Why Donald Trump Is Probably Praying for a Writer’s Strike
Should a writer’s strike happen Tuesday, late-night talk shows will be the first to be affected. That means Donald Trump finally escapes their increasingly tough takedowns.
No TV fan wants a writer’s strike to happen. That is, no TV fan except for perhaps the one most obsessed with it: the President of the United States.
On Monday, the contract of the Writers Guild of America, which covers TV and movie writers, expires. That means that as early as Tuesday production could shut down on current and new television programs if a deal is not reached.
And that includes, effective immediately, the late-night talk shows and last two episodes of Saturday Night Live—which would mean, for Donald Trump, an indeterminate respite from late-night comedy takedowns.
The WGA has been in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers seeking pay increases, stronger employer contributions to health plans, and fairer residuals for shows that are put on streaming services.
In a statement, the AMPTP said they are determined to reach an agreement before a strike happens, but negotiations, as of Monday afternoon, are heading down to the wire.
The last writer’s strike took place in 2007 and lasted 100 days, costing both studios and writers millions in revenue and compensation, not to mention future deals. And, as TV fans remember, it meant a shutdown on production of their favorite TV shows, which meant networks were forced to rely heavily on repeats and reality television.
There are several hotly-anticipated series that have already wrapped their upcoming seasons and whose airing won’t be affected: Orange Is the New Black, the Twin Peaks revival, and—breathe easy—Game of Thrones.
Series set to start filming in May that would be among the first hit include The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Jessica Jones. Broadcast shows typically go back into production in July, which means the fall TV season could be impacted if the strike lasts that long.
But as was the case in 2007, the first to face the firing squad are the nightly late-night comedy series.
The shutdown would come as late night hosts and their series are encountering a surge in relevance and popularity and are perhaps even seeing their value as a public service, with the ways in which they are holding the Trump administration systematically accountable for hypocrisies, blunders, and lies—made all the more effective through biting comedy.
And, as we’ve learned in recent months, it turns out a major side effect of fake tanner is an extreme thinning of the skin. At least that’s gauging by the president’s public denunciation of shows, especially Saturday Night Live, that have spoofed him and his administration.
If a strike happens, production on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Late Late Show with James Corden, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night With Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Conan, and The Daily Show will stop immediately, meaning no new shows on Tuesday night.
Should it last more than two weeks, which would be likely if it happens at all, the strike would effectively cancel the last two episodes Saturday Night Live’s current season—the penultimate of which, scheduled to air May 13, was set to feature Melissa McCarthy as host and a likely return of her brutal Sean Spicer impression.
Also impacted: the weekly news-centric programs, like Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and Real Time With Bill Maher. Riding high off her phenomenal Not the White House Correspondents Dinner special, Samantha Bee would also shutter production on Full Frontal.
And, again probably to the benefit of the president’s ego, the newest entry to late night—and the most explicitly Trump-targeted—will face the road block in just the first moments of its run. Comedy Central’s The President Show, spotlighting Anthony Atamanuik and hailed for having the best Donald Trump impression, debuted just last week and will already have to stop any momentum its early reviews injected.
In the first months of the Trump administration, a glut of thinkpieces, critical essays, and trade magazine covers have lauded and parsed the ways in which these late-night shows have (and in some hair-rubbing cases, have not) made a tangible cultural impact with their probing yet still funny coverage of politics.
With a fair amount of scripted series already in the can and, in the age of #PeakTV, certainly more than enough content out there for consumers to discover and fill their time with on streaming and on-demand services, it’s in the late-night space that audiences will really feel the effects of the strike. (This is not to downplay the weight and legitimacy of the strike and the writers who will be impacted by it.)
It’s interesting, then, to look back at how these late-night shows have reckoned with strikes before.
As Vanity Fair revisits, when Johnny Carson returned to The Tonight Show for the first time after the 1988 strike—at 22 weeks, the longest in the guild’s history—he spoke in a rare moment of serious candor: “I just could not stay away longer from all the things that are going on in the country. I was compelled to come back.”
It’s certainly something that the likes of Colbert, Meyers, Bee, Noah, and their contemporaries probably feel deeply now, which makes the way in which Carson came back notable. After failing to broker a deal that allowed his guild writers to return to the show in the midst of the strike, he broadcasted without writers.
Essentially, he wrote his own show until a deal was later reached. At the time, the Los Angeles Times reported that WGA wasn’t happy about that decision.
It’s something that today’s late-night hosts could theoretically do—though decorum would dictate that they wait a respectful amount of time in solidarity with their guild writers, with whom they generally have strong relationships, before doing so.
David Letterman provided a controversial test case in 2007. He owned both The Late Show and the Craig Ferguson-hosted The Late Late Show, which meant that his production company, Worldwide Pants, was able to broker an interim agreement that allowed his writers to return before the strike ended.
Unsurprisingly, this both pissed off and sent his competitors scrambling, particularly Jay Leno, with whom he was constantly in a ratings arms race.
Not to be outdone by Letterman and Ferguson’s returns, both Leno and his network follow-up, Conan O’Brien, returned the same day—only they returned without writers. Since they were legally not allowed to write anything, they could only ad-lib their opening monologues. Which they did (though, Leno at one point faced a disciplinary hearing—and was cleared—after skeptics argued he did not purely ad-lib all his jokes).
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert returned, also writerless, a week later, after having failed to reach their own interim agreements to bring back their writers. (The recent oral history of The Daily Show by Chris Smith chronicles the tension between Stewart and his writers, whom he felt betrayed him by striking at the time—and how he now feels he handled the situation poorly.)
How would any of this work today?
The biggest factor to consider is how the landscape of late-night has changed in nine years since the last strike.
Back then, the format of most shows was monologue-and-guest. Ad-libbing a monologue solved the first problem, while networks relied heavily on their in-house personalities to fill in as guests while actors supported the strike.
Now, however, viral, pre-taped bits are the bread and butter of late-night programs. Whether it’s a James Corden musical number, Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick facing off against Jimmy Fallon dressed as Trump, or Samantha Bee’s field pieces, it’s the kind of content that would be hard, and perhaps impossible, to produce without guild writers.
Sure, we could expect all these hosts to exhibit a formidable bit of comedic dexterity to get around this and still produce compelling shows, but it would mean a discernible altering of the fabric of their shows.
The plans at the major networks right now are to honor the strike. Which means that, as we wait for what might be an eleventh-hour resolution before the Monday night deadline, we also wait for the biggest presence on all of these shows—Donald Trump—to weigh in.
“It’s a failing show, and Alec Baldwin is a disaster,” Trump has said about the current season of Saturday Night Live. For the first time this season, it looks the president might finally getting the disaster relief he’s been craving.