Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Shame on you, Stephen Colbert
They’re asking to submit some material. Okay. We all have to audition. But here’s where it gets dicey: There is a packet with specific instructions of what you must submit. And trust me, it’s not three or four jokes.
Briefly, here is what you’re expected to provide:
Two examples of cold opens. These often feature Stephen backstage or in the office. They’re full sketches. Two of ‘em are required.
Five opening monologue jokes.
A topical news segment – digging deeper into a news story. Since Stephen performs these at his desk, also suggest specific over-the-shoulder graphics, elaborate props, or “even characters that emerge from beneath Stephen’s desk.”
Three confessions where Stephen “admits to faults and asks the audience’s forgiveness.” They should be real but crazy.
And finally, two pitches for segments, at least one must be an idea for a guest segment. You don’t need to script these out (as opposed to the other requirements). Just explain how the bit would go, provide examples of jokes, and only be a page tops. A page?
That’s all. Forget that it would take a seasoned writer several days to complete this. The deadline is today. And the packet reiterates that the applicant is doing this for free.
Here’s a confession I would include. “I’m taking advantage of young writers. I’m asking for a ton of free work. I’m preying on the fact that jobs are hard to come by. I’m probably going to use at least some of the material from applicants I reject and just claim that we ourselves were working on something similar.”
Oh wait. I forgot to add two free jokes.
My first thought of course is why is the WGA allowing this practice? Supposedly they’re “investigating” this. I hear that other late night shows have done similar stunts but I can’t confirm it.
Look, all writers do work for free. We all write specs, pilots, screenplays, and various samples. We have to audition like everybody else. But a few jokes, maybe one sketch, a sample of sketches you wrote on spec for SNL or THE DAILY SHOW. Not thirteen specific bits.
The movie industry has stretched gratis labor to professional writers. Now, for an open assignment, you’re expected to come in with a fully worked out story treatment for free. Same with a rewrite assignment. I was once up for a movie rewrite and had to pitch an entire new outline, how I would change the story, solve all the existing script problems, and redevelop the characters. It took me an entire week. The executive listened (my pitch took about an hour) and said, “Let me hear ten jokes.” I told him I didn’t write any jokes but assured him the script would be funny. I had written extensively for CHEERS and MASH and FRASIER. The jokes would be there. I didn’t get the assignment. Why? I didn’t provide the jokes.
This too is an issue the WGA should address, but at least we’re working writers. We can say no to participating in a pro bono rewrite derby (assuming we have other work). But what recourse does a non-professional writer have?
And the abuse goes even further. Do you know that on a lot of sitcoms now writers assistants are required to pitch jokes? Showrunners can claim it’s a great way to audition them, but let’s get real. They're getting staff writers at rock bottom assistant prices. Again, where is the damn WGA?
Stephen Colbert’s show is currently in a state of flux. There have been showrunner changes, new directions, major changes in the way the show is put together. For all I know, Colbert himself was either not aware of this “submission packet” process or didn’t fully understand the ramifications. I would still like to think that if he realized how young writers were being taken advantage of, he would put a stop to it. The fact that networks and studio pull this kind of shit, hey, that’s to be expected. That’s why (in theory) we have a watchdog union. But come on, Stephen. You’re better than that.