How Late Night Hosts are Coping with the Strikes: The Good, the Fallon and Whatever Is Going On with Bill Maher
Issue #166 | September 7, 2023
The members that make up the Writers Guild of America are as much content creators as those who appear in front of the screen, but without the glimmer of celebrity to keep them in the news cycle. The fact that they’ve been on strike for 128 days and we’re just now getting around to checking up on them after SAG joined the picket lines tells a whole lot about why the writers are striking in the first place.
In a lot of ways, SAG and WGA’s proposals to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) reflect similar concerns across both industries: better working conditions, access to show metrics from streaming services, fixing the residual system and pay scale. Not having all but a few select members treated like disposable commodities that have no right to ask for a living wage. Or opt-out of having their work used as grist in the deep learning content mill for the AI being brought in to replace them.
You know, INSANE STUFF to ask of the handful of studio heads keeping these strikes ongoing while earning hundreds of millions of dollars; the same people who give anonymous quotes to trade publications bragging about “starving” out writers until they lose their homes and are forced accept their $.01 paychecks for co-starring in a hit Netflix series.
Still, worth noting that even in Hollywood, where reality warping is so strong it could be its own MCU macguffin, the anonymous exec quoted in the piece knew better than to publicly shame the WGA.
But between these three separate interests, no one is talking about the loveless middle child: won’t anyone think of the late night talk show hosts??
After all, the likes of your Fallons, your Colberts, your Olivers… they can technically still get up on stage every night and perform to millions, thanks to a separate arrangement between SAG and major broadcast networks. Known as the Network Television Code, it allows SAG and non-SAG performers to work on all non-dramatic primetime broadcasts as well as digital media. (Nearly all non-primetime non-dramatic programs are covered as well.) So sports announcers, news hosts, reality show performers and judges, and variety stars all get a pass and could technically continue making TV during the SAG strike.
But as anyone with insomnia can tell you, the news hosts may have kept on newsin’, but late night’s been dark since the first days of the writers’ strike. No “Saturday Night Live”(we all remember where we were when we found out Pete Davidson wasn’t going to be able to guest-host), no “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”, no “Late Show with Stephen Colbert”, no “Late Night with Seth Meyers”, no “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”, no “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and, as most of us undoubtedly found out after this week, no “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
That’s because while the hosts can still perform, they’re not coming up with monologues on the fly. That’s the job of a writers’ room, whose staffers are WGA. The fact that the variety shows can’t lean on their other material – interviews with celebrities promoting their next movie or show – means there’s nothing for these hosts to do.
Some have handled this with graceful aplomb – see Strike Force Five, a new podcast series that devotes all its money to the striking staff of its hosts Colbert, Kimmel, Oliver, Meyers, and a fifth guy, now in its second episode. Some less so, like late night’s worst Jimmy and the fifth member of Strike Force, Jimmy Fallon. A new bombshell today from Rolling Stone outlines accusations from 16 former and current staffers of “The Tonight Show”claiming that the host would frequently have “bad days” where he’d show up to film while possibly intoxicated and berate his staff. The pattern of abuse affected the turnover of the showrunners, nine over the last nine years, at least two of whom Rolling Stone also names as alleged perpetrators of toxic work behavior.
So…not great for Fallon. And yet it somehow gets worse, because at least the smirking Slow Jam the News performer is still working to get his staff paid while off-air. And, you know, very low bar here you would think, but you’ll never catch Fallon publicly dropping his nice boy persona to shit-talk his own writers.
THE COMMENTS SECTION
“If you’re a writer for Bill Maher, what reason would you have to return to working with this guy after the strike? Because I don’t see any after this. He CLEARLY doesn’t care that you make up the majority of his show.”
—Twitter user Emily (@ImprisonedEmily) on Bill Maher’s comments about the WGA strike.
I mean, that would be insane, right? AND YET. There’s that 3rd category of late night host, one who is NOT handling the forced solidarity of his show’s hiatus very well. You could argue that this third category, in fact, turned the week into a form of torture outlawed by the Geneva Convention: forcefeeding us a bilous, non-stop temper tantrum from a whiny 67-year-old millionaire Libertarian(?) edgelord wearing a Darth Stewie t-shirt when we’re desperate for any content.
I’m talking of course about Bill Maher, king of the slams and host of…well, currently, nothing on TV…but previously “Real Time with Bill Maher” on Max. He also hosts a podcast called *eyeroll* “Club Random,” which is very much that John Mulaney Fisher-Price Podcast Set for White Guys “SNL” sketch. On Monday’s…*god forgive me* “Club Random,” an unhinged Maher held Hot Pockets comedian Jim Gaffigan hostage live on-air, negotiating the terms of his release to include every social media network blasting out clips of a grown-ass adult man reading from a disgruntled manifesto about his employees.
“What I find objectionable about the philosophy of the strike…where they kind of believe that you’re owed a living as a writer—and you’re not,” Maher opined with all the pent-up, misdirected outrage of a 15-year-old who has just watched “Fight Club” for the first time while editing the Wiki for Ayn (“uh, actually it’s ‘Ann’”) Rand.
“This is show business. This is the make-or-miss league.” He also called the WGA’s demands “kooky,” which is hilarious coming from a guy who allegedly has a no eye contact rule for his staff.
Disclosure: The author of this article met both Maher and Gaffigan in 2016 after a taping of “Real Time,” and found both the taping and the host so overwhelmingly antagonistic she had a twenty minute panic attack on a green room couch. For that reason, she found the “Club Random” video extremely triggering, but recognizes that’s a “her thing.”
That same day, Maher was on Joe Rogan (he hasn’t changed out of the Stewie Star Wars shirt, btw), yelling about wokism destroying the Left. You can tell how aggravating it must be for someone like Maher to be benched during this historic political news cycle, all because of the hack writers on strike coincidentally write his material. (“They don’t have takes!” Maher exclaimed when Gaffigan dared to bring up Strike Force Five. “I have takes!”)
Maybe Maher has a point: if he can come up with what he truly seems to believe are A+ searing BrainTakes on Hunter Biden all by himself for Rogan, why would he need a writers’ room for a weekly show that’s 50% interviews? As a friend recently put it, “Maybe he’s so mad because he just found out he’s been paying for terrible material.”
“Whatever happens in movies happens in real life,” Maher said straight-faced, responding to a complete non-sequitur detour into the topic of AI. After showing up and admitting that he’d not seen the footage of the arraignment that was to be the topic of the afternoon because he’d spent the day “getting ready for you,” Maher got a solid three minutes to riff on Trump and Hunter Biden before Melber cut him off with the ultimate non-sequitur power move: an AI-generated video of the “Real Time” host interviewing Elon Musk about AI.
Y’all. The video was so, so bad. Soooo bad. Like they gave Musk and Maher the same voice for some reason? If you’ve seen the defense’s video animation in “Jury Duty,” it’s that quality. But you can tell Melber is really impressed by it, and Maher is…less so. “It’s not there yet,” he deadpans, and you can see the news host deflate a little.
Sensing an opportunity to grandstand on the one issue he’d actually come to talk about, Maher seized the moment: why should MSNBC allow Melber on the air while he himself was handcuffed due to the strike? He was, after all, the funny one, according to him.
“I’m jealous,” Maher admitted, before whining that shows like “The View” also had writing staff that were not striking.
Melber, usually a dogged foil for grandstanding politicians and lawyers who come touting bizarre conspiracy theories, instead responded to Maher with a sincere explanation of the TV Code. He then ceded the last 30 seconds of airtime primetime cable to a guy we’ve all heard enough from this week for a softball about whether the strike was “good for the culture.”
Yikes. If the reception to this latest episode on social media is any indication, allowing Maher anywhere near a mic and camera during this strike may have been the bigger culture killer. Instead, it’s just the latest example of a well-known but unspoken truth: that when it comes to Hollywood’s relationship with the news, reality warps both ways.
Disclosure: The author was married to MSNBC’s Ari Melber from 2014 to 2016. She remains a big fan of his work, usually.