Standing up for those 'below the line'

Comic actor Jack Black performed in December as members of the Writers Guild of America rallied to call attention to conditions for writers working on game shows and reality shows.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: Jay Leno has been writing his own jokes for "The Tonight Show" this week, but he's bombing with striking Hollywood writers.

The union claims he's violating strike rules. NBC insists the old contract makes an exception for "material written by the person who delivers it on the air."

Some writers are spending time away from the picket lines delivering their own punch lines. Earlier this week, we sent Marketplace's Jeff Tyler to a comedy benefit for those who work behind the scenes in Hollywood.


Jeff Tyler: After being out of work for two months, writers are milking their strike experiences for comedic material.

Jeffrey Ross: You ever drive by any of these picketers outside? I think the strike is saving some lives, cause some of these guys look like they haven't seen daylight or exercise in twenty years.

That's Jeffrey Ross, a stand-up comic and striking writer.

Ross: I lost a $25,000 writing gig today because of the strike. I'm here at the laugh factory, making four dollars.

His performance at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard was part of a benefit.

Not for Hollywood writers. No, the money raised went to help the so-called 'below the line' workers: the gofers, gaffers and grips who toil behind the scenes.

The strike has cost more than 10,000 people their jobs and more than $1 billion in lost wages.

TV writer Bill Taub helped organize the benefit.

Bill Taub: When a television show goes down, 300 people are out of work.

And these workers aren't rich says Jamie Masada, who owns the Laugh Factory.

Jamie Masada: Some of them, they make 8 bucks an hour. The cleaning crew. The gofers. The security guys make 9 bucks an hour.

He's donating revenues from the door on Wednesday nights to help people like Kim Thorp. For the last 25 years, she's worked in craft services.

Kim Thorp: We are the extra boom person. We help the grips. We help the electricians. Pretty much any department, we fill in and help them out.

Working on the Fox TV show "How I Met Your Mother," she made a good living.

She didn't anticipate going weeks without any income.

Thorp: I just didn't think about the bills because I got a paycheck every week. You just got a bill, you paid it. And all of a sudden, I had all these bills, and no paycheck.

She says many of her colleagues are struggling.

Thorp: The extras, who don't make a lot of money. They make $40 a day. $60 a day. They would come and they would work two or three days on our show. They counted on those two or three days and now they've lost their jobs.

For financial help, many are turning to The Actors Fund, a non-profit that assists anyone in the entertainment industry, providing grants to help with expenses.

Keith McNutt is Western director of the Fund. He says since the strike began, demand has increased steadily.

Keith McNutt: We would give out anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000 a month before this. Now we're averaging about $10,000 a week. The week before Thanksgiving, we prevented three evictions, one foreclosure and one car repossession.

The Fund bailed out Kim Thorp when she didn't know where else to turn.

Thorp: They helped me with my mortgage and my utility bill. And they gave me $100 toward my phone bill.

Things have gotten so bad for Thorp that she's thinking about changing careers. The Actors Fund runs programs to help people like Thorp retrain.

Thorp's worried the strike could stretch on a lot longer. Tired of all the drama, she's thinking about getting into the restaurant business.

In Hollywood, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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