It's Day Four of the Writers Guild strike, and here's how to tell that the striking writers haven't so much as picked up a Bic: Their picket-line chants are crappy.
Have you heard the lame call-and-response out there?
"What do we want? CONTRACTS! When do we want them? NOW!"
Writers, prove yourselves! As long as you can't pen scripts, how about putting some wordcraft into the strike? Gin up some bumper stickers better than the one on a VW outside MGM in 1981, during the three-month strike over pay-TV and home video earnings. It read, "I'd rather be writing." Come up with more stirring solidarity lyrics than this 1981 rally ditty, set to the tune of "Battle Cry of Freedom": "Our union forever / Hurrah, oh hurrah / Down with those robbers / They've gone too far."
It hasn't taken long for the absent-writer trickle-down to hit the screen. What does flyover America want? TV! When does it want it? NOW! Just because you're on strike doesn't mean the networks will be airing test patterns. They're planning on more sports, more reruns and gimmicks like pairing the original British version of "The Office" with episodes of the American version.
During the 1988 strike, NBC's Brandon Tartikoff threatened to bring out scripts for old short-lived or never-seen shows and just recast them and reshoot them.
Voila -- who needs writers? At least live ones.
I've checked out TV listings near the end of the 1960 writers strike, which endured for 153 days. L.A.'s seven broadcast channels were loaded up with old movies. About a month before the strike ended, KTLA was reduced to prime-time "Wrecks Galore on Destruction Derby," and on one desperate evening, two channels ran simultaneous previews of the Ice Capades.
And yet strike-time prime time was also chockablock with travelogues, like a journey to Shakespeare's London, and an adventure documentary by Charles Darwin's great-grandson. Channel 4 aired "Startime," a remarkable hourlong "anthology" series that mixed documentaries, dramas and comedy. It aired an episode during the strikewith Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson telling Americans why they should vote.
Then as now, most news and documentaries don't need guild writers, so a writers strike could help TV rediscover its nobler self -- a renaissance for real reality programming, which, novel notion, requires actual reality.
Larry Gelbart is a WGA member who wrote one of those "Startime" episodes. I think he's written everything but a biblical "Book of Larry." He's been a pen-to-paper polymath since he was a senior at Fairfax High. I asked him -- if it wouldn't require him crossing a virtual picket line to do so -- to imagine what an ideal strike-bound TV lineup would look like.
"How about reruns of the Kennedy-Nixon debates?" he suggested. "Or perhaps some old State of the Union addresses, from a time when they were delivered in English? Maybe the best idea would be to simply gut our TV sets, flood them for use as fish tanks, then rerun old radio programs that relied on words rather than images. Seeing no longer being the gauge for believing, perhaps we might give listening another chance."
There's a radiant opportunity in this strike, the chance to cull an in-the-can lineup that demonstrates TV's capacity for genius, not the "vast wasteland" that an FCC chairman once said it regularly sinks to.
Haul out the kinescopes. Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" was a TV drama two years before it became an Oscar-winning movie. So was "Requiem for a Heavyweight." A USC English professor named Frank Baxter won seven Emmys and enthralled millions of viewers by just talking about Shakespeare. Plug Steve Allen into Leno's spot, and Jack Paar into Jon Stewart's. Even the comparatively lowbrow comic black-and-white offerings like "Your Show of Shows" and "Burns and Allen" come off like Aristophanes against contemporary claptrap like "Viva Laughlin" and "America's Next Top Model."
Here's how I imagine it -- cue the wavy-picture fade-in:
Viewers in the ideal TV demographic -- the ones who only know "Roosevelt" as a hip Hollywood hotel -- delight in the cool, retro, smart TV fare. They blog about it, Facebook about it, reddit and Digg it. By their viewing choices, they make it clear they will be wanting new stuff as good as the old stuff.
TV studios, desperate for more eyeballs, pander to this audience's wishes. Writers who had powered down their gifts to produce brainless fare for TV's recent race to the bottom suddenly find themselves begged to write smart. And because the kids watched "Playhouse 90" on iPhones, new-media residuals pour in.
Wonderful. Absolutely wndrf ... fff.....ngghh...
What? I was dreaming?
Rewrite! Get me rewrite!
Damn. See what happens without writers?