The Talk Shows Have Labor Pains

Let’s get one thing straight up front: Of all the people affected by the strikes in Hollywood, you do not need to pity the talk-show hosts. They are well-known, well-paid people who will, as a rule, be fine.

But this is definitely a fraught time to be hosting a talk show — or, if you’re Jimmy Fallon, even not to be hosting one.

The pillory for hosts restarting production in defiance of their writers’ picket lines is getting crowded. The latest addition, Bill Maher, tried to cushion the announcement that his HBO talk show, “Real Time,” was returning to the air with fulsome praise of his striking staffers.

“The show I will be doing without my writers will not be as good as our normal show, full stop,” he said. “I love my writers, I am one of them, but I am not prepared to lose an entire year and see so many below-the-line people suffer so much.”

Nice words, but a little hard to take at face value given that Maher recently said on his podcast that the strikers were making “kooky” demands of the studios and that they seemed to “believe that you’re owed a living as a writer.” The Writers Guild of America announced a picket of “Real Time”; the commentator Keith Olbermann called Maher a “scumbag.”

Among daytime talk shows, “The View” returned to air over the W.G.A.’s protests. (The actors are on strike too, although in one of many complications affecting the daytime shows, the Screen Actors Guild does not consider hosting to be a violation of their strike.) “The Talk” and “The Jennifer Hudson Show” both announced their returns, then reversed their plans shortly before their premiere dates.

Drew Barrymore got the most public blowback — including from the National Book Awards, which disinvited her as host — for announcing her daytime show’s resumption. On Sunday, she reversed course, saying that she had “listened to everyone” and was “making the decision to pause the premiere until the strike is over.”

Bill Maher announced that he is going to bring back his HBO talk show, “Real Time,” without writers.Credit…Janet Van Ham/HBO

There was once a time when a host who had returned without writers in the midst of a strike, citing concern for the rest of the show’s staff, could be forgiven, even treated like a folk hero. That time was (checks calendar) May.

That was when, around the beginning of the current writers’ strike, posters on social media circulated clips from Conan O’Brien’s return to NBC’s “Late Night” during the 2007-08 writers’ strike, when he vamped for time by spinning his wedding ring on his desktop and sang “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in a cowboy hat. O’Brien was called a “legend” for calling attention to how much he needed his writers — he did not make his solo labors look effortless — not to mention, digging into his own pocket to pay around 75 staffers.

But as this year’s strike went on, the guild and its vocal supporters made clear that any hosts restarting their shows during this walkout would not be showered with likes. The guild operated under different contract language in O’Brien’s time, and W.G.A. members have said that something like his return to air would today be considered strikebreaking because airing the show inevitably involves creative work that constitutes writing.

The producers of today’s returning talk shows, of course, disagree. I cannot adjudicate this dispute as a lawyer. I can say, as a writer, that physically writing down words is the easiest part of the job (even for a hunt-and-peck typist like me). Planning, shaping ideas, making notes, generating questions, coming up with original concepts — all of this is the work of writing, whether or not you consider it the act of writing.

Regardless, I don’t think today’s backlash is the result of contract wording or a philosophical shift on the nature of the scribe’s craft. Support for unions across America is rising — a 2022 Gallup poll found it at its highest level since 1965 — which has translated into 72 percent of Americans siding with the writers over the studios. And like every strong feeling today, this one gets amplified in social media, especially when there are famous faces like Maher’s and Barrymore’s to aim at.

The talk-show returns of 2007-08 were not without controversy. Ellen DeGeneres and Jay Leno were criticized by the W.G.A. for doing monologues. (David Letterman returned to air with a full staff because his production company, Worldwide Pants, struck its own deal with the writers.) Even Jon Stewart, in the prime of his late-aughts iconhood, took some heat for “scabbing.” But by and large, these hobbled strike episodes were seen as testaments to the need for writers, produced more in sorrow than defiance.

Today, the expectations have changed. When Johnny Carson, who practiced a cool neutrality, returned without his writers during the 1988 strike, he wasn’t seen as a hypocrite contradicting his on-air principles. In the more opinionated late-night environment of 2023, when hosts have made political bona fides part of their acts, their audiences are more likely to expect their walk to match their talk.

Drew Barrymore drew criticism and picket lines when she resumed production on her talk show, leading her to reverse her decision days later.Credit…CBS Media Ventures

So it’s safer for them to do that talking through a podcast, as the sidelined hosts Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and John Oliver have done with “Strike Force Five,” starting in August. (Fox News’s conservative late-night host Greg Gutfeld, who has a non-W.G.A. staff, has stayed on the air through the strike, though I doubt he would have been in on the group chat regardless.)

In theory, the podcast sounds like the late-night equivalent of “The Avengers.” In practice, it is more like “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” decaffeinated. It’s an amiable, shapeless session of five peers busting chops, trading shop talk and occasionally reading sponsor ads like modern day Joe Franklins.

But other than its mission statement — to raise money to support the hosts’ out-of-work staffs — it is only rarely about the strike. In the third episode, Colbert surprises his co-hosts by having an A.I. simulator read ads in their voices. “This is why the Guild’s got to hold the line, this is why S.A.G.’s got to hold the line,” he says. “Because we’re all going to be replaced by robots by Christmas if we don’t.”

“Strike Force Five” is a solution to a practical problem: to raise money for idled workers. But it’s also a solution to a celebrity problem: to give its hosts a public presence and voice without their becoming the bad guys. The 2007-08 work stoppage had strike beards; this one has a strike pod. (The latter, 15 years later, is as exclusively male as the former.)

After all, one danger of the strike to talk-show hosts is that it disrupts an illusion that their programs depend on: that the host is your friend, not somebody’s boss.

Talk-show hosts are authorities whose job is to act as if they don’t have authority; they play jokers or confidants or snarky outsiders throwing cream pies in the face of power. But even if they are hired and sometimes fired by networks, even if they vocally support the unions, they are nonetheless management.

This became uncomfortably clear with the recent Rolling Stone exposé into conditions at Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” whose staffers described a “toxic workplace” where miserable employees would use guest dressing rooms as “crying rooms.” Fallon later apologized to his staff in a virtual meeting, joining DeGeneres in the club of talk hosts with likable public personas and boss-from-hell reputations.

That particular hot topic has not yet come up on “Strike Force Five,” at least some of whose recent episodes were recorded before the Rolling Stone article appeared. (In the meantime, we have learned that during the strike, Fallon considered reading “Moby-Dick” and “got into kebabs.”) Granted, the subject might be awkward amid the hosts’ marriage stories and tales of teleprompter screw-ups, but it would be worth acknowledging on a podcast meant to support late-night workers.

Talk shows, even the most issues-oriented, are on some level escapes. But at the moment, it’s hard for them and their audiences to escape one essential truth: Your favorite show is somebody else’s workplace.

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