Writer Strikes Always Hit ‘Saturday Night Live’ First
Back in the fall, I predicted Pete Davidson would be invited back to host Saturday Night Live — and I was right! Or was I? Instead of Davidson returning to Studio 8H next weekend, season 48 of SNL might be finished, thanks to the looming Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike. WGA’s current contract with TV and movie producers expires on Monday and all signs point to a work stoppage. For your favorite streaming and network shows, that might mean delayed season premieres somewhere in the distant future. But Saturday Night Live, with new shows produced every week, always gets hit first. The fallout is worse than not seeing Pete Davidson reprise his famous SNL character “Pete Davidson” on May 6. When shows shut down, people invariably lose jobs.
A three-month writers’ strike in 1981 ended SNL’s season in April (shades of what we’re likely to experience this year). That was the disastrous Jean Doumanian season, the first after Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and the gang abandoned ship. The strike gave new SNL producer Dick Ebersol a chance to clean house. “It was a gift from the television gods as far as I was concerned,” Ebersol says in his autobiography, From Saturday Night to Sunday Night: My Forty Years of Laughter, Tears, and Touchdowns in TV. “I now had time to fully rebuild the writing staff and recast the show.” That was bad news for most of the show’s writers, as well as cast members like Denny Dillon, Gail Matthius, and Gilbert Gottfried, all part of Ebersol’s teardown. (The good news? Ebersol took the opportunity to turn the SNL spotlight on Eddie Murphy.)
Cast member sorrows are visible, but behind-the-scenes staffers suffer worse. During the 2007-2008 writers’ strike, 90% of SNL’s production staff was fired until negotiators could come to an agreement nearly four months later. The result: The shortest SNL season ever.
Tina Fey, who had left for 30 Rock by this time, was torn between responsibility to her writers’ union and the pressure of knowing production people were out of work. Marching in picket lines that no one paid attention to seemed like ‘an exercise in insanity.’ “The picket lines in L.A. were comical,” Fey says in Live From New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “Everybody ripped and tan and holding a nine-dollar cup of coffee in their hand. It was not a great face of the Writers Guild.”
At least during that strike, Fey and friends decided to do something to help. Cast members gathered at Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizens Brigade theater for an extra-live, no-frills presentation of something that looked an awful lot like Saturday Night Live, with proceeds going to the show’s out-of-work production staff. A live benefit version of 30 Rock followed a couple of nights later. “We’re like cranky trained monkeys if we don’t get to perform,” Poehler told The New York Times. “We’re treating this as an optimistic night. We’re celebrating all the hard-working people who have been laid off.”
If there’s some kind of miracle, writers and studios could come to an agreement over the weekend, but that doesn’t look like the way the union winds are blowing. So we’re likely saying goodbye to Saturday Night Live until the fall. We’d feel bad for Pete losing an opportunity to promote Bupkis, but the guy seems to do OK getting press on his own.