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WGA, Leno Battle Over Monologue Rule

January 3, 2008 4:55 PM

Jay LenoThe Writers Guild of America and NBC issued conflicting statements Thursday about whether late-night host Jay Leno violated union strike rules by performing a monologue Wednesday night.

The WGA said Leno’s self-penned opening violated the guild’s policy: “A discussion took place today between Jay Leno and the Writers Guild to clarify to him that writing for ‘The Tonight Show’ constitutes a violation of the guild’s strike rules,” the WGA said in a statement.

NBC responded to the WGA’s complaint with a statement suggesting Leno will continue to perform a monologue: “The WGA agreement permits Jay Leno to write his own monologue for ‘The Tonight Show.’ The WGA is not permitted to implement rules that conflict with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the studios and the WGA.”

Countered one insider at a competing network, referring to the WGA agreement that expired when the guild went on strike two months ago: “How can you violate a contract when there is no contract?”

NBC’s “The Tonight Show” returned to the air Wednesday night along with CBS’ “The Late Show With David Letterman” and other late-night talk shows after an eight-week strike-induced hiatus.

Letterman’s show is owned by his production company, Worldwide Pants, which brokered an interim agreement with the guild that allowed him to return to the air with WGA writers. NBC Universal-owned “The Tonight Show” resumed without writers.

During Leno’s monologue, the host admitted writing the opening himself, but suggested that by doing so he was following union guidelines (even though the WGA has made it clear it considers monologues a violation of its rules).

“I’m doing what I did the day I started,” he said. “I write jokes and wake my wife up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Honey, is this funny?’ So if this monologue doesn’t work, it’s my wife’s fault. … We are not using outside guys. We are following the guild thing. We can write for ourselves.”

Leno’s monologue largely drew praise from critics for supporting his writers while staying true to the host’s traditional late-night comedy style. Letterman’s performance, while firmly beating the WGA drum, struck viewers as less than inspired. “Jay got a lot of laughs, Dave got a lot of claps,” observed one industry insider.

Although “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson wrote his own monologues when he returned to the air during the last WGA strike in 1988, he was not a WGA member. The guild rules state that violating strike policy can result in fines and expulsion from the union.

So the real question becomes: How far does the WGA want to press the issue? According to one report, not very far. Also, NBC sources say WGA president Patric Verrone met with Leno on Monday and shrugged off the host’s plans to pen a monologue.

Other open questions include whether Comedy Central’s heavily scripted “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show” will pass union muster when they return Monday.

A source close to those productions said the dueling WGA-NBC press releases will not impact their new strike-friendly shows, the format for which has been a closely guarded secret.

But if Leno continues to perform monologues without any guild consequences, it’s tough to imagine other late-night hosts won’t similarly write monologue content.

7:40 p.m.: Updated throughout

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Comments (2)

Hurray for Jay Leno. The man is very talented and should not be prohibited from writing his own stuff.
He stands behind the guild, but in all fairness, is protecting the rest of the people employed on his show. Why should 120 people suffer for the 19 writers on strike. The WGA shows that they do not care about them.

Robert Keil:

Leno did a good job on his monologue. The WGA needs to lay off.

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