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Is it time to send in Dave and Jon?

Letterman ponders his next step. Could the late-night hosts' quips help the writers?

December 13, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — With talks between the writers and the studios at a standstill, the speculation is building: Will the late-night hosts break ranks and come back on the air?

So far, all the network hosts -- except NBC's Carson Daly -- have stood firm and refused to do live shows without their writers. They've even covered the salaries of their nonwriting staffs, some out of their own pockets.

Now many in the industry are watching to see what late-night dean David Letterman does as the strike drags on. If he and the other hosts return, it is sure to be interpreted as a blow to the WGA.

Bill Scheft, a longtime writer for "Late Show With David Letterman" and the Writers Guild strike captain for the program's writers, talks to the CBS comedian regularly and said he does not believe Letterman has made up his mind yet.

"I'm sure he's struggling with it," Scheft said as he picketed in front of ABC on Tuesday. "In fact, I know he is."

For the last 5 1/2 weeks, Letterman's production company has continued to pay the salaries of staff members on his program and "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," a payroll that adds up to about $300,000 a week. He has committed to do so through the end of the year.

"He's done a great service," said Scheft, who last spoke to Letterman a few days ago. "He sounds like a guy who is comfortable in the fact that he's done the right thing and continues to do the right thing. I know when and if he comes back, it will be the right thing."

Scheft claimed that the writers won't be upset if Letterman decides to resume production.

"If you ask people on the line, they would have been thrilled if the guys just stayed off a month for sweeps," he said.

In fact, instead of looking like a rift among WGA members, he insisted that having the late-night hosts back on the air could help the writers' cause.

"David Letterman, on the air without writers . . . is the greatest ally the writers would ever have, because he would rail nightly," Scheft said. "He could be more influential as an on-air stone in people's shoes. The leverage for us might be him and Jon [Stewart] and Conan [O'Brien] talking trash."

Daytime gabbers aren't unscripted

Among the 300 bundled-up writers who picketed ABC Daytime's West 66th Street studio in the chilly December air Tuesday morning were Andrew Smith and Christian McKiernan, the two WGA writers who work on "The View."

The daytime talk show may be known for the unpredictable exchanges between its hosts, but the program relies on quite a bit of scripted material. The writers pen all the segment introductions and transitions, as well as outlines for the show's daily "Hot Topics" feature, with suggested talking points for each woman.

"Essentially, if they're looking at teleprompters, that was written by one of us," McKiernan said. "If they're looking at a blue card, that was written by a segment producer or a writer. There are scripts for the show that are obviously suggested, not to take anything away from the show -- it's driven by the talent of the women at the table."

"But there is a script, and the script doesn't come out of the air," added Smith, who writes jokes for co-host Joy Behar.

Although "The View" panelists have expressed support for their writers on the air, the show has continued to air live throughout the labor stoppage. The program hasn't come in for the kind of criticism that talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has weathered, though Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, canceled an appearance last month because of the strike.

"The only thing I object to is that every now and then, to try to justify what they're doing on the air, they'll say, 'We love the writers. We don't know what they do. But we love them,' " Smith said. "As if we were pets."

In a gesture of support, moderator Whoopi Goldberg, a WGA member, had sent out cups of hot chocolate to the strikers earlier in the morning. But Smith wished she would go further.

"You can't ask somebody to be a hero, really," he said. "But it would be nice if they did something heroic, like Whoopi Goldberg not go on, especially today, because she's a member of the guild."

After the show, Goldberg came out to greet the scribes on the line. She said she didn't feel any qualms about doing the program, since she works as a performer on the show, not a writer. She added that she supported the show's writers.

"I'm in the Writers Guild, so I feel like whatever we need to do, we need to do to make it equitable," she said. "You've got to stand with people who believe strongly that they're entitled to a piece of the pie."

When audience members clutching "High School Musical 2" DVDs began filing out of the studio after the taping, McKiernan trained a camcorder on them.

"Did you know the writers were on strike before the show?" Smith asked as they walked by the picket line.

A woman nodded sheepishly.

"Do you feel bad going to it, knowing that we're out here in the cold?" he pressed.

The sheepish woman nodded again, then noted hopefully that the "View" hosts had plugged Tuesday's WGA Write-Aid benefit at a New York comedy club.

The camera captured the attention of a well-coiffed woman striding by with a large curly-haired dog.

"Oh, is this TV?" she asked. "I support you."

"Did you go to the show?" Smith asked.

"No!" the woman responded with alarm. "Do I look like I would go to 'The View'?' "

"No," Smith shot back, "but the dog does."

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