The Writers Guild of America West owes Jay Leno an apology. That was the determination of the WGA West trial committee that cleared the former “Tonight Show” host of charges of violating the guild’s strike rules by writing monologue material for his NBC latenighter during the strike.
The trial committee report on the Leno case unanimously recommended the guild make a public apology because the comedian and longtime WGA member has “been done a disservice and (had) his reputation harmed by these proceedings,” according to a copy of the trial report obtained by Daily Variety.
WGA West exec director David Young disagreed. “Jay Leno does not owe the guild an apology, nor vice versa,” he told Daily Variety.
The report spells out how WGA leaders changed their tune on whether Leno would face disciplinary action for writing his “Tonight Show” monologue after an uproar by guild members.
The WGA West last month announced the findings of its probes into allegations of strike-breaking activity during the Nov. 5, 2007-Feb. 12, 2008, work stoppage (Daily Variety, Aug. 12). The guild’s message to members made no mention of Leno, nor has the guild offered a separate statement on the most high-profile member to face a strike rules trial committee hearing.
The decision on strike-related disciplinary actions rested with the WGA West board of directors, based on the recommendations of the trial committees. Each trial committee comprises five guild members.
Based on two days of testimony from WGA toppers, Leno and members of “Tonight Show” writing staff, among others, the report details the inconsistent guidance the host received as he prepared to resume production of “Tonight Show” on Jan. 2, 2008, after going dark for two months because of the strike. It also notes that Leno was the only one of the latenight hosts who went back on the air without writers (the others were Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) to face strike-breaking charges.
Leno spokesman Dick Guttman said the comedian is not looking for an apology.
“He’s very happy to be a part of the guild, and he was very happy with the way this was adjudicated,” Guttman said. “No apology’s needed.”
At a meeting with WGA brass on Dec. 31, 2007, Leno was told by WGA West prexy Patric Verrone the guild was grateful for Leno’s public support of the strike and he would not face disciplinary action for writing his monologue.
Leno told Verrone and exec director Young he was being pressured by NBC to return to work under the “no-strike” clause of the AFTRA contract that covered him as a performer on the show. The AFTRA contract also had a clause allowing performers to write material that they perform, which Leno was told by AFTRA execs applied to his work on “The Tonight Show.”
Under pressure from angry WGA members, Verrone called Leno the morning after his first show aired to tell him he could not write his own material, according to the report. Leno was described as being “stunned” by the reversal but continued to perform his own material.
A week later, Young called Leno to reiterate that under strike rules, he could not write for “Tonight Show” and the AFTRA clause did not apply to Leno. Leno replied that he “might have to resign from the guild,” according to the report, though he remains an active member.
Asked why Leno received the conflicting guidance during that period, Young responded, “At the time when we first discussed the matter with Jay on New Year’s Eve, I was not entirely certain how to advise him. A few days later, after the New Year’s holiday, I made the guild’s position clear.”
The trial committee disagreed with the WGA’s interpretation of the AFTRA clause, finding that it did cover Leno.
“The wording of the exception seems quite clear to us,” the report states.
But Young defended the WGA’s interpretation of the AFTRA clause and asserted the trial committee had gotten it wrong.
“The trial committee had a very difficult job,” Young said. “The guild believes that the trial committee did not fully understand the so-called AFTRA exception, a clause in the WGA agreement that governs whether or not on-air performers who also write material, like Leno, are required to become WGA members and obey strike rules. The report makes clear that the trial committee thought that an AMPTP witness who testified on this complicated topic was in fact a former WGA counsel and hence may have misunderstood his testimony.”
Young also asserted that the WGA has not subsequently changed its interpretation of how the AFTRA clause applies in cases such as Leno’s.
“The writing services of on-air performers who write for themselves and for others are covered by the WGA agreement and have been for decades,” he said. “Such writers are required to become WGA members and abide by the guild’s lawful regulations.”
The report further spells out that Leno had earlier been told by Verrone and Young that the guild would not cut an interim agreement with David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company. But on Dec. 28, 2007, the guild did just that, giving Leno’s rival a competitive advantage by allowing him to return to production with his writing staff intact.
Moreover, the report states that Verrone did not follow through on a commitment he made, in the presence of former News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin, Disney chief Bob Iger and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers exec veep Carol Lombardini as the strike was being settled, that Leno would not face charges.
Verrone told the trial committee that he never communicated that discussion to the WGA West board or the strike rules committee and that he felt it wasn’t in his “purview” to do so.
Given the circumstances, the trial committee cited the public apology as an extra step that would help Leno combat the “adverse stigma” lingering from the trial.
“We know there was no ill intent on anyone’s part in this dispute but feel Mr. Leno’s reputation and solid service as a loyal union member have been damaged in the eyes of many not knowing the facts as we do.”
The committee’s report also recognized “the pressures the officers and the executive director of the guild were under during this tumultuous and frustrating time.”
(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)