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.”
“She just blew up
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!.
Could they count on her?
“But she just blew up on us, cussing and screaming,” Masterson recalls of the meeting. “She pounded her fists on the table. She threw a binder on the ground. She stormed out of the room and stormed back in the room.”
Her argument against unionization, he says: “If you joined the guild, we could only keep a few of you. Don't make me choose!”
Rivers, who doesn't have any direct power over the writers' salaries, declined interview requests from L.A. Weekly. An E! representative says, in response to the allegations, “Joan Rivers has always been very supportive of the writers.”
The real problem, according to Hensley, was that Rivers didn't want to rock the boat. “She takes nothing for granted, which I admire,” Hensley says. “She wants the jokes to be as good as they can be. She never phones it in.”
But, he continues, “The status quo on that show was not OK with me. It's something that's becoming the new normal, and it's something we should stand against. I mean, if you put full-time hours into writing for a hit television show, you should be able to cover your bills. This show is an international hit, and I can't go to the doctor.”
Another veteran writer, who has worked for Rivers since he was in high school and who declined to be named, said the comedian simply doesn't care. She views her staff as “the help” and parades her wealth, he says. After Chelsea Handler announced a $25 million contract extension with E! in 2011, the writer says, Rivers asked him and the rest of the writing crew, “How many millions should I say I make?” Last November, Rivers was slammed by the Writers Guild of America, East, after calling her on-strike joke writers “schmuck writers” and “idiots” in an interview published on the comedy website Splitsider.
Union wars have periodically disrupted Hollywood since 1921, when the Screen Writers Guild was formed in response to wage reductions by major film studios. The Writers Guild of America, East and West, the bicoastal powers today, were created in 1954 to champion the rights of the workers crafting Hollywood's glamorous and often hilarious exterior, the pens behind the likes of I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show.
In 1988, the Writers Guild launched its longest strike, battling the studios over a number of complaints, including the union's successful push to win the writers residual pay from television repeats. The widely covered strike ran 22 weeks and cost the L.A. economy an estimated $1.5 billion. In 2007 (the birth year of Keeping Up With the Kardashians), the union — struggling to represent its members in the age of Netflix and reality television — led 12,000 writers off the job for three months. The conflict resolved when guild writers received a new percentage payment on the studios' gross for digital distribution.
But today, as the WGA's influence falters, basic cable networks such as the Comcast-owned E! are resisting the unionization that reigned ubiquitous in Tinseltown's early days. Why drive up production costs if the cable giants don't have to?
“It comes from the culture of the external economy,” says entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel, author of Hollywood on Strike! An Industry at War in the Internet Age. “In the U.S., you've seen a decline in union power over the past 30, 40 years. In Hollywood, the guild finds Comcast, which comes from this, difficult to work with.”
Making a deal isn't impossible, however. And celebrity hosts hold serious bargaining power.
In the past two years, two E! shows, Chelsea Lately and The Soup, became unionized after their respective stars, Chelsea Handler and Joel McHale, personally championed the cause. Rivers, by contrast, shied away.
After Rivers' binder-throwing incident, the guild last April filed against E! and Rivers' production company an unfair labor practices charge, alleging that the Fashion Police writers were owed $1.5 million in unpaid regular and overtime wages. Weeks later, sensing no progress, the writers went on strike. In May, about 150 protesters attracted news crews when they stormed E!'s headquarters, shouting “Fashion Police: You're under arrest!”
For months, the writers stayed in the headlines. They released a video recycling the boss's catchphrase: “Dear Joan: Can We Talk?” They hosted a comedy show to raise money for a staffer's double hip replacement. They formally voted to be represented by the guild, which began contract negotiations with E! in December. That month, the writers settled with E! over reimbursement for previous hours worked. Both sides are prohibited from discussing the details.
Now there's an offer on the table from E! to cover the writers' future hours, which works out to about one-third of the guild's minimum weekly compensation requirement, or a little more than $1,000, according to WGA spokesman Neal Sacharow. The offer reportedly includes no overtime pay.
An E! representative says the network won't comment on negotiations.
“That's simply unacceptable,” Sacharow says. “E! shows no interest in making a deal, despite the network's public promises. … One of the biggest obstacles is that Joan Rivers, a Writers Guild member and the host of the show, not only refuses to stand with the writers but has actively stood in the way of their effort, even illegally threatening that they could lose their jobs if they unionized.”
And that perhaps comes as a surprise to some. Rivers, at age 80, presents herself as the underdog from Brooklyn who fought her way to the top. In the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (which her writers say accurately captures her insecurities and ambition), the comedian reflects on her worst nightmare: running out of work. “I'll show you fear,” she says, flipping through an empty calendar. “That's fear.”
Her former manager, Billy Sammeth, elaborates in the film. “Joan is a chronic workaholic,” he says. “One job a day is not enough. It's almost like an addict. She's a work addict. No matter how much you give her — it does not fill the need to keep working.”
And she'll do anything — “I'll wear a diaper!” she quips — to stay working.
“God help the next queen of comedy, 'cause this one's not abdicating,” Sammeth continues. “She never will. There will be nail marks on that red carpet before she abdicates.”
Rivers' appetite for fresh material was apparent in the documentary, too. She keeps thousand of jokes on index cards in her cabinets.
“She wants jokes, jokes, jokes,” Hensley says. “And she has very high standards. But we have standards, too.”
The Fashion Police writers are trying hard to move on. Masterson, the West Hollywood transplant from Missouri, has applied for hundreds of jobs, he says. “But it's just a tough industry to crack right now.” His sanity strategy: Find the humor in the struggle. He recently tweeted, “One of the main reasons I wish I had a job is because I'm so sick of staying up until 4 a.m. every night. 4 a.m. is so lonely.”
Skinner, who now regularly appears on Comedy Central and hosts a weekly show at the Virgil in East Hollywood, among other writing jobs, says she went on strike to send a message — but she doesn't expect to ever again work for Fashion Police.
“Right away, I decided if the worst-case scenario happened — if, say, we got contracts but I was the only writer cut — I'd be OK,” she says. “I kept working hard, grabbing opportunities. I wasn't going to wait around forever. I wasn't going to sacrifice my whole life for that.”
And Hensley, soon heading to Italy, tries to focus on the immediate future: dancing under the night sky at sea. “Will they ever make a deal in a million years?” he asks. “I don't know. I doubt it. At this point, I'm just trying to move on. I'm confident I made the right decision by walking away. I chose my profession over my job.”