Shocked Leno staffers fired as strike drags on

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 layoffs.

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 Show” returns.

“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 began.

“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 corporate butt-covering.”

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 stand-up comedians.

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 strike.”

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 last year.

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 host.

“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.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter