Writers on the Line

On the Line
Late-Night Writers Seize The Day
Late-night writers come together for comedy-variety at TV City, the new Black Picket Fence forms at Paramount, and father-daughter members leave a legacy on both coasts
Monday, August 28, 2023

A Hot Day of Late-Night Writers Picketing

Late-night writers at TV City. Photo by Brittany Woodside 

TV City is familiar ground to WGAW member Rob Kutner, who began his career on the lot working on Dennis Miller Live. As he was looking to organize a theme picket that he hoped would attract some traffic to the lot, the five-time Emmy winner came up with an idea for a different kind of homecoming.

“There’s a huge tier of late-night writers, a lot of us who haven’t seen each other in a long time,” said Kutner who has written for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, and Conan. “We’ve all gone different ways, so it seemed like a great opportunity to get a lot of people together and also get a lot of warm bodies to TV City which is my normal picket place.”

Mission accomplished, as more than 75 people from 10 different late-night series came together to catch up and to lend their support for the Guild’s fight for a fair contract. On a hot day, Kutner even helped address the “warm bodies” issue, getting James Corden to sponsor an ice cream truck which served specially-titled delicacies (“Johnny Carsundae” anyone? How about a “Jimmy Kimmilkshake”).

The writers were happy to see each other in person on the picket lines. Many late-night writers know and see each other regularly through the stand-up comedy circuit.

“We all do very similar jobs,” said Matt Kirshen, who wrote for The Jim Jefferies Show. “It’s not that competitive between us because we’re not really going for the same work.”

As they have watched negotiations unfold, late-night writers have become concerned over the comedy-variety writing turning into “gig work.”

“That they would even use words like that was shocking to me,” said WGAW member Laurie Kilmartin, also an actress and comedian who wrote for Conan and The Bonnie Hunt Show.

Kirshen recalls being on the “good side” of the broadcast-streamer disparity a few years back when he was writing for a series on Comedy Central while a friend had a similar position (with a similar workload) on a streaming series.

“He got a low weekly rate and zero residuals for doing exactly the same job for a company that has more money or comparable money to my network,” Kirshen said. “So, yeah, more things are moving over to streaming, and more broadcast networks are disappearing, and the line between what is streaming and what is broadcast is almost invisible. But for some reason, the pay scales are wildly different. So that’s a big issue for me.”

Since leaving Conan, Kutner has largely worked in animation. A former member of WGAE, he was active in many initiatives on the East Coast and served as a strike captain during the 2007-‘08 strike.

“Now that I have a family and a lot of other non-WGA jobs, I haven’t been able to be as active as I’d like,” he said. “So I thought this is how I can have the most impact, by bringing a lot of people together to an underserved lot who should be talking.”

Late Night Writers picket organizer Rob Kutner.

Black Image Makers Picket

Black Image Makers picket at Paramount. Photo by J.W. Hendricks

Accompanied by their friends from the newly-formed organization Black Picket Fence, Benjamin Earl Turner arrived at the Paramount picket line as much ready to observe as to act. The 30 Black Picket Fence members carried cameras as well as signs, all the better to capture images of unity and community.

What they plan to do with those images is yet to be determined, but Turner hopes it will be insightful as well as impactful.

“Our intention was to come down and be in solidarity and to make something we could rally around,” said Turner, a WGAW and SAG-AFTRA member. “We want to view direct action as a means of creating change and participate in it. Our images, or the projects we work on, shouldn’t always have to be dedicated to systemic struggles. We want to see what it looks like to get with other people and stand in solidarity with them.”

Turner and many of their friends met through their involvement with the Black Image Center, a community photography space, designed to uplift and empower Black people to tell their own stories. Though they organized Friday’s get-together as a Black Image Makers picket, the event was the first organized action of Black Picket Fence.

Turner spent two seasons on the Starz drama Blindspotting, both as a series regular and as a writer.

“I got all the way up to executive story editor,” they said, “Many of the issues of the strike are very important to me. It could be the difference of am I going to have a career or not?”

Turner grew up in a union household in the Bay Area, the child of a truckdriver father. Having already experienced the ways in which a union benefited their family during their upbringing, Turner is grateful to be part of a union themselves.

“It’s been really impactful and a blessing to watch our union advocate for us so effectively,” Turner said. "In terms of clear effective communication from the Negotiating Committee and avoiding strike-busting tactics, I just think that there’s so much pride that develops out of just watching our union work.”

WGAW and SAG-AFTRA member Benjamin Earl Turner

Two Generations – a Striking Legacy

Father and daughter Bob and Hannah Schneider.

Early in the strike, after returning from the picket line in New York, WGAE member Bob Schneider called his daughter, Hannah, a WGAW member and strike captain at Warner Bros.

“He and my Mom called me after they came back, and both of them were giggling," Hannah recalled. They were giddy.”

“It was on 11th Avenue at Amazon, and it was unbelievable,” agreed Bob. “There were more people picketing on that day than I ever saw in 2007-‘08 anywhere. There was IATSE and SAG and all those other unions that were supporting us." 

Where WGA strikes are concerned, the Schneiders are not casual observers. As the Vice President of WGAE in '07, Bob Schneider’s recollections of the ‘07-‘08 strike are vivid. Over the course of his years within Guild leadership, he served as WGAE Secretary-Treasurer, and as a trustee on the Health and Pension Fund. The ‘07-‘08 strike, he confesses “almost killed me.”

A devoted union man, Bob Schneider says he cried the day he got his card. He sought out Guild leadership as way both to help protect rank-and-file writers entering the profession, and as a way of giving back.

“The Guild saved my life. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “We had no money, no job. We were raising two kids and, at 35, I decided I’m going to become a screenwriter, which is certifiably insane,” he said. “But we pulled it off and as a result, I have a house in Brooklyn. Without the Guild, life would certainly have been very different for me than it is now.”

Hannah Schneider knew from a young age that she wanted to write, although she initially thought she might be a novelist. But fiction writers don’t have unions, and TV writing had a certain lure after all.

“It was very inspiring, the idea that there was some system in place that was helping people who were so creative and so talented make sustainable lives for themselves,” Hannah said. “To me, the guild always felt like something that turned a passion into an actual sustainable career.”

The Schneiders reflected on their respective union journeys during a recent Zoom call. Bob was visiting L.A. and had logged some steps on the West Coast picket lines. He has nothing but pride both for Hannah and for her husband, Nelson Greaves, also a WGAW member and Warner Bros. lot captain.

Hannah remembers coming home from college on winter break and observing how heavy a toll it took her father. Nearly two decades later, as a committed Guild member herself, she carries her appreciation forward to the work of the current leadership.

“When I picket, all of the members of the Negotiating Committee are out there answering questions and helping people. People are really giving of themselves, and the solidarity is so moving,” Hannah said. “I was always aware of how much work my father put into the Guild and now, experiencing a strike, I think not just about him, but about every kind of writer before us who made sacrifices in order to have the protection and benefits that we now have. It has a different weight now.”

ICYMI: See Photos from The Week of August 21-25