On Saturday afternoon, I got a Facebook message from John Aboud, one of VH1's Modern Humorists. I've known John for years. Our dogs had a play date once.
"Do you have a strike team yet?" he wrote.
Strike team? I thought. Of course I don't have a strike team. I've never been on strike before!
"I'm your man," I wrote back.
If I'm going to have a strike captain, I thought, he might as well be a regular on Best Week Ever.
Two years ago, my wife and I sold our house in Austin, Texas, and moved to Los Angeles, because I finally had a chance to join the Writers Guild of America. My book Alternadad was about to get optioned and, union fees being what they are, the option money was my golden ticket to unionization.
Forget about chasing Hollywood magic. Sure, I had ideas for movies and TV shows. That was part of the reason we moved. But really, we wanted the health insurance. We were tired of disgorging $1,100 a month for the right to substandard care. Only the union could save us.
I paid my $2,500 entry fee and sent in my dues form. Our health coverage started in January. We went to the dentist and the eye doctor. Meanwhile, I wrote a screenplay and got a TV-pilot deal. The details of this deal must remain shrouded in secrecy, but I can say that it was the biggest break of my life. Last Friday, my writing partners and I got the go-ahead to write the script.
Instead, contract talks between the guild and the studios broke down over the weekend, and on Monday afternoon, I was carrying a strike sign and walking back and forth in front of a giant statue of Mickey Mouse's wizard hat from Fantasia. This was called "picketing the hat." My fellow strikers included the writing staffs of Jimmy Kimmel Live and Scrubs and the guys who wrote The Santa Clause. John Aboud and his fellow captains gave everyone a copy of the WGA's "Contract 2007 Negotiation Statement" and a sheet of chants. They included:
Network bosses, rich and rude
We don't like your attitude!
There ain't no power,
Like the power of the people,
Cuz the power of the people won't stop!
Say what? (Repeat)
"I hate chanting," I said to a stranger/comrade.
"Yeah, but you're on the pickets," he said. "You gotta chant."
He raised his fist to the sky.
"Dork power!" he shouted.
"This strike brought to you by LensCrafters," Aboud said.
It was the second time I'd heard him make that joke. I'll probably hear it a few more times, too. We're going to be seeing each other often.
I must pause here to say that I'm completely with my union and agree with everything the strikers are demanding. Of course writers should be fairly compensated for downloads of the shows they make. It's absurd for networks to contend that streaming videos of TV shows are "promotional" and therefore outside any possible pay structure.
At the same time, I feel completely disconnected from the reality of the strike itself. None of my work is available for streaming, free or not, because not a word I've written has ever been filmed. It feels like I've been taken out of class on the first week of high school and forced to march with the teachers' union. The fact that half the teachers are younger than I am makes it even stranger.
On Tuesday morning at 9, I arrived at Prospect Studios in Los Feliz. I'd gotten a call from another strike captain, a screenwriter named Jennie with 2-year-old twins, saying that she was organizing WGA members from the neighborhood to picket at Prospect. My house is a 10-minute walk from the studios, and I certainly hadn't enjoyed my drive home from Burbank the previous day. So I signed onto another team.
Prospect is where they film Grey's Anatomy, General Hospital, and a local news show. It's a mom-and-pop general store by Hollywood standards. I arrived to find about 100 strikers getting a pep talk from the location captain. He read a letter from Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey's Anatomy, who said she couldn't, in good conscience, complete her show-running duties. She'd be joining us on the pickets as soon as she received a woman of the year award from Glamour magazine in New York.
After that rousing start, Jennie told me that we were going to picket the southeast side of the studios. This was the main drive-on-and-off point for people who worked there.
"Sounds good," I said.
"It does involve walking up and down a hill for four hours," she said.
"Anything for my union," I said.
I went up the hill with 15 other strikers, and we stood in a circle. The site organizer, a writer for Guiding Light who lives in Sacramento, gave us a pep talk that included a story about a monkey who'd once been on the reality show Meet My Folks. He worked 18 hours a day on that show, he said, but the monkey, by law, had restricted hours. The monkey had more protection than he did. That's one of the many reasons why we need the guild.
Next, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves. There was one guy who'd been in the guild only since August. He'd been working as a script slave for the now-defunct series of telenovelas, and the guild had gone to bat for him. Now he was writing spec scripts and working as a waiter at the Chateau Marmont. In general, this was a more prole-y group of WGA members than the one at Disney.
"My name's Neal," I said. "I've written some books and now I have a TV-pilot deal."
There was so much more about myself I wanted to tell my brothers and sisters! But we had a long day. By the end of it, they'd be as tired of my shtick as anyone else who has to spend four hours with me.
The time passed amiably. We stopped the cars of scene-shop workers, handed them fliers, and asked for their support. We booed anyone who didn't roll down the driver-side window of their Lexus. People kept bringing us boxes of doughnuts. A husband-and-wife team went on a Subway run. A car full of UTA assistants came by to offer us cookies. We received friendly honks from fine actresses Glenne Headly and Melissa Leo. I walked up and down a hill for four hours, chanting. This was a more chant-friendly group. "Webcasts, DVDs," we chanted. "You can't have them. Not for free."
The next morning, I woke up and read Deadline Hollywood Daily. Nikki Finke reported that more than 100 TV show runners would be at Disney that morning in a show of solidarity with the proles. That sounded like fun, so I went outside and dumped a cup of water on the windshield of my mom's 1998 Nissan Sentra. We haven't been able to afford to get the wiper-fluid mechanism fixed, and it's getting harder to see out the windshield. The tragedies continue to mount.
In Burbank, the show runners were out in full glory, from all my favorite shows and some I didn't like very much. But they were all writers, my brothers and sisters in the struggle, along with the 48 percent of the guild that isn't currently working and the shmoes like me who're caught somewhere in the middle zone between unemployment and unimaginable success. I went up to a location captain who was holding two sign-up sheets.
"Are you a show runner?" she asked.
"Oh, my God, no!" I said.
She handed me one sign-up sheet. The other went to Seth MacFarlane, who created Family Guy, and then to Doug Ellin of Entourage. I vowed to myself not to say anything stupid to anyone important. So many people had showed up that the union ran out of picket signs.
I marched for a while, and then the many cameras present all turned toward the east side of the main gate. Sally Field had appeared to offer her support. Also, Shemar Moore rode up, wearing a one-piece red-and-black bike suit that read Criminal Minds, and gave his show runner a hug. Norma Rae was with the union, along with the guy who hosts Soul Train! We couldn't possibly lose now!
Toward the end of my shift, I got the nerve to approach Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, my current "greatest television show of all time." I knew who he was because he was carrying a sign that read "Mad Men." I said nice things to him, and he thanked me.
"The worst thing about this strike is that it might delay Season 2 of your show," I said. "That will ruin my life."
He shook his head sadly.
"I was going to open the writer's room today," he said.
By noon, most of the show runners had left. Unlike me, they probably had something else to do. The woman who created Hannah Montana was still hanging around. That might solve the strike, I thought. Tell the suits' 8-year-old daughters that their daddies are taking Hannah Montana away from them.
I could finally get a picket sign. The one I hoisted had the word Heroes written on the back.
"That's right," I said aloud, to no one in particular. "I created Heroes."
Actually, I've created nothing since I got here, or at least nothing that anyone's heard about. But I've endorsed some checks, and I do have my health insurance. I'm a union man now. I put the Heroes sign down, picked up a blank one, and marched on in front of The Mouse.
"Hey, man," I said to a passing comrade. "Where'd you get that taco?"