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Don’t strike up the band

Apr 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Did you enjoy Saturday’s edition of “Saturday Night Live”? I hope so because it could have been the season finale. “SNL” is scheduled to do three shows in May, but those obviously are all canceled if the Writers Guild goes on strike May 1, as it is widely assumed it will.
There’s an irony of almost biblical proportions at work here: Writers calling a strike at a time when TV is already infested with virtually writerless “reality” shows. There are writers on the staffs, but in most cases these writers are not covered by the Guild contract.
Giddy and delirious over the success they’ve had with low-budget reality shows already and imagining more to come, network nabobs have been all but scoffing at the strike threat: “Oh yeah, tee-hee. Like we need writers.”
It’s a little like vaudevillians threatening to go on strike at the dawn of the modern motion picture: “OK, Mr. Theater Manager, let’s see you get along without Frick and Frack, Baby Buttercup and Putz the Human Pretzel!”
Get along? “Oh yeah, like we need a Putz. We got talkies. We got a Jolson 25 times taller than the real one.”
No director auteur
The arrogance of the networks is appalling and, let’s hope, misplaced. In fact, if the writers do go out and the strike continues for two months or more, it could have a salutary effect: Killing off “reality” shows and sending them back to hell whence they came. That’s because six or eight weeks of nothing but ordinary people fighting tsetse flies and canker sores and arguing over who gets to eat the last cockchafer (relax, it’s a beetle) will have the American people thinking seriously about turning the TV set into the proverbial planter or selling it for firewood.
Either that-a plunge in HUT levels to make Leslie Moonves’ head spin (though I suspect it spins anyway)-or C-SPAN and the Weather Channel will be setting new ratings records.
Brian Lamb will be declared a “hottie” and meteorologists will be akin to rock stars. George W. Bush will give a prime-time presidential address and be shocked to see himself pull a 75 share. In fact, something like that would probably scare him silly.
Anyway, viewers would be cured perhaps once and for all of their weakness for reality shows. The few good ones would perish right along with the garbage (like tomorrow night’s almost unbelievably egregious “Chains of Love” on UPN).
Clearly there are some serious issues at stake in the dispute. However, the matter of directors getting too much credit at the expense of writers is relevant to motion pictures but completely irrelevant to television, of course. Television is a writer’s medium, and no TV-critic equivalent of an Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael has come along to say that directors should get more respect and credit.
Not that there haven’t been occasions when TV directors got less praise for their contributions than they deserved. One that springs quickly to mind is Hal Gurnee, who for years, first at NBC and then for a while at CBS, was David Letterman’s director. Gurnee was so quick-witted he could improve on jokes the writers had written with a sudden inspired shot of someone in the audience or a bit of stock footage in the computer or whatever.
Gurnee, who had directed many of Jack Paar’s fabulous shows many years earlier, had a genius for knowing how far to go, for lending an invaluable helping hand without becoming intrusive. Gurnee was nominated for Emmys year after year but he would always lose to somebody like the director of the Oscar show, where it’s simply a matter of getting the right shot at the right time, not a matter of being inspired.
To this day, or rather to these nights, you will occasionally hear Letterman ask for a piece of tape or film by saying “Hal?” or “Could you roll that, Hal?”-even though Gurnee has long since left the show. I hope this is a kind of tribute from Letterman and not some bit of snotty snideness. He has occasionally behaved badly toward former employees. Maybe now that the Tin Man has a new heart he is less prone to nasty gestures.
Leno not up to Paar
Even if Hal Gurnee had been wildly conceited and impressed with his own talent-and he wasn’t-he would never in a zillion years have proposed that the Letterman or Paar shows begin with the credit “A Hal Gurnee Television Program.” Letterman and his fellow writers are the auteurs of their show, as Paar was the auteur of his.
Jay Leno? Applying a word like “auteur” to that goof is too ridiculous even for Hollywood. He doesn’t give a hoot about the show once the monologue is over anyway. Leno’s “Tonight Show” might be almost tolerable if it ended when the monologue did-if it were about eight minutes long.
The last writer’s strike, in 1988, had plodded on for two months when the great Johnny Carson decided he had had enough. He was also concerned about the hardships that the strike was wreaking on non-writer members of his staff. He lobbied the Guild to work out an independent producer’s agreement that would let his writers return to work. No go. So he worked out an interim agreement that at least he be allowed to go back. Johnny could return to the air and do new “Tonight” shows as long as he wrote the whole monologue himself. And on May 11, 1988, he did. It was a memorable little era all by itself.
Shortly after-as recalled recently in a piece about the 1988 strike in the New York Daily News-David Letterman, still at NBC, did essentially the same thing.
That sort of history could conceivably repeat itself if the strike drags on again.
Conan no Carson
And now here’s a purely gratuitous sentimental digression for you prompted by this talk of the ’80s and all those nights when Letterman followed Carson on NBC. Holy cow. Shame on us for not appreciating it as much as we should have at the time. It is awfully unlikely America will ever again be as royally entertained for two hours straight on a single network in the late-night hours. Even if now you watch Letterman and then switch over to Conan O’Brien on NBC, that’s still only a hint of those glory nights back then.
One can easily appreciate how galling it is for screenwriters when certain directors take the “A So-and-So Film” credit in the opening frames of a film. But this is no bread-and-butter issue, and it isn’t fair that writers who are barely eking out livings will have to stop writing and perhaps eating because the big-buck boys want to argue such fine points. The writers leading the Guild and playing tough guy are the ones making $30 million a year from one hit TV show or another. For them the strike will be a pleasant vacation even if it lasts six months instead of two.
Meanwhile, of course, actors are threatening to go on strike not long after the writers do. Again-bad timing. Technology is rapidly making possible the Actorless Live-Action Movie. You don’t have to pay them, you don’t have to feed them and you never have to sober them up or send them away for detox. You just digitally compose them on a computer. The Mickey-Mousing of the movies is complete and every film is a cartoon.
I am reminded of a famous quotation from former NBC News President Reuven Frank, coined when he produced “Weekend,” the wittiest TV newsmagazine ever. I’ve probably quoted it many times but here goes one more:
“I have seen the future. And it sucks.”