As writers, we learned to be funny so we didn’t get beat up as kids.”
A writer who really is named Tom Smuts — “Sad to say,” he jokes — created www.strikeswag.com to hawk T-shirts and other merchandise for the cause. The site also features a contest to come up with a slogan for a pair of men’s bikini briefs.
Perhaps the best entry so far: “The WGA Promise: At least three acts before the climax.”
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Half a dozen strike captains launched www.unitedhollywood.com, where the fleeting comic moments of the picket line are given a chance to live on. One such instance occurs as TV legend Norman Lear, who’s been around awhile, recalls labor actions of yore.
“I was there,” Lear says, “when we struck the Pharaoh.” And then there’s the case of the religious zealot who somehow ends up in the mass of picketers, raising his own huge, fiery sign: “Jesus Saves Sinners From Hell.” As Michael Colton, co-writer of the sports spoof The Comebacks, records the moment with his camera, the zealot asks what the others are protesting — and redeems himself rather nicely.
“He started a new chant,” Colton says.
“ ‘Moses was a writer! Moses was a writer!’ ”?