In A Complicated World, New Rules Are Needed

If nothing else, the actions and reactions to the two polarizing celebrities that have dominated trade press and zeitgeist surrounding the crippling dual strikes against the AMPTP have brought to mind the reality that you honestly never know how much people one might intuitively believe have nothing in common actually do.

Drew Barrymore and Bill Maher, from those I personally know who know them, and what I’ve been able to observe from a distance but close enough to glean insights on objectively, could not be more opposite of each other in many ways. I saw Maher as a rising comedian trolling the wrap parties I attended decades ago, long before POLITICALLY INCORRECT gave him the success and opportunity for a pulpit that he continues to cling to as the host of one of HBO’s few fiscally responsible franchises, REAL TIME. His drunken, misoygnist arrogance was legendary, I personally was challenged to fights while trying to defend those he was insulting and stalking, and there are plenty of people today who will attest not much has changed.

But he is also unafraid to stand up for what and who he believes in, and, right now, he believes it’s time for his employees—yes, ones that DON’T have a union fighting for their right to exist—to go back to work. His public statement to that effect, frankly, was as heartfelt and as unbiased as anything he has said or put his name to in decades. As he posted on the platform formerly knows as Twitter earlier this week:

Real Time is coming back, unfortunately, sans writers or writing,” Maher stated on X. “It has been five months, and it is time to bring people back to work. The writers have important issues that I sympathize with, and hope they are addressed to their satisfaction, but they are not the only people with issues, problems, and concerns. Despite some assistance from me, much of the staff is struggling mightily.”

“We all were hopeful this would come to an end after Labor Day, but that day has come and gone, and there still seems to be nothing happening,” Maher added. “I love my writers, I am one of them, but I’m not prepared to lose an entire year and see so many below-the-line people suffer so much.

“I will honor the spirit of the strike by not doing a monologue, desk piece, New Rules or editorial, the written pieces that I am so proud of on Real Time,” Maher said. “And I’ll say it upfront to the audience: the show I will be doing without my writers will not be as good as our normal show, full stop.

“But the heart of the show is an off-the-cuff panel discussion that aims to cut through the bullshit and predictable partisanship, and that will continue,” he added. “The show will not disappoint.

It is a similar tone and earnestness that Barrymore has expressed in her defense to keep her own show up and running, so much so that despite significant backlash and criticism from the WGA and SAG-AFTRA leadership, she was compelled to post to Instagram her own heartfelt defense, concurrent with statements from her CBS partners that meticulously outlined her production approach that objectively appears in line with the actual rules in place. As VARIETY’s Elizabeth Wagmeister reported yesterday:

I believe there’s nothing I can do or say in this moment to make it OK,” Barrymore said on the video, in an emotional video she posted on her Instagram. “I wanted to own a decision, so that it wasn’t a PR-protected situation, and I would just take full responsibility for my actions.”

A tearful Barrymore continued, “I know there is just nothing I can do that will make this OK to those that it is not OK with. I fully accept that. I fully understand that. There are so many reasons why this is so complex, and I just want everyone to know my intentions have never been in a place to upset or hurt anymore. It’s not who I am. I’ve been through so many ups and downs in my life, and this is one of them,” she said through tears.

“I deeply apologize to writers. I deeply apologize to unions,” Barrymore said.

“There’s a huge question of the why — why am I doing this?” she continued. “Well, I certainly couldn’t have expected this kind of attention, and we aren’t going to break rules and we will be in compliance. I wanted to do this, because as I said, this is bigger than me and there are other people’s jobs on the line.”

Wagemeister’s report also reinforced CBS Media Ventures’ defense of the revised production details of Barrymore’s show:

Barrymore is not violating SAG-AFTRA strike rules because she is working under The Network Code agreement that allows daytime hosts to perform hosting duties. The show spokesperson also says that “The Drew Barrymore Show” will be in “full compliance” with all strike rules when it returns on Monday.

An unlikely alliance of thoughts. And, in both cases, public castigation from a variety of reactors.

Barrymore drew the ire of exceptionally well-liked and proactive personalities like Bradley Whitford and Alyssa Milano, and a surprisingly even-toned Debra Messing, whose on-set antics and off-camera aloofness has historically been as well-appreciated (not) as some of Maher’s antics have been. “I hope you will reconsider,” said Messing.

Blissfully understated, unlike the vitriol and ‘tude that Maher’s views were met with by Keith Olbermann:

The 64-year-old political commentator took to X (formerly Twitter) to ask Maher to “f*** off” for his move.

“Without writers, the new weekly SCAB edition of Real Time With Bill Maher will be 83 seconds long,” Olbermann wrote. “As somebody who’s known you since 1978: F*** you, Bill, you selfish and unfunny scumbag.”

Yes, this would be the same Mr. Olbermann who showed up to Maher’s performances being driven around by contractually negotiated limo drivers (ostensibly because of his fear of driving in Los Angeles), was despised by many ESPN staffers who couldn’t reign in his massive ego while rising to fame with the help of Dan Patrick on the 90s Sportscenters, feuded with FOX Sports and NBC News management and has traded on his fame to get more than several second chances at opportunties with both only to have failed so consistently to reach a sufficient audience (unlike Maher) that he has now turned to social media for his launching pad.

And at the root of all of this complaining and union-backing is apparently a common belief that somehow, without the talents of dues-paying writers, neither of these otherwise polar opposite shows nor the talents that front them are capable of saying or doing anything that anyone will find as captivating or as respected as what they produce under more normal circumstances.

And much as I respect, admire and actually love so many of the creative talents who believe this, I am appalled at the degree of entitled arrogance that emerges from these attitudes.

Barrymore comes from a lineage of some of the most respected actors and perfomers of two centuries. You don’t think perhaps she has has access through her family archives to have picked up a thing or two about being able to communicate and perform? And I defy anyone, including her trashers, to find anything whatsoever in what she posted this week that one could not objectively say wasn’t worth at least hearing.

If she can make that on her own, I for one believe she’s capable of producing 21 minutes of content chatting with Ross Mathews and a few compliant guests about what’s going on in the world, at least to the threshold of redefined success that CBS MV has created for her that effectively gives her the ability to be half as popular as her one-hour format was yet still be credited with the same audience reach she was before.

And as for Maher v. Olbermann—yes, I’ve watched both of their shows religiously for decades, in every iteration past and present. I can tell what’s a scripted line and what’s extemporaneous. And I for one believe that it’s entirely possible for REAL TIME to produce more than 83 seconds of watchable content. There have been plenty of episodes of COUNTDOWN, and, indeed, many rambling posts more recently from Olbermann, that one couldn’t necessarily say the same thing.

No, two wrongs don’t make a right. But, Christ almighty, two rights don’t make a wrong, either.

In full disclosure, my limited experience with unions hasn’t been great. My dad was forced to join a union late in his career as a New York State employee. We really couldn’t afford the dues, but he had a good friend who was the organizer who repeatedly assured him it would pay off, particularly as they were to do battle with a regime of cost-cutters put in by newly elected governor Hugh Carey. I encourage anyone so interested to Google the degree of corruption and mismanagement the Carey regime inflicted on New York State. My dad was “rewarded” with several months without a paycheck, we burned through our meager savings at a time where any hope I had of going to a top-tier college were dashed (though, in hindsight, winding up in Oswego was a G-dsend) and the bitterness and remorse, not to mention the Tourette’s-like symptoms he developed during that summer of frustrated isolation haunted his ability to make a living or even be a functioning adult for the rest of his life.

So, no, I’m not the most objective person when it comes to unions.

But I do get what they do for some, and I honestly do respect the WGA and SAG-AFTRA POVs. I certainly can’t defend the AMPTP’s entitled arrogance at any level.

It’s just so golddang frustrating to see the same sort of entitled arrogance emerge from the lips of people who think neither Drew Barrymore nor Bill Maher can produce a TV show worth watching without them.

And, bluntly, the verdict on whether or not they can or can’t won’t be up to you. Ultimately, that will be up to those who are metered by Nielsen. And we know all too well how they’re doing these days—or not.

It’s the height of irony that the summative views of two people who could not be more opposite in every sense of the word are the ones that I can’t get out of my mind in recapping all of this:

Someone who reminded the world there are “good people on both sides”.

And someone who reminded the world that “it’s complicated”.

Arguably, they could both be the foundation of “new rules”. You know, the ones that will fill more than 83 seconds of air before long?

Until next time…


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