WGA, Leno Battle Over Monologue Rule

TVWeek's James Hibberd: Rated

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The Writers Guild of America and NBC issued conflicting statements Thursday about whether late-night host Jay Leno violated union strike rules by performing a monologue last night.

The WGA said Leno's self-penned opening violated the guild's policy: "A discussion took place today between Jay Leno and the Writers Guild to clarify to him that writing for 'The Tonight Show' constitutes a violation of the guild's strike rules," the WGA said in a statement.

A few moments ago, NBC responded to the WGA's complaint with a statement suggesting Leno will continue to perform a monologue: "The WGA agreement permits Jay Leno to write his own monologue for 'The Tonight Show.' The WGA is not permitted to implement rules that conflict with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the studios and the WGA."

NBC's "The Tonight Show" returned to the air last night along with CBS' "The Late Show with David Letterman" and other late-night talk shows after an eight-week strike-induced hiatus.

Letterman's show is owned by his production company, Worldwide Pants, which brokered an interim agreement with the guild that allowed him to return to the air with his writers. NBC Universal-owned "The Tonight Show" resumed without writers.

During Leno's monologue, the host admitted writing the opening himself, but suggested that by doing so he was following union guidelines (even though the WGA has made it clear it considers monologues a violation of its rules).

"I'm doing what I did the day I started," he said. "I write jokes and wake my wife up in the middle of the night and say, 'Honey, is this funny?' So if this monologue doesn't work, it's my wife's fault. ... We are not using outside guys. We are following the guild thing. We can write for ourselves."

Leno's monologue largely drew praise from critics for candidly supporting his writers while staying true to the host's traditional late-night style. Though "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson wrote his own monologues when he returned to the air during the last WGA strike in 1988, he wasn't a WGA member. The guild rules state that violating strike policy can result in fines and expulsion from the union.

So the biggest question becomes: How far do the WGA and Leno want to press the issue?

Other questions include whether Comedy Central's heavily scripted "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show" will pass union muster when they return next week, and how closely the union will scrutinize non-monologue, sketch-style late-night content (such as the short taped comedy bits that were evident during last night's programming).

With late-night hosts, including Leno, currently singing the guild's praises, it's also unclear whether the WGA really benefits from biting hands that seemingly are trying to feed it.