I am an economist, not a lawyer, and so I won’t comment on the validity of the union claim. Leno is a member of the Guild, and could very well be contractually bound in such matters (though NBC predictably challenges this claim). On the other hand, even if something might be legally enforceable, it can still be quite ridiculous. If the union demanded that networks provide hosts with bowls of M&Ms with all of the red ones removed, that would certainly deserve our ridicule, regardless of any contract. By the same token, the Writers Guild’s current position on Leno’s monologue is similarly absurd.
It would be interesting for someone to probe a Guild spokesperson for further clarification. Is it really writing the jokes beforehand that’s the problem? For example, if Leno’s sitting in traffic and an ironic observation on marriage suddenly pops into his head, is he allowed to memorize it for his next monologue? What about speaking the joke into a handheld tape recorder, à la Michael Keaton in Night Shift?
It seems clear that what the union really objects to is creation of jokes, not the act of “writing” them. But in that case, why would Leno have the ability to do a monologue, even if ad libbing? If he starts riffing on Bill Clinton as First Gentleman in the White House, that’s joke creation, whether he does it in front of the studio audience or in the privacy of his house. Yet now we’re really in trouble. If consistency demands that Leno can’t crack jokes—even ad libbed ones—during the monologue, then he shouldn’t be able to do it behind the desk, either.
That’s really the whole point of the writers strike, after all: Give us what we want, or shut down your show. And those who have the audacity to carry on without us? We’ll call them scabs and use our creative energies to demonize them.
In business the customer is always right. In labor relations, the worker is always right. Oh wait, scratch that. The worker who does what the union says is always right.