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JOEL STEIN | [Love Your Work]

E! doesn't stand for earnings -- unless you're Mo

October 30, 2005|JOEL STEIN

IN THE TRADITION of great muckraking newspaper columnists like Steve Lopez, I use my column to bring attention to injustice. Unlike Steve, I like to focus my attention on the injustices done to me.

As visitors to the Museum of Television & Radio know, I have spent the last three years enriching the culture by providing commentary on such probing documentaries as E!'s "101 Most Starlicious Makeovers," Country Music Television's "40 Greatest Done Me Wrong Songs" and VH1's upcoming "I Love The Holidays." My insights on Arbor Day will, I believe, cause people to remember that Arbor Day exists.

For all of this labor, I have not been paid. That's right: As glamorous as it may seem, it has not helped me financially one bit. As VH1 airs its third installment of "I Love the '80s" -- "I Love the '80s 3D" -- and peddles its ancillary CDs, DVDs and board games, I once again am getting nothing.

You may ask, as my father does, why I spend hours driving to studios to be interviewed just to make Sumner Redstone even wealthier. To spend what he's already got, he would have to marry eight or nine Anna Nicole Smiths.

My answer is that it's a long-term business plan to help me sell a book one day, or embark on a speaking tour of third-rate colleges. But the truth is, I do it because I have an enormous ego that needs constant feeding, and unless Current can worm its way out of the 18 car sections it's hidden between, this column isn't going to satisfy it.

So, with the little pride I have left after appearing on E!, I decided to organize a labor strike. I was going to be the Norma Rae of the crappy basic-cable list shows. I called Mo Rocca, who also appears on "I Love the '80s," to see if he'd join me. "I have always gotten paid," he said. "They treat me really well."

It seems that the upper echelon of talking heads -- Michael Ian Black, Hal Sparks, Rachael Harris, Rich Eisen -- are paid by VH1. Rocca assured me that once I appeared enough on VH1, smaller outlets, such as Country Music Television, will come calling with cash. I told Rocca that I've done CMT five times. For free.

He was disgusted. "Nashville is one of the few growing economies in the United States," he said. "And learning the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton duets -- that's real work."

I asked Rocca if he'd nevertheless stand with me in striking against VH1. He considered it momentarily, then said: "I'm just going to end up getting less money if that happens."

I figured the only way I could get him to join my picket line was by paying him. And like that, he was in. "If you pay me and gave me residuals for re-airing the tape of my speech on local newscasts and other media, I would be yours. Plus a contract and benefits? Sure."

I thought about calling the other unpaid talking heads to organize a work stoppage. But it was easier to call VH1 Executive Vice President Michael Hirschorn and lie about having done it.

Like an incensed Henry Ford, Hirschorn tried to buy me off with vague promises, saying I was just a few spots down the fundit popularity list from making the payroll he had started just recently. "If we get into the 15th or 16th season of this, there would be some opportunity for you," he said. "Though when we focus-grouped, the feedback was that you should be paying us."

Then he admitted that if I'd been smart enough to ask, I would have been paid. "You need a different agent. You could get digital rights, wireless -- there's all kinds of opportunities you've passed up. There's some broadband rights in Thailand that we're paying to Mo and Michael Ian Black you could get in on." When I called E!, they too agreed to pay me.

It's pretty humiliating, as a labor activist, to discover that you forgot to ask for money. The grape pickers would have had a long laugh with Cesar Chavez about that one.

At least I finally knew why performers have agents. Because we're stupid.

Before I got off our call, Hirschorn turned the tables. "Isn't there some conflict of interest for you to be negotiating for money under the guise of reporting for the L.A. Times? The Huffington Post is going to be all over you."

Like I care. That woman doesn't pay her bloggers anything.

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