Letterman’s Staff Remembers His Generosity During the Writers’ Strike

GettyImages-1154757155 - Credit: John Paul Filo/CBS via Getty Images
GettyImages-1154757155 - Credit: John Paul Filo/CBS via Getty Images

The actors’ and writers’ strikes have left countless people out of work for months as the two unions, SAG-AFTRA and the WGA, fight with the studios for better working conditions for their members. The strikes have also pushed the 75th Primetime Emmy Awards (originally set for Sept. 18) to January, stalled TV and film productions, and delayed the return of late-night talk shows indefinitely. With so many in the entertainment world out of work, actors and talk show hosts have found ways to raise money through the Entertainment Community Fund, the SAG-AFTRA relief fund, Quinta Brunson’s strike fund, nontraditional auctions (have Adam Scott walk your dog), and the Strike Force Five podcast featuring Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmy Kimmel, John Oliver, Seth Meyers, and Jimmy Fallon, who was recently the subject of a damning Rolling Stone investigation about his toxic work environment.

This, of course, isn’t the first time Hollywood has been on strike — and received support from late-night hosts.

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During the previous Writers Guild of America strike that began Nov. 5, 2007 and ended Feb. 12, 2008, David Letterman paid The Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson staffers out of his pocket.

Bill Scheft, who wrote for Letterman for 24 years, says that Letterman was unwilling to move forward without his writers.

“To me, it was one of his finest moments,” Scheft tells Rolling Stone.

While he says it’s unfair to compare Letterman to current late-night shows due to declines in viewership and a shifting media landscape, Scheft is ultimately glad hosts like Bill Maher, who he worked with during the first season of ABC’s Politically Incorrect, decided to stay off the air.

“I’m happy that he reconsidered,” Scheft says of Maher. “I just think that it was a bad look.”

Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, issued a statement at the beginning of the ‘07-’08 writers’ strike that it would continue to pay its non-writing staff of The Late Show and The Late Late Show to the end of the year, making it the first company to guarantee its staff financial support during the strike. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart did not offer compensation to its employees, while NBC’s The Tonight Show With Jay Leno later promised to pay staffers for at least a week.

“It is important to Dave that our staff members have some degree of support during this uncertain time,” the Worldwide Pants statement read. “Therefore, Worldwide Pants, which independently produces both shows, will continue to pay the non-writing staff of the shows – fully compensating lower-salaried employees, and providing a substantial portion of salaries for those at the higher end — at least through the end of the year.”

At the time, Letterman owned The Late Show and The Late Late Show. CBS paid a licensing fee to air the shows, which means Letterman’s production company was responsible for compensating its writers. Letterman and the WGA inked a deal in late December 2007 granting interim agreements to both talk shows, allowing them to continue production with its union writing staff. Around that time, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O’Brien also resumed production, but without their writers.

Scheft added that even after Letterman’s team went back to work, he had “survivor’s guilt” and delivered pizza to striking writers on the picket lines.

“We had got lucky and that was only because our boss owned the show,” he recalls.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 18: A person carries a WGA sign as striking WGA (Writers Guild of America) members picket with striking SAG-AFTRA members outside Netflix studios on September 18, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. The Writers Guild of America and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) are set to meet for a new round of contract talks this week in the four-months long writers strike. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A person carries a WGA sign as striking Writers Guild of America members picket with striking SAG-AFTRA members outside Netflix studios on September 18, 2023, in Los Angeles, California.

It was a model Letterman adopted from Johnny Carson during the 1988 writers’ strike, the longest strike at 22 weeks. Carson, who owned The Tonight Show, was paying his staffers out of pocket and pursued an interim agreement before returning sans writers in May 1988.  Barbara Gaines, a former executive producer for Letterman’s show, shared that lower-salaried employees were paid in November and December.

“Dave himself is a writer,” Gaines, who worked for Letterman for 35 years, tells Rolling Stone. “He always respected the writers very much. [You] can’t do a comedy show without writers.”

Scheft picketed The View Tuesday, which is still in production amid the strikes. Drew Barrymore announced Sunday she would pause her daytime talk show after immense backlash, and Bill Maher followed suit Monday. The Jennifer Hudson Show and The Talk delayed their Sept. 18 premieres as well.

Scheft acted as a liaison between the Writers Guild and Letterman’s late-night writers, and marched the picket lines in 2007. As a decades-old friend of The View’s Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg, he says he believes they would be out on the picket lines if it wasn’t for their roles as co-hosts of the daytime talk show.

“They’re the draw. People don’t come to watch the ABC logo,” Scheft says.

Hollywood studios and streamers are expected to resume bargaining with the Writers Guild as early as Sept. 20.

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