An In-COVID-ient Truth?

Far too many years ago for me to be comfortable owning up to (ok, it premiered 48 years ago this month; happy?!!?)  a breakthrough sitcom set at a Brooklyn high school called WELCOME BACK, KOTTER was appointment TV.  While most of the fans from that era will recall the show being where we first saw the looks and talent of  John Travolta, the self-appointed king of “The Sweathogs”, perhaps the least threatening high school gang even portrayed this side of FREAKS AND GEEKS, my personal favorite was Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein.  As hilariously portrayed by the cherubic Robert Hegyes, I never failed to laugh out loud when he’d produce what was obviously a fake absence note to explain why he had not been in class, usually some sort of cockamamie, long-winded, obviously untrue narrative, which teacher Kotter would immediately recognize was in Juan’s handwriting, even though it was signed by “Epstein’s Mother”,  Somehow, the fact that a letter to a teacher would be signed ny someone who wouldn’t use her first name, or even Mrs., was beyond poor Juan’s comprehension.

But at least he–or, rather, the creatives that wrote his character–showed a lot more initiative than what we’ve been seeing lately from folks who have been taking stands but, in the heat of public backlash and scrutiny, continue to cling to the tired narrative that a virus is the ultimate get out of jail free card that can give them a pass or a pause, knowing full well that media is still so conditioned, so click-bait addicted, that it will become news and, so they are led to believe , put them in the headlines and the “thoughts and prayers” of so many who otherwise might not be too thrilled at what they were hoping to achieve.

Vanna White got this ball rolling several weeks ago when WHEEL OF FORTUNE began preparing for its 41st season, on the heels of the announcement that longtime emcee Pat Sajak  was being replaced by Ryan Seacrest, reportedly at as much of a 40 per cent increase over Sajak’s considerable salary.  Vanna and her people, sensing the unfairness and the particular insecurity of Sony making another transition on the heels of the royal f-ck-up of succession of sister show JEOPARDY! in the wake of Alex Trebek’s death, immediately sent out signals that White should have her pay adjusted as well.  Sony’s initial response was tone-deafness, particularly with the reality check that White’s actual need to be on the show that she began as a letter-turner and prize model on has actually completely evaporated with format changes and technology that now doesn’t even give her the need to touch a screen to reveal letters.   But rather than admit to a protest on the principle of money, the Left Angeles Times’ Alexandra del Rosairo reported this last month:

Vanna White will be absent from several episodes of “Wheel of Fortune” as she reportedly recovers from COVID-19.

The Times confirmed Friday that “Wheel” has tapped “Teacher of the Year” recipient Bridgette Donald-Blue to fill in for the famous letter-turner for five episodes. A source familiar with production said White was out sick in late July and missed a day of filming during the show’s Teachers Week.

News of the beloved “Wheel” co-host’s absence comes amid reports of tense contract negotiations with Sony and the show’s producers. White, who has been on the series for more than four decades, is said to be making half of what outgoing host Pat Sajak earns and reportedly has not received a raise in 18 years.

Now, as the airdate for those missed episodes approaches, with WHEEL having already premiered with episodes where Vanna had returned as negotiations accelerated, comes this news that dropped yesterday via the Associated Press that, yes, all is well again on the Sony lot:

Vanna White is not giving up her puzzle board when Ryan Seacrest takes over for Pat Sajak as host of “Wheel of Fortune.” In fact, she will be there for his first two seasons.

Sony Pictures Television announced Tuesday that White has extended her contract with the game show — taking her through the 2025-26 season.

So Vanna used some leverage, took Sony to task by staging an NBA-like walkout, and won her battle to do less and get paid more.  It’s business, and that’s fine.  But because the initial action invoked the C-word, Vanna was never taken to task for it by anyone.

Now flash forward to the news out of Sherri Shepherd’s camp this week as she chose to premiere the second season of her syndicated talk show–one she definantly and accurately represented did not employ WGA writers, and what she stood up for her crew and the responsibilties to her stations and sponsors to defend even in the wake of cancellations announced under intense pressure by her competitiors and companions Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Hudson.  Earlier this week, we focused on those business realities, namely the far bigger one that without new episodes on the horizon, stations reserve the right to cancel shows outright, which ultimately puts far more people besides writers out of work.

But the WGA and its supporters have now reinforced their efforts to get their existential crisis resolved favorably to the point where anything other than a fully supportive narrative, regardless of any other factors or rationales, has become fodder for vitriol and anger, which is amplified by social media pressures and yes, coverage from the Left Angeles Times.

So surprise surprise when this announcement came out yesterday via UPI:

Tapings of Shepherd’s daytime talk show were also canceled this week after the host tested positive for the virus.

The news was posted on the Sherri Instagram page.

“I am absolutely heartbroken that I cannot return to host my show this week,” Shepherd wrote.

“As soon as I get the all-clear from my doctor, I look forward to coming back strong to deliver the fun, laughter and a real good time.”

And the same article also noted this mea culpa from someone in the thick of the whole WGA megillah, ABC late night maven (and megaproducer of unaffected game shows) Jimmy Kimmel:

“Well, Las Vegas, I got Covid, and sadly, we need to cancel this weekend’s Strike Force Three show,” Kimmel posted on X Wednesday, referring to the comedy stage show he planned to star in with Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert.

“I could never live with myself if I got my hometown friends sick. Thanks to all who purchased tickets, everyone will get full refunds and we will try to reschedule if possible.”

On the heels of news that, for the first time in weeks, the WGA and AMPTP announced that talks that began yesterday are contining–a terse, simplistic but jointly issued statement that offered few other details–the fact that a fund-raiser for staffers that would amplify the efforts of nobility that Kimmel and his fellow late night hosts have bestowed upon their income-less employees would potentially be seen as superfluous, or now even unnecessary, this kind of humility coming from someone who once gave Bill Maher the support and voice to snark at why his staff continued to wear masks even as they assured Maher he wasn’t required to at this time is, well, a little curious.

And yep, all of this referencing and invoking of the dreaded word comes at a time when the Biden administration has announced a $600 million investment in providing four free testing kits to every household in the U.S., much as they did during the Omicron wave, and at a time when pharmaceutical companies–who donate heavily to Democrats–are about to beg. plead and cajole their way into getting slightly more than one in six Americans to get a new vaccine dose as they invoke proportionate increases of infection and reporting that all but ignore the reality that the raw numbers are still much, much lower than the last freebie go-around.

But if someone like moi is to even think for a second that there might, just might, be some sort of parallel between the kind of pressure the WGA and union-supporters are doing and the kind of pressure Big Pharma is putting on the current administrations to force people who just might be able to see through the bluster and rhetoric of all of this then, clearly, I’m as foolish and as un-American as anyone who might want to stand their ground for what they see as, perhaps, a more valid and less conveninient truth?

So can you blame Shepherd, Kimmel, and, for that matter, Steve Martin for choosing to invoke the C-word as their explanations for why they’re not moving forward with their commitments?  After all, that excuse worked for Carrie Bradshaw for pulling out of her podcast on …AND JUST LIKE THAT, and it also justified why Jennifer Aniston could fall in love with Mark Duplass in a forgettable season of THE MORNING SHOW.   Enough people believed those alibis.  So, sure, they’ll work here.

In the case of Kimmel, there’s absolutely no reason that if he is indeed so ill and concerned for the safety of his fellow hosts an immediate annoucement of a rescheduling wouldn’t have accompanied this news.  Except, perhaps, if the strike does settle promptly as so many insiders are hinting and all of a sudden they will become competitors again for guests, ratings and sponsors?  Or that a podcast is simply easier and more cost-effective to produce?

Look, for the sake of anyone who truly cares, I’ve got five vaccines and I’m gonna get a sixth. I’m not going to try and tell you you’re right or wrong about your eventual choice, although based on actual dialogue I’ve had from those who still insist on social distancing anything resembling a baggy blue paper mask is an insult and wholly ineffective, and you better damn well expect that if I ever see someone sneering at me while one of those pathetic face diapers exposes their upper lip I’m gonna sneer right back at the performance art of it all.   Big Pharma makes a great deal of money on those 3M-supplied baggy blues, too.

I’ve just reached a point where this whole damn refocusing and ability to use COVID as an excuse for something else, and to count on outlets like the Left Angeles Times to support and amplify it has gotten tired, redundant and wholly unoriginal.  At least have the guts to stand up for why you’re taking actions you believe in, and show the world that you may not need the striking writers who continue to delude themselves into thinking you can’t possible have a career, or justify the continuance of those who aren’t dues-paying union members, without them.

It’s a shame that Juan Epstein isn’t around anymore to provide a bit more energy, creativity and forethought into all of this.  Hegyes, sadly, left us far too young at age 61 in 2012 and, no, COVID wasn’t the culprit.

Maybe we can all try and find Epstein’s mother?

Until next time…



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