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TELEVISION REVIEW

They're writing on the sly

Stewart and Colbert return, but they're not winging it.

January 09, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

IN honor of the two-month-long writers strike, I have decided to give the dozen or so scribes I normally work with to produce my stories the day off. I am writing this review without writers.

Except, wait a second, I am a writer. Hmmmm.

This is the same conundrum faced, or posed, depending on how you look at it, by the return of late-night hosts Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Leno, O'Brien and Stewart have made points of publicly supporting the strike, in which they participated for two months, and yet there they all are, crossing picket lines and writing for television and, presumably, getting paid for it. (Colbert, a guild member, argued deadpan that he has long been anti-labor and anti-union, so his reappearance, along with Stewart's, on Comedy Central on Monday was totally consistent.)

The Writers Guild of America, meanwhile, continues to offer mixed messages about the situation. When Leno first announced he would return, guild leaders said they supported the comedian, who had walked the picket line in early days, handing out doughnuts. Then, when it became clear Leno had actually written his opening monologue -- he made several references on air to doing so -- the guild took a step back, acknowledging that this was a breach of strike rules; WGA, West, President Patric Verrone said he would talk to Leno and pursue the matter.

Um, OK, but there Leno was on Monday, monologue firmly in place. The absence of his writers is, however, beginning to show -- Chia Pet jokes, Jay? Is this 1987?

Obviously, the WGA doesn't have its own police force, so it can't exactly haul Leno off to strike jail. Monday night, Stewart made sure the audience knew that he had tried to reach an agreement with the WGA similar to the one David Letterman made but that it was rejected. (Because, in fact, his production company doesn't own his show, but never mind, it's funnier to say, as he did, that it's because he's short and Jewish.)

While Stewart and Colbert didn't cop to writing their stuff, clearly they were not improvising -- it's hard to argue you are working without a script when you have film clips and visual aids cued up. Both hosts made direct references to this contradiction. At the end of his show, Stewart "checked in" with Colbert only to catch him sporting a hilarious, Hasidic-like beard and shredding documents. "Is that a script, Stephen?" Stewart asked in mock severity. "No, no," said Colbert. "Don't you see my strike beard? But I am very alarmed by how prepared you were, and I will be making a call."

It was a funny moment, and I mean both ha-ha and strange. Colbert made a big point of showing the empty teleprompters (something Stewart did not do, possibly because his eyes seemed glued to his), riffing on how he always thought the teleprompter was a magic box that transmitted his thoughts to the screen. "Writers?" he asked in mock surprise when told that no, the writers supplied the words. "You mean those guys on the fourth floor with opium bongs, playing Guitar Hero all day?"

It got a laugh, as did a prediction by Stewart that the picket line (cue picketer images) would turn writers, "a small, often sickly bunch, working in the dark surrounded by 'Simpsons' figurines," into action heroes (cue "Conan the Barbarian" clip).

How long jokes by writers about writers will remain amusing remains to be seen, though I think we're talking hours rather than days. And the self-mocking tone of the quip only emphasizes the underlying problems -- yes, Stewart and Colbert are performers, but they are also writers. Writers clearly writing during a writers strike.

You can't blame them. No one, not even someone as extemporaneously afflicted as Robin Williams, would agree to put on a daily show without at least a few notecards. The cameras, the sound, the lights, none of these can be coordinated without some sort of decision in advance about what the host is going to say and how long he's going to say it. In other words, a script.

But let's just say, for argument's sake, that neither Stewart nor Colbert wrote down one word of the glib patter they kept up for minutes at a time. Let's say they developed it in their heads and recorded it, worked out the kinks that way. Or took notes in pictograms. Or used anatomically correct dolls to rehearse. Whatever. Isn't that still writing? Doesn't writing mostly consist of thoughts flying around in a writer's head? I've been hanging around writers all my life, and the most common complaint/boast we make is that we're working all the time because everything we do, everything we think is "material."

So, while O'Brien seems to be following faithfully the call of "pencils down" -- filling in with ring-spinning, catwalk-exploring and homemade movies (the bit last week about eavesdropping, and bursting in, on the NBC page tours was inspired), he seems to be writing too, just not transmitting it via teleprompter.

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