Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Remembrance of Strikes Past

These past weeks two seemingly disconnected events occurred in my life. First, I had the mother of all viral colds keeping me in bed for days that stretched into weeks. Between sneezes and coughing, and attempting to read – I would finally reach for the remote to turn on the TV and give in to whatever appeared on the screen be it Judge Judy or a rerun of some CSI show. After a week or watching the tube I was amazed at what passes for television drama these days. Forget your “Sopranos.” There are works of genius in the worst of times, but what fills most screens are burned corpses, CSI blonds with perfect makeup and squeaky voices speaking autopsy dialogue as they wait for the DNA results, in shows as ritualistic and formulaic as Kabuki plays in old Japan. What passes for evening entertainment is bloody junk – a perfect reflection of the Bush era which has given us bloody war in the form of junk government.

Second event, the WGA struck. This strike is about writers getting a fair share of residuals from the new technologies, the DVD’s and the internet. It’s an old story. The networks and the producers who express liberal and progressive views about politics and government, these men and women who contribute to Obama and Hillary, in their working life they are as greedy and repressive as any robber baron in the 19th century when it comes to sharing the pie. They want it all. It is what happens when one gets a great fortune for making a few good choices and many bad choices, and when one comes to believe in the divine right of kings – be they Louis the Fourteenth or Barry the Diller. Getting them to give others a fair share of the financial rewards is going against nature – their nature. The ruthlessness that it took to become President of X network is not something that can be put aside when negotiating with the writers who from the beginning of time have been regarded (in the immortal words of some Louis B. Mayer) as “a shmuck with an Underwood.”

This shmuck with a Smith Corona started writing for television in the late fifties so I have lived through several strikes. But the one that remains clearest in my mind was the strike of 1988 when we struck for comparable reasons to the current strike – a fairer share of the current and future pie. Some of it was fun. Writing is such a solitary business it was good for awhile to walk on a picket line with ones fellows, to hear their dreams and their grievances, to claim that we were all spending our free time writing brilliant spec scripts, and to pretend that a better world for writers would result from our actions. I also recall those five months of unemployment wrecking many a writer’s financial life, marriages broke up under the strain, college tuitions and mortgages went unpaid, and few made up for their losses with future earnings. 1988 was not a time of great rewards, even for the most successful of writers. Still, it was worth it if one took a long view and the small gains made helped writers in the future. That strike brought a 9 percent loss of audience to the networks and introduced cable to the world. It also toughened the WGA. The networks who thought they were cutting talent down to size ended up cutting themselves down to size by losing their old share of the audience. What the public does not realize is that most writers have the financial life span of a fashion runway model – a few good years of flash and glory – followed by diminishing careers that retreat into the shadows. Future rewards for current work is not about greed, it is about survival. Ageism is a basic reality in the entertainment business. After two Emmy Awards and various honors bestowed upon me by the industry I learned that at fifty I was considered old news. I had to go to Europe to find work. No, I wasn’t blacklisted, I was grey-listed. And that continues to this day. I am fortunate to draw my pension from the WGA, and spend my working life writing a memoir, writing songs, working in regional theatres and developing plays, but even if that was not the case, my heart if not my legs would be out there marching with my fellow writers. The shmuck with the Underwood is now the shmuck with the laptop, but the characterization of the writer remains the same in the minds of the executives.

The viewing public is surprised, almost shocked, that the Jon Stuarts and the David Lettermans do not write their wonderful quips and actually need writers. Anyone who has watched Jerry Seinfeld recently stumble through an interview with a minimum of wit and a maximum of ego is reminded of the role of the writer in comedy as well as drama. The writer is the invisible man. I can recall standing in a theatre lobby hearing the audience discuss one of my plays, and praising the actors for being so witty. Not a word about the writer of that dialogue. Some notable critics have made that same error. But we endure that. It is a small price to pay for being allowed to work at a trade we love. The old days in which I first flourished produced Studio One and Playhouse 90 – vehicles for writers to do their best with nary a CSI blond in sight to deliver computer driven dialogue. It was the era of Horton Foote, Reggie Rose and Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote television plays that dealt with social issues that did not need to be dressed in a murder to be accepted by an audience. Although I hate to sentimentalize, after looking at the current crop of TV shows and movies it’s hard not to look back with nostalgia upon character driven scripts with stories about real people and audiences who were more interested in the problems of the living rather than the innards of a corpse or the flames of an exploding car. From my perspective writers should be striking for more control over the content of their shows, as much as for future profits. No, there were never good old days for writers in television but these days it kind of looks that way between my sneezing and my coughing.