LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - A couple of days after
the Writers Guild of America strike began November 5, the star
of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" told some 80 of his idled
staffers that they need not worry about their finances.
Leno was so adamant about paychecks being safe, many didn't
bother looking for new jobs even though NBC was forecasting
So it came as quite a shock Friday when the entire staff
was told that they were not only out of a job but also that
they weren't guaranteed of being rehired once "The Tonight
"Some people were crying. Some people were screaming," said
one employee speaking on condition of anonymity.
NBC declined comment on the firings beyond a brief
statement that it had "regretfully informed the people who work
on 'The Tonight Show With Jay Leno' and 'Late Night With Conan
O'Brien' that their services are not needed at this time due to
our inability to continue production of the shows."
According to several staffers, tensions at "Tonight Show"
have been mounting for weeks, and matters weren't helped by
news that other late-night hosts have been preserving the jobs
of their nonwriting staffs or paying those who had been laid
off. O'Brien confirmed Thursday, for example, that he would pay
the salaries of at least 50 nonwriting "Late Night" staffers
out of his own pocket on a week-to-week basis.
Some "Tonight Show" insiders are angry at Leno, because of
an upbeat conference call he held shortly after the WGA strike
"He was on speaker phone," a staffer said. "There were 80
of us. He told us not to panic. He said to trust him. He said:
'I can't get into details, but nobody will miss a car payment
or lose their house. We're family. Trust me. I'm going to take
care of this.' But that was the time we should have been
looking for new jobs."
More recently, a letter NBC sent to now-laid-off staffers
said, "If your services are needed, we will contact you."
"That's standard boilerplate," said Joe Medeiros, a
striking writer who has worked with Leno for 18 years. "It's
According to insiders, the early confidence that Leno
expressed stemmed from several options in the works, including
the hiring of guest hosts. Leno himself guest-hosted for "The
Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" during the 1988 writers
strike, according to the WGA. This time around, comedian Wanda
Sykes was a top pick, but she turned down the offer. Using rock
stars on a rotating basis also was considered, insiders said.
Another option was having Leno do a show without a
monologue or writers, relying heavily on musical acts and
None of the options, though, came to fruition, and "The
Tonight Show" has continued airing reruns.
Beyond Leno's misplaced optimism about the financial
well-being of his staff, he further damaged himself -- in the
eyes of some workers -- with his public behavior. While he
privately expressed concern for the jobs of all staff members,
to the media he seemed preoccupied with supporting striking
writers, including handing out doughnuts to picketers and
mugging for press photos.
"He even joked that because of the writers strike, he had
more time to work on his car collection," a staffer said. "That
didn't sit well with us."
Medeiros said that Leno made his doughnut appearance on Day
One of the strike at his request. "I asked him to come out and
he did. We thought it sent a message to end the strike."
Asked if writers would object to Leno working without them
during the strike in order to save jobs, Medeiros said: "I
can't answer that. The story to me is that the corporations are
doing this in order to pit groups against each other and break
The fact that some of Leno's writers are paid $500,000 or
more annually also didn't sit well with suddenly out-of-work
production staffers who make a fraction of that amount. Writers
also are getting residuals on "Tonight Show" reruns that air
during the strike.
The final indignation was a Christmas bonus that many
thought lacking. Staffers with a couple of years on the job
were given $200. Some higher-paid employees were awarded three
days of salary or a bit more, about the same bonuses they got
The Leno representative defended the bonuses as well,
pointing out that they amounted to $500,000 in aggregate out of
Leno's pocket. He also noted that Leno handed out $2 million
five years ago to staffers in celebration of his 10th year as
"Jay is a very generous man," added Medeiros. "I don't know
what people expected. How much more should he give over a
situation that he didn't cause?"
But, said one staffer: "When the most powerful man in TV
tells you to relax, then you relax. That's why we expected the
bonuses to cover us through the strike. He could've at least
covered us through Christmas. That would have been nice."