We pay Tonight Show writers when nobody else does

A Davisite goes Hollywood, then goes on strike

My first day as a Tonight Show writer was September 17, 2007. My official membership in the Writers Guild was approved on October 29. My Guild membership card arrived on November 3. The first day of the writers strike was November 5. Well, five weeks was a good run. I think I pretty much put my stamp on this town. Later.

Yeah, timing is everything, especially in comedy. It’s one of the biggest factors in whether something works or completely bombs. I’ve had some interesting timing lately, and for once it hasn’t resulted in cricket sounds coming from a skeptical audience. Ever actually hear the sound of eyeballs rolling? You have to listen very carefully. Well, in this case, the timing aspect is about something a little more long term.

After growing up in Davis, then attending college in San Diego, I moved to Hollywood in 1998, which seems like a lifetime ago—I came here with the sole intention of being a comedy writer. At college, I’d gotten a rude awakening into just what profession I was suited for. Most everyone was taking science classes—all kinds of science classes, from “Getting to Know Your Autoclave” to “Paternity Suits Through Semen Stain Analysis.” It seemed that everyone had a general plan to attend medical school.

“Sounds good!” I thought. I’ll put in X amount of hard work, and at the end come out with a solid, well-respected, chick magnet of a job that draws a high salary. In the meantime, I’ll continue skateboarding and finally learn to surf. What I didn’t take into account was that my science background consisted mainly of summer school “classes” where we actually got extra credit for washing cars to help raise money for a field trip to an aquarium. I got annihilated in every single science class by an army of young Einsteins. I tried everything: tutoring, more tutoring, cheating, more cheating, hypnotherapy, and witch doctors.

Ultimately, my real undoing was the fact that I was in it for the wrong reasons. I never liked science, and my idea of being a doctor would’ve gone something like this:

9 a.m.: Hit snooze button ’til 11 a.m.

11:15 a.m.: Drive gold-plated Rolls Royce to private plastic surgery practice I’ve set up with my partner, Dr. 90210.

11:25 a.m.: Pull over on the way to shoot at neighborhood kids with a BB gun for riding their bikes too close to my car.

12 p.m.-2 p.m.: Boob jobs, nose jobs, boob jobs, nose jobs, boob jobs, nose jobs …

2 p.m.-3 p.m.: Unnecessary post-op exams of breast augmentations: “Well, looks like you’re all healed, now let’s see about 20 jumping jacks. Super!”

3 p.m.: 36 holes of golf.

All right, maybe not the best set of priorities. But what else was there? I’d been volunteering in an ER, and aside from the time a vagrant urinated all over the hallway, even that was dull. “I’d rather make a TV show about being a doctor than actually become one,” I thought. The amazing part was that UC San Diego’s communications department actually offered classes in television (which is odd, since I usually watch TV to avoid communication).

I didn’t know how well things would go or what my next step was, but a friend of mine had an old release form for submitting jokes to Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Although I could never get someone on the phone to find out where to send them, I wrote some jokes anyway—even though I didn’t have any proof that I was qualified to do so. My only “experience” to speak of was that my friends and I were a little ahead of the curve on mullet-awareness—especially in the pre-Internet days—but that was about it.

Eventually I got a chance to intern at The Tonight Show, which was great. But I had to go back and finish school afterward, and then worked elsewhere because they had no vacancies just yet. Then, one day, I finally got a call to work on the show as production assistant. The big perk, of course, was that I’d hopefully be able to turn in jokes.

First joke ever on the show: “Bill Clinton was in Colombia this week. He said the war on drugs is not another Vietnam. Well yeah, Clinton actually went to Colombia.”

Some favorite jokes: “Workers at a zoo in China are now showing their pandas videos of panda porn in an effort to show them examples of pandas mating. They want them to reproduce. The problem with panda porn: It’s always in black and white.

“Sri Lankan officials have arrested two Thai men who were attempting to smuggle precious gems the same way you smuggle drugs—by swallowing them, then passing them hours later. Authorities say that in all, the rare gems had nearly 50 carats … and several pieces of corn.”

The first joke made it in, the second did not.

Time passed and I continued to write jokes day in and day out, hoping it would one day pay off. And one day it finally did. After years of turning in material, they made me a writer—a dream come true.

However, in the past few weeks, anticipation of the strike was building. It was like a giant, drawn-out version of two tough characters staring each other down:

“Why don’t you do something about it?”

“Why don’t you do something about it, punk?”

It’s been 19 years since the last writers strike, and in that time we’ve learned a lot. Certain crucial things never came to pass: laser discs aren’t the way of the future, and the highly anticipated Alf movie never materialized. But now, issues are at stake, which are part of a clearly inevitable future.

I’ve known union organizers, and when you really (I mean really) get them going on the importance of unions, it can be rough. You almost want to turn the police water cannon on them yourself.

Now, this is the point where some people want to tune out, so I’ll do everything humanly possible to avoid becoming one of those “Hey I’ve got some literature I’d like you to look at” kind of guys.

But the issues are important, and one of the key issues at stake for us is the Internet. The Internet is the future—it’s about more than just porn … hour after hour of never-ending porn. Where was I? Oh yeah, there’s more to it than that. There’s stalking people, too. Gone are the days when you needed binoculars, Army fatigues and the cover of darkness to keep tabs on the special people in your life. But in addition to those things, there’s genuine, legitimate entertainment. There’s great content online. Problem is, the people who create this content aren’t being compensated fairly for it.

Basically, the Internet is wide open; anyone can have at it. It’s the Gold Rush of this generation, minus the long nights guarding your claim with nothing but the lusty advances of a pack mule to keep you company (and doctors use anesthetic now instead of moonshine).

When TV shows are rerun online, there are no residual payments made to the people who wrote them as there are with television. It may not sound important, but those residuals can keep people going during periods in between jobs. And, also, the studios are making a profit from these pieces; as with television, the people who created the content should get a fair percentage. Soon enough, TV and the Internet will completely merge. And if there’s no union jurisdiction over any of it, the executives will have no obligation to pay anyone anything more than the bare minimum.

Admittedly, striking is something new to me. As someone who once contemplated not registering to vote to avoid getting called for jury duty, I’m not what you’d call militant. I’ve yet to lie down in front of an equipment truck to keep it off the lot. I was going to try putting sugar in gas tanks, but in L.A. the cars only take Splenda, and those little packets take forever to open.

Picketing for eight hours a day is nowhere near as enjoyable as writing, but it’s necessary for my future and everyone else in the Guild. Hopefully we’ll all be able to get back to it soon. In the meantime, I’m keeping myself busy, trying to keep my chops up. I’ve been doing some great bathroom graffiti lately (there are so many words that rhyme with Nantucket). I’ve also been carving my name into various tabletops at restaurants around town, and I’ve done some rough drafts of a few Christmas cards I plan to send out next month.

Should things go on longer than that, maybe I’ll go back, pursue that other path and get an MD from a correspondence medical school in the Czech Republic. (Rhinoplasty anyone?)

(As of right now, the writers strike is still going on, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers still refuses to offer a reasonable contract, the WGA is standing its ground, and I am doing a complimentary rewrite on an Olive Garden menu.)