INTERVIEW: The Daily Show Writer Rob Kutner – Part 1

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit the picketing writers down in the New York’s financial district. I started chatting with Rob Kutner , an Emmy-winning writer for The Daily Show. We talked about the strike and how it was affecting him and his colleagues. During our conversation, one of the points he was most interested in getting across was the role that TV fans could have in bringing about an end to the strike. To that end, Rob was kind enough to agree to be interviewed for Cinema Blend. This is part one of our two-part interview that took place on November 15, in which we talk about the events that led up to the strike, Picketing with the Stars (the next big reality show), what fans can do to help, and…er, NAMBLA.

Obviously talks went on for quite a while before the strike. Toward the end, say the last couple of weeks before you guys went on strike, what did you and your fellow writers think? Did you think that you would be able to come to a resolution?

We didn’t think it was gonna happen. We thought it was going to be brinksmanship. We thought there was a big bluffing game going on, because a traditional management/labor tactic is to get as close to a strike as possible and not have one, if that makes sense?

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

They kind of want to squeeze the other side as much as they can, but pull back from the brink; and that’s the play we thought was going to happen. But basically we thought it was a lot of tough talk and then we’d finally hammer out a deal at the 11th hour. There was a lot of talk like that.

So up until say, the night of the 4th, were you optimistic?

I think we were all sort of thinking it could go either way. I think we were, but as it was getting closer to [the deadline] we were getting less optimistic, and then when we heard what happened…I’d like to set the record straight on something if I could, about what did happen at the end of Sunday

Yeah, please.

And I’m basing this on Nikki Finke’s reporting. I think people seem to think that she’s sort of the reporter who has the most inside scoop on this stuff. She reported, and this is what the guild told us at the membership meeting last week, that the guild was sort of told informally, through backchannels that if they took the DVD demand off the table then the networks would come with some sort of offer on new media…and only one of those things happened. The guild changed a lot of its proposals on Sunday and was offering different versions of it and then they did take the DVD thing off the table and then, according to them, the studios didn’t make a new media offer.

Right, so it was kind of just a “run out the clock” situation.

Yeah, that’s what it seems like. They felt like they were played and that basically the AMPTP [(Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers)] was trying to see how far the guild would bend, but they weren’t planning on trying to close the deal.

So given that, and given the fact that toward the end the AMPTP was playing a waiting game and wasn’t looking for a deal, what do you think it would take for talks to resume?

Well, our feeling is that we modified and made different versions of our proposals, so we have, as it were, an offer on the table. We have an offer to be flexible and we feel like they have to come back to us with something. Everything that they’ve come back to us with is a rollback of something, like cutting back on something and not even answering the new media and DVD thing, or rollbacks on something else, or putting a cap on the payments to the health and pension plan, or something like that. So we feel like they haven’t offered us anything positive. The one figure they mentioned one time, in the week before, that weekend before the strike, was they tried to say “okay, well new media can have the same formula as DVDs, which is .03%.” [That’s] not zero, but is barely much more than that, which to us, did not seem like a serious offer because the DVD rate, which is .03% is already pretty shitty. So trying to lump them in together, especially considering that it doesn’t cost anything to deliver stuff over the internet… [with] DVDs, at least they have to manufacture and print them, but the internet doesn’t have those costs. So the fact that they were offering the same amount didn’t even seem like a serious offer.

So just to clarify, were they offering you that for downloads, like for iTunes, or was that for the streaming video?

That’s the kind of thing where I’m not exactly sure, but I think it was an overall offer. Sort of the way we’re asking for this 2.5% figure; [the .03%] was sort of their offer, but I’m not 100% sure on that.

Now, the AMPTP, who I always want to call the ANTM, for Americas Next Top Model

Yeah, and that’s a sensitive subject. [last year, Top Model’s writers went on strike to get guild membership. They were ultimately unsuccessful].

Yeah, I know—

I actually want to call them NAMBLA…

(Laughing) Yes, also known as NAMBLA, there are so many things that they’re saying that just don’t make sense to me. One of which, is a very small thing, but they’re asserting that the WGA was the one who walked away from the table.

Yeah, that in a sense is what set the tone for why there’s kind of an impasse right now. I’m not saying that we’ve been angels either. There have definitely been some personality clashes between our people and them, and I’m not sure that’s entirely helpful either, so I’m not saying it’s entirely them, but we feel like tactically they played us so they can claim that we walked out. When in fact, both sides just came to an impasse and said, “We obviously can’t go any further at this point.” So it wasn’t like we just refused to negotiate; we just both came up against this brick wall and it was reported that the evening just ended on this curt note. But the walkout thing we feel was kind of planned or set up so that it would look like we were the recalcitrant party.

That’s one of those things where if you think about it for two seconds, what are you gaining by walking out? I mean, you’re obviously striking for a reason, but the WGA doesn’t really have an incentive to just stop negotiating.

Yeah, we would definitely negotiate immediately. We think they want us to [strike] because they’re trying to make a point. In the big picture, they’re trying to set a precedent for the SAG negotiations. If they make it too easy, if they either make an agreement with us or just let us strike for a few days and come to the table, that would set an example that [SAG] could just do that and get what they wanted. They have to play tough with us because we’re first in line.

Right, because when it comes down to it, a strike is going to hurt writers a whole lot more than it’s going to hurt Les Moonves.

Yes. In other words, what we’re both getting at and what I’ve heard a lot of people say is that the AMPTP wanted a strike because it would hurt more of us individually than it would hurt them with all of their resources. I mean, there have definitely been people on our side who have been sort of chanting for a strike and taken a tough posture, but people really didn’t want it. We just didn’t feel like there was any other choice. It sucks. Everyone wants to get back to work; nobody likes doing all this. I’m exhausted and starving and I was out in the rain all day today, but obviously all these people wouldn’t be doing this if we thought there was any other choice. We’re not doing it for attention.

As far as the length of the strike goes, do you have hopes of it ending soon, or do you think it could go between now and the SAG negotiations?

There are all kinds of theories on this. The talking points that keep being repeated say that if it’s not resolved within the next few weeks, they will sweat it out until June. I have reasons for hope because I’m very heartened by the incredible support from the celebrities and the public and the fact that it keeps getting play in the media. So that support and for me, the fan vocalization, I think can make a huge difference. I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but apparently there were CSI fans who rented a plane and flew a banner over one of the pickets this week. They found Les Moonves’ office number and they called it so many times that he had to hire two more assistants to take all the calls, and finally his secretary said to them, “Les wants to know what he can do to make this go away.” So my feeling is if that stuff’s happening now before all the fans are getting organized, if that keeps up and I’m seeing other efforts—I told you about how there’s going to be a physical action campaign that’s gonna launch tomorrow, I think. I don’t want to get into it, but the guild has been made aware that the fans are planning to get very organized. So I think if that kind of thing goes on, especially with the internet and YouTube and all that stuff, I think there’s a very possible counterforce that can come from the public and can sway the debate a little bit.

Right, and that to me is so interesting because it’s such a new phenomenon.

Yeah, it’s sort of untested grounds.

You’ve got two strikes going on. There’s WGA West and WGA East. There’s a lot of coverage on the West and they’re picketing with the stars, and they’ve got their Eva Longoria

That’s the next reality show, by the way, that they’re going to replace us with.

And you know what? It would get 20 million viewers. It would be the hugest thing in the world.

(Chuckles) Right.

There’s less coverage of the picketing on the east coast. What’s it like going out there to different locations every day and picketing?

Well first of all, my wife [writer Sheryl Zohn] is in [WGA] West, actually. She works sometimes on a show in L.A., so she’s been picketing out west and I’m incredibly jealous because in all of her pictures, she’s wearing a t-shirt and it’s sunny. I don’t know; there’s something nice about it though. Out east it’s a very focused effort, because there are only enough of us to concentrate in one place, so the one silver lining is that it’s been great because all of the New York City TV and film writers have gotten to know each other. Even The Daily Show writers—I only knew a few Colbert writers, but now I know all of them and we’ve met some SNL guys, Letterman, and like, Law & Order.

When I went down to the picket on Tuesday, I was wondering about that because I recognized people from three or four different shows and it did seem like a good opportunity for people to meet other TV writers.

For sure, and now everybody is a familiar face to everyone. We have a real burgeoning community that’s coming out of it, that’s all of us against the world.

Part 2 of our interview runs tomorrow, in which we talk about how the strike is affecting The Daily Show. We clear up rumors that have been reported in the media and find out what the production staff of The Daily Show has been up to since the strike began. Hint: it involves a plastic guitar with brightly-colored buttons.