Writers on the Line

On the Line
Writers to AMPTP: Give Us Our D'oh!
The Simpsons picket packs Fox, Amazon Labor Union’s president inspires at Amazon, and the four members keeping spirits up with Picket Line Karaoke
Monday, June 12, 2023
Fox lot captains join writers from The Simpsons at the lot's largest picket since the strike began. Photo by Brittany Woodside

Ay, caramba, was the Fox lot packed for The Simpsons picket!

A beloved series that has run for more than 34 seasons figures to draw plenty of writers and supporters to the  lines, and Fox lot captain Tyler Rugerri said that Friday’s picket was easily the largest at Fox since the strike began.

Simpsons writers and producers from across the decades reassembled along with series Creator & Co-Developer Matt Groening, Co-Developer James L. Brooks, and actor Dan Castellaneta, who voices the show’s patriarch, Homer Simpson. Amidst the good will of the reunion, and the crush of strike signs that featured well-known characters from the show taking jabs at the AMPTP, picketers noted that the underlying message of solidarity driving the gathering was an important one.

“There’s no question that, at The Simpsons, we have all been very lucky,” said Al Jean, the veteran Simpsons showrunner who has produced more than 700 episodes of the series and co-wrote the screenplay to 2007’s The Simpsons Movie, “but what’s going on with the average writer has got to be fixed. Writers are being made to suffer for no reason.”

Among the writers walking the line at the Motor Gate was long-time late night host Conan O’Brien, whose credits include writing four episodes of The Simpsons. A longtime WGAW member, O’Brien said he considered himself fortunate to have broken into the business as a comedy writer at a time when there were fewer networks and less content, but also an easier pathway to advancement within the industry.

“Luck has been a huge part of my career, and I was extremely lucky to get started in 1985. I think it’s much harder today for younger writers,” said O’Brien. “It’s very difficult for them to even get their foot in the door and make a living. So this is about trying to negotiate a way to make the odds better for writers starting out. I’m optimistic we can figure that out.”

O’Brien praised the Guild for taking care of him and his shows writers over the years. His favorite creative environment remains the writers room.

“It’s what I miss the most when I’m not working,” O’Brien said.

A Big Union Visitor at Amazon

Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls and WGAW member Alex O'Keefe.

WGA writers and Amazon warehouse workers aren’t that different from each other or from workers in other industries throughout the country. That’s the message from Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls, who joined striking writers on the picket lines outside – where else? – Amazon Studios.

“My fight is your fight,” Smalls told the picketers during a rousing bullhorn speech. “The writers’ fight is the warehouse workers’ fight. The warehouse workers’ fight is the community’s fight. The community’s fight is the people’s fight. How do we defeat a trillion-dollar company? No amount of money can amount to the power of the people when we come together.”

A former warehouse worker in Staten Island, Smalls was fired after he led a walkout at the start of the pandemic to protest working conditions. From there, he led a grass-roots drive to organize the first unionized Amazon workplace in April of 2022.

“If you had asked me if I’d be standing here as the President of the Amazon Labor Union, the first [union Amazon workplace] in American history, I’d have been looking at you like you’ve got ten heads,” Smalls said. “Amazon tried to smear me. They’re still trying. They want to make it Amazon vs. Chris Smalls, but I said from the beginning, it’s going to be Amazon vs. the people.”

Since his firing, Smalls has thrown himself into union activism, traveling the country and building alliances with different communities of organized labor, from nurses to teachers, from sex workers to WGA writers. WGAW writer Alex O’Keefe reached out to Smalls, inviting him to the WGA picket lines. Smalls, who had been following the strike, was happy to join the writers in solidarity.

“The working class, the 99% of us are exploited by the 1% and, once again, this is no different whatever industry they work in,” Smalls said. “Billionaire CEOs have the same model, putting profits over people. Amazon obviously has a relationship with us. So, once again, from the warehouses to the studios, we want to make sure people understand that our struggles are the same.”

“The fact that Amazon can spend $1 billion on a Lord of the Rings show and we have writers who are struggling to make their bills, and we have truck drivers and warehouse workers who are pissing in bottles or dropping dead on the job is ridiculous,” added O’Keefe. “We live in a free country, and we all deserve real freedom.

O’Keefe emphasized that, although the WGA strike will eventually end, the solidarity that the strike has engendered must remain, particularly if other unions hit the picket lines.

“We’re building a culture of solidarity and if you talk to anyone on this line, it feels good,” O’Keefe said.

Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls (at center) and the strike captains at Amazon Studios.
Picket Line Karaoke leaders Abby Kohn, Bill Chais, Kayla Alpert, and Jeff Rake.
If you have a song in your heart, the self-described four-headed monsters who do traveling Picket Line Karaoke want you to let it out so that your fellow line-walking writers can drink it in.

Need an occasion-appropriate suggestion?  “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister is a favorite. As is Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” and Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”

But when you take the mic at Picket Line Karaoke, the choice is yours. The team can accommodate most any request.

“Sometimes we show up and it feels a little quiet at first,” said Kayla Alpert. “But we have never had silence.”

The four WGAW members who have been processing requests, cueing up the music and handing over the mic since the strike started, are no mere karaoke geeks. Jeff Rake (Manifest) has had a longtime love of singing. Rake hooked Bill Chais (Franklin & Bash) and the two have been regular karaoke-goers. As preparations for the strike were looming, Rake texted Chais with his idea for buoying spirits on the line: “Two words:  Picket Line Karaoke”

“Arguably, that’s three words,” conceded Rake.

The duo had its first session at Paramount. Fellow karaoke enthusiasts Alpert (Wednesday) and Abby Kohn (He’s Just not That Into You) participated, and then signed up to be Rake and Chais’s “hype girls.”

“So they just let us co-host, and we invited a ton of people,” said Alpert who created a list of popular titles for people to choose from if they don’t have a song of their own. “Lots of people showed up when we did it at Paramount, and we joined forces, so now we’re doing the circuit.”

The two-hour sessions of picket-line karaoke are a distraction that help the hours pass. While people are undeniably having fun, the foursome are dedicated to the principles of the strike.

"We are out here with the same level of seriousness as anyone else on the picket line,” Rake said. “We believe in the cause.”

“In the past few years, writers have been getting squeezed, from shrinking room size, shorter contracts to wildly decreased residuals,” added Alpert. “This is our one shot to make gains for ourselves and future generations of writers, and if my singing voice doesn’t drag the AMPTP back to the negotiating table, I’m not sure what will.”
Since the picket lines are full of people from diverse backgrounds including professional actors from SAG, picket line karaoke has attracted some people with serious singing chops. Actress Niecy Nash blew everyone away with her rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

“I don’t know if she’s a singer singer, but she certainly could be,” said Chais, as Picket Line Karaoke was wrapping up a recent Friday session at Amazon. “We had someone today who clearly has crazy chops, not just karaoke chops.”

Rake describes himself as a “shameless ham” who has been karaoke-ing with his parents since childhood. He and Chais often take a shot at "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers.
“I am by no means a professional," Rake said. “I think it’s a fun outlet for a lot of people, a nice tonic to when you’re sitting around with a lot of heavy stuff on your mind.”

Follow Picket Line Karaoke and see upcoming dates at @PicketLineKaraoke.