Letterman versus Leno

I’ve never met Letterman. Leno is a famously great guy. I worked with him briefly, on a show called “Television Parts,” hosted by Michael Nesmith, sometime around 1984. He was as nice as advertised.

The show was an effort to do for comedy what MTV had done for music, sparked by legendary NBC president Brandon Tartikoff writing the words “comedy video” on a napkin. Unfortunately, someone took the instruction literally, and my job was to translate existing comedy routines into short films, often beat by painstaking beat.

And so Seinfeld’s classic routine about looking for a missing sock became an overblown detective parody with him as a private eye looking for a missing sock. Great comedy video, NBC raved. Yes, but a mirthless detective parody.

Leno’s was one of the weaker bits, a short comedy film about how big his car was. At one point, to emphasize the largeness of the vehicle, there was a shot of dwarfs, in gas station uniforms, filling ‘er up!

“Good use of dwarfs,” Brandon Tartikoff said at a rough cut, my only memory of the great man.

Last night, Letterman and Leno went back to work. Their lives have been linked: by the Comedy Store strike of the late 70s, by the competition over Carson’s job…an excellent HBO movie was even made about their rivalry. Letterman has the blessing of the WGA, having signed an interim agreement. Leno has no writers and had to cross a hostile picket line. And what did Letterman do right that Leno did wrong? It’s completely unclear to me.

I am all for interim agreements, I have even advocated them here. But for an interim agreement to be an effective tool in a strike, it has to serve as a template for future deals. And as far as I can tell, no template has been set. From the New York Times:

“We are a writer-friendly company,” Rob Burnett, the chief executive of Worldwide Pants, said in a telephone interview. “We don’t have a problem giving the writers what they are asking for. We think they deserve it, and we’re happy to give it to them.”

Finally. A little respect. It’s everything I ever wanted to hear in a negotiation, if only the party sitting across the table had been as life affirming and writer friendly as Worldwide Pants. So what did we get?

He said the specifics of what Worldwide Pants had agreed to were not much more than “we pay the writers the residual payments they are entitled to.” He declined to spell out how that would be worked out in terms of new media, and Worldwide Pants does not appear to have jurisdiction over such issues.

In a statement, CBS said, “CBS controls the Internet exploitation rights for both programs, and will comply with any eventual negotiated agreement between the A.M.P.T.P. and the W.G.A.”

Of course they will. We all will. Is that what we’ve been holding out for? Because if that’s all it takes to get an interim agreement, let’s just have everyone sign one, and we can end this fucking thing right now.

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