Panel tries to find out if comic broke strike rules

Jay Leno was grilled by a WGA West panel Wednesday as part of a disciplinary proceeding that the guild has brought against “The Tonight Show” host stemming from last year’s strike.

Guild is reviewing the thorny issue of whether Leno, who is a WGA member, violated the strike rules imposed on scribes by delivering a monologue on the NBC lateniter in January and February 2008 (Daily Variety, Feb. 11).

Leno could face a fine, suspension or expulsion from the guild if the trial committee finds that he did break the rule against writing for struck companies during the strike in crafting his nightly monologue. There is an appeals process, according to the WGA West’s constitution.

Leno was said to have had a lawyer present during the questioning. A rep for the comic declined comment on the matter, as did the WGA West.

According to industry sources, the WGA West has brought proceedings against a handful of members for allegations of strike rule violations, but the guild is not believed to have taken any disciplinary action in those cases.

Leno, like other latenight hosts, went dark for two months after the 100-day strike ensued on Nov. 5, 2007, but resumed original telecasts Jan. 2. He was publicly supportive of the strike during the show’s downtime and paid the salaries of his 160-person crew out of his own pocket.

After he went back on air, WGA officials met with Leno “to clarify to him that writing for ‘The Tonight Show’ constitutes a violation of the guild’s strike rules,” according to a statement issued by the WGA on Jan. 3, 2008.

But later there were conflicting reports out of the WGA and Leno camps about what exactly was discussed at that meeting, and whether Leno as a performer was able to write for himself. On his first night back on the air, Leno told viewers: “We are not using outside guys. We are following the guild thing. We can write for ourselves.”

Leno’s decision to go back on the air was spurred by the fact that David Letterman was set to resume his competing “Late Show” on CBS with his writing staff intact after Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production banner, which owns “The Late Show,” signed an interim agreement with the WGA. Leno was unable to strike a similar deal because “Tonight Show” is owned by NBC Universal.

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