For joke writers, strike is no laughing matter
"Right now, I don't feel that funny," Bill Scheft was saying as a light drizzle finally let up. On a normal day, funny comes easily to Scheft. A staff writer on "The Late Show with David Letterman," he's an aw-shucks master of the out-of-nowhere gag lines, the unexpected double-take, the twisted and ironic bank shot off the news.
"I just don't have any great jokes for you," he shrugged.
It wasn't just the weather that had him feeling flat Tuesday. A strike by the Writers Guild of America, now in its second day, has stopped production of "Letterman" and most of television's other topical entertainment shows, throwing some of the funniest people in America onto picket lines.
At this one, in front of Silvercup Studios on 22nd Street (home to NBC's "30 Rock" and the CW's "Gossip Girl"), Scheft was joined by other writers from "Letterman," "The Daily Show" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."
What a waste of comedic talent! The news is positively groaning with overripe stories to parody!
A waterboarding waffler is about to become attorney general. Joe Torre's settling in as a "Dodger bum," Rosie O'Donnell may soon be returning to TV. And Hillary Clinton still can't decide if undocumented aliens should drive legally or not.
So be funny, Bill Scheft!
"You can't do that just standing out on the sidewalk," he said, putting down his picket sign to talk. "It's Dave and all the other writers who make it work. It really is a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. It's like if we had been dark the week Cheney was out hunting and shot that guy in the face and then the guy apologized - if we'd been dark that week, nothing would have come of that."
And America would have been a slightly more somber place.
No one is expecting a quick writers' strike. The last one, in 1988, lasted 22 weeks. The two sides weren't even talking Tuesday. The tough part this time has to do with television's digital future - and what cut of DVD and other new-media income writers should receive.
"Writers in television and motion pictures don't own the copyrights to their work," said Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America East, laying out the union's argument. "The studios and network own that. In exchange, we get residuals. These residuals are what keeps us going between jobs - and keep this a middle-class union."
No one knows how much this digital money might eventually add up to. The most sensible approach probably involves 2 or 3 percentage points of the digital revenues for the writers, whatever new technologies arrive. But neither side seems quite there yet.
In the meantime, it's reruns for the newsy late-night shows, to be followed by a possibly dark "Saturday Night Live" and then - in the weeks to come as the scripts run out - reruns on the dramas and sitcoms.
"I miss it already," said "Letterman" writer Jeremy Weiner, who started with the show as an intern in 1998, then began as staff writer a year later, contributing to "Top 10" lists and producing sketches.
"Sometimes we have to look hard for stuff," Weiner said. "And sometimes, David Hasselhoff eats a hamburger off the bathroom floor. That's an easy day."
Weiner and his writing colleague Scheft said they have no idea how long the strike will last. But there's one thing, Scheft said, the writers know they can count on.
The host, of course, is himself a writer, a 30-year member of the Writers Guild. "He's very supportive of us," Scheft said.
He said he understands that Letterman has responsibilities that go beyond the show's writers, responsibilities to the audience and the rest of the "Late Show" crew.
"Two hundred people work on the show, whose fight this is not," Scheft said.
If the strike grinds on and the host feels he has to get those people back to work - well, that won't be the end of the writers' struggle either.
"There could be no greater ally than David Letterman on the air without writers - all pissed off," Scheft said, finally laughing, in a head-shaking kind of way, before heading back to the picket line.
"Believe me, he'd be a very powerful spokesman for this cause."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ellis Henican is a columnist for Newsday.