Here’s How Late-Night Shows Killed Time During Previous Writers’ Strikes


Being an ethical late-night comedy host during a writers’ strike is being stuck between a 30 Rock and a hard place. On the one hand, you want to support your underpaid writing staff, the witty women and men who fool America into thinking you’re hilarious most nights of the week. On the other hand, shutting down your show in solidarity puts a lot of other people out of work — the camera operators, makeup artists, cue-card holders, and countless others who depend on your show to pay the rent. You’re damned if you do your show and damned if you don’t — unless, like the late-night comics who came before you, you find a way to thread that needle.

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There is a way out — and that’s by making comedy out of your need for comedy writers. OK, sure, that sounds counterintuitive, but it can be done. Exhibit A: David Letterman. Way back during the writers’ strike of 1988 (at five months, still the longest WGA work stoppage in history), the show turned to veteran Letterman director, the personality-challenged Hal Gurnee, for its comedy needs.

In the first-ever installment of ‘Hal Gurnee’s Network Time Killers,’ the bland gentleman with the headset lulled late-night viewers to la-la land with a recitation of the day’s events in history, pulled straight off the wires of the Associated Press: In 1776, the Virginia state constitution was adopted. All My Children’s Ruth Warrick turned 72. And then “for the ladies,” Gurnee tossed to a decades-old industrial film full of disgustingly easy ways to prepare meat loaf. 

“Congratulations on this wonderful new segment,” said Letterman. “I think it’s really going to take off like there’s a Writers Guild strike.” And just when you thought a writer-less Late Night couldn’t get any worse, crew member Pete Fatovich played “Lady of Spain” on his accordion. Viewers must have flooded the NBC phonebanks with pleas of “settle this strike now!” 

Two decades later, Letterman’s comedy godson Conan O’Brien picked up the baton, letting fans know just how badly Conan needed his comedy writers. You think Hal Gurnee reciting Virginia history was bad? Get a load of Conan spinning his wedding ring on the host desk during the 2007 strike.

The stunt’s sheer stupidity won Conan some laughs. “Again!” shouted an audience member.

“Trust me,” said Conan, “there’s time to do it again.”

In case his goofy-ass attempts at showing how bad things could get without writers were misunderstood, Conan reinforced his support for the union during his monologue. “This has been a very tough time, not only for our show but for a lot of people in the entertainment industry,” Conan said. “Good people are out of work. And possibly worse, with all the late-night shows off the air, Americans have been forced to read books and occasionally even speak to one another.”

A good reminder to pray that the current strike is settled soon, for all our sakes. 

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