British comedian John Oliver has become an indispensable fixture on The Daily Show, where he’s found a highly receptive audience for his particularly earnest style of fake reportage. But millions of viewers accustomed to their nightly laugh therapy have been going through heavy withdrawal since the Writers Guild strike put the kibosh on new episodes. At issue is the guild’s demand for a taste of the loot being raked in from new media outlets. The writers’ employers-turned-adversaries – the networks and movie studios – have been digging in their heels with an attitude best summed by EW’s Mark Harris: “The producers have essentially responded: What's this newfangled Interweb you're talking about? We don't know how it works! Are you sure there's a way we can make money from it? What a silly thing to even talk about! What next, flying cars?” We recently visited the WGA East picket line when it was down at Battery Park and spoke with John Oliver about the strike and Viacom's "spectacular balls."
Can you give people the short version why you’re on strike? Short version. Okay, the pretty short version is that the current contracts being proposed by the producers are pretty unfair. They’re making a lot of revenue from online advertising and none of that revenue comes back down toward the writers. So money’s being made but not distributed. The Writers Guild is trying to set a precedent so there will be fairer pay in the future.
Someone from the WGA, I think it was the president, said the strike could go on for nine months. I did not hear that. To be honest I find brinksmanship like that difficult to stomach and it makes both sides sound equally bad. They’re playing games with people’s lives at the moment, and I’m not even talking about the writers. On The Daily Show we have a staff who are very concerned at the moment about losing their jobs – researchers, P.A.s, etc. – and I find talk like that quite difficult to stomach. I understand they’re trying to play some kind of brinksmanship game but that doesn’t make it any less difficult to hear when friends of mine who live paycheck to paycheck are being seriously affected by this strike. And they don’t even stand to benefit from any of the negotiations!
Are the strikers really inspired by the celebrities who come out to the picket line? The main hope is that this is over fast, so if it takes an actor turning up and handing out donuts for the press to take pictures, then so be it. People want this over. This could be over tomorrow; that is what everyone wants. So whatever it takes, I don’t care if a clown turns up and juggles. There is no self-respecting dignity when it comes to picketing so I couldn’t care less; whatever it takes to stop this.
Has anyone not part of the Writers Guild done anything that’s been less than supportive? Not that I’m aware of. There has been criticism in the press of Ellen DeGeneres because she’s still working, but I would not join in with that because she’s protecting her staff who depend on her. It’s an untenable position for everyone.
Have you spoken with Jon Stewart since the strike started? I have. We’re all very worried. We have a staff of I don’t know how many and I’m not sure the livelihoods of these people is something that’s covered enough in the press. Everyone who works for our show stands to lose their job if we are off the air for too long and they get cut lose, so it’s a huge concern. I think sometimes when you see the writers marching up and down and laughing – because that’s what we do, those of us who write comedy tend to laugh about horrendous situations – I think sometimes that can look bad because it may look like people are taking it lightly. But no, it’s a horrible situation.
But while you’re on the picket line are you still coming up with great ideas for The Daily Show? Sure. You get trained to look at any serious situation and think, “That could be funny.” When I saw that emergency powers were being announced by Musharraf in Pakistan, it’s not ideal that my first reaction is, “Oh, that could definitely be funny.” That’s not the sign of a balanced human being! But that’s just the way it is. I also find it really difficult to know they’re not talking now. It’s inexcusable! Even if it’s in tense silence for ten hours a day, I can’t see any reason to not sit in a room when you’ve got people’s lives on the line. I can’t see any reason why that’s defensible.
What’s the sense on the picket line as to why that’s not happening? Who knows? I have no idea. It’s difficult as well because we’re on the east coast and nothing happens here. So all we do is march around in a circle and hope.
If this strike is still going on in another two weeks what do you see yourself doing for a comedic outlet? Well, I can do stand-up. The thing that keeps me awake at night are my co-workers’ livelihoods, the co-workers back in the office. That’s why I’m having a hard time sleeping at night. And three hours sleep a night doesn’t help with the walking in circles. I’m not in any physical or mental shape to be doing this. I wasn’t before, to be fair, but I’m certainly not now.
Yeah, I don’t even see any Gatorade or Power Bars out here for you guys. Exactly! People aren’t trained for this. As you can see, writers are pasty creatures who are no friends to sunlight.
I see people yawning. Frankly, some of these guys don’t look like they’re going to make it. The first writer who collapses with a donut in his mouth from walking in a circle, that’s how you’ll know we’re broken.
Why do you think the studios take this tight-fisted approach to writers’ residuals? I read a recent article in the Times that explained how the writers’ residuals amount to $120 million, compared to the “participations” that the stars get, amounting to $3 billion dollars. I don’t know; I’m not involved in movies. There are lots of different facets to this negotiation that maybe don’t affect people here but to get anything done you stand together. Obviously the studios’ approach sounds reprehensibly unfair. What is strange is that what is being proposed by the writers seems so fair and you can’t get in tune to the idea that strikes must be two-sided, both claiming wild things and there’s no middle ground. But the idea of claiming anything other than nothing in terms of a percentage for sales – not just for a standard wage but for sales when revenue is created on the internet – it seems so reasonable. And that is what becomes so frustrating and frightening when that is stonewalled. When you try and put yourselves in the producers’ shoes and understand why are they not doing this, the only thing you can come up with is so that they can have more money. I guess if I was so inclined that I wanted as much money as possible and no one else to have it then I might act that way. Otherwise I’m at a loss.
The writers from The Office were talking about how they wrote some web-only “promotionals” for the show and there was ad revenue generated from those and the writers weren’t paid any residuals. That’s right. Or, like, all our Daily Show clips were pulled off YouTube by Viacom, who is suing them for a billion dollars. That was not at our instigation – we were happy for people to watch the clips. But instead they wanted to set up a website where they can sell advertising while the clip is buffering, although I thought we were at the point where clips don’t need to buffer anymore. So you have to watch a commercial for thirty seconds or whatever. So they’re clearly making money on that; they’re also clearly making money because they’re suing YouTube for a billion. So that seems quite strange when they’re saying, “Well, there’s no money to be made off the internet but we’re suing YouTube for a billion dollars.” That takes spectacular balls! There are so many areas of it that seem so desperately unfair.