Internships, Idealism, and the WGA Strike
Shelley Jenkins / Cal-State Fullerton

Crossing the Line? Internships, Idealism, and the WGA Strike

The picket line at Walt Disney Studios

The picket line at Walt Disney studios

There are certain perks to teaching film and television in the greater Los Angeles area. Professional industry guest speakers are abundant, and field trips to studios and networks are easily negotiated. It is quite easy to stay current with the industry when the industry is your backyard. I dare say that there are even more perks to being a student of film and television in southern California, although many students who have grown up here don’t know how lucky they have it.

Students around here don’t seem to realize that living at home with Mom and Dad while interning at Sony Pictures or Dreamworks isn’t the norm for the vast majority of college students in the nation. Students in the greater Los Angeles area are constantly bombarded by local news coverage of the industry they hope to one day enter and, quite often, the news concerns poor business dealings, mismanagement, layoffs and pending or current strikes. As a college student in the Midwest, I didn’t have a chance to become jaded about “the business” of writing before I ever got the chance to develop my passion or hone my craft. My students however can’t turn on the local news or read a local paper without seeing their professional futures flash before their eyes. The latest WGA strike affected these students in a way most other television and film students in the nation can’t understand.

In the Radio-Television-Film program at Cal State University, Fullerton–where I am a member of the faculty–seniors must complete a capstone internship course before graduating. The past two semesters I watched graduating seniors struggle with the very personal impact of the Writers’ Strike on their education. In my classes I often discuss the importance of unions, especially in our industry. Unlike any other industry in the world, there are many people who would be willing to “work” in film and television for free, just for the chance to say they work in film and television. The unions protect those who work in this industry from being “taken advantage of.” Our RTVF Department also has the benefit of having at least three WGA members on its faculty at any given time. So when the WGA officially went on strike in November 2007, many of our students already understood the issues at hand and supported the efforts of the WGA, at least intellectually. However, they soon found that supporting something intellectually and dealing with it in actuality are two completely different propositions. Many of our students found they had to now cross WGA picket lines to get to their internships. This was the first time many of them have ever even encountered a picket line, not to mention the decision whether or not to cross one.

The Picket line at FOX Studios

The line at FOX Studios, which some of Jenkins’ students encountered first-hand

Now, to put things in perspective, many CSUF alumni walked the picket lines as actual members of the WGA and many alumni crossed the picket lines in other production capacities during the strike. Many more alumni lost their jobs during the strike as productions came to a halt and many shows didn’t come back. Many students lost their internship opportunities altogether as production companies and studios decided there wouldn’t be enough work for them. These students didn’t graduate “on time.” All of this may suggest that the decision whether or not to cross a picket line is a no-brainer for a graduating senior. On the contrary, many students found it a very difficult choice, one that brought about a soul-searching anxiety that involved an exploration of ideals, professionalism, work ethic, and loyalty. This exploration brought about a very interesting dialogue through our department’s listserv.

One of our writing students was interested in organizing a field trip of sorts to walk the picket lines with guild members. The show of support was to be orchestrated through the WGA strike leader for the location being considered. The student sent out an email in order to both create and gauge interest. The email started quite the heated debate between students–both current and former–working in various capacities in the industry. Some students wanted to walk the line to show their support as many of the other California institutions were doing. Some innocently said it would be a great chance to network with writers, which was quickly jumped on by others as the worst thing to say under the circumstances.

Striking Writers at FOX Studios

Striking writers lie down on Pico Boulevard in front of FOX Studios

During the fall, one of my students completed his internship at FOX Studios in Century City. He was working with FOX Sports. His show didn’t actually have any writers on staff; however, the studio was located right by the main entrance off of Pico Blvd. Every Monday through Friday he would pull into the lot with roughly 100 writers picketing. He couldn’t help but feel that the writers were somewhat upset that he constantly crossed the line for several months. Another student of mine was also working at FOX Sports. She only saw a few picketers at a time because she started her day normally after most of the picketers had left, but she recalls that the one time she was there during the day, “It was insane and I was really nervous when I saw it all on the news.” Other students mentioned wanting to wave at former instructors on the line as they were driving through, only to quickly realize their picket line faux pas and attempt to avoid eye contact altogether. One of the founding members of our department, who is no longer teaching, is a script doctor and WGA member. He was pictured in the LA Times holding a picket sign and was quoted in Variety regarding the strike. A student who had studied with, and respected, this particular instructor very much would actually try to avoid being seen by him by ducking down behind the wheel while driving onto the lot. He desperately wanted to just say “hi” to him, but felt that he was violating a code of honor instilled in him by this same instructor. I know of one student who was outright asked to scab during this time. Although he had crossed the picket line to get to work, this line was a line he knew he absolutely should not cross.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCa022ZK6C0[/youtube]

News coverage from NBC on the then-ongoing strike

So, what does all this mean? Well, honestly, I think it means that we’ve taught our students well. Comedy writer Bill Masters said something that I wish I could claim as my own, “I didn’t mind striking; I was good at it.” Working and non-working writers walked the picket line together. Whether they crossed the line or not, our students understood why the writers were out there. They knew why it caused production to stop. They learned how things work in “the business” that is television. Without the unions and the guilds, many of us would never rise beyond “internships” to legitimate positions that help pay our mortgages, our children’s education costs, and our health and car insurance.

Whether or not someone chooses to support one side of an argument over another should be based on the facts as presented by both sides. My colleagues and I presented our students with the facts surrounding the WGA strike. Armed with the facts, the vast majority of our students agreed writers were getting a raw deal and deserved better. Students perhaps understood the issues even better than those of us “old schoolers” who still watch network television shows as they are scheduled to air. The issue for me as an educator isn’t whether film and television students marched side by side with the writers or crossed picket lines in order to graduate on time. I happen to know that many did both. As an educator the issue was whether or not they learned something. They were both unfortunate enough and lucky enough to experience some of the effects of the strike. If educators believe that students don’t understand or appreciate the reality of the entertainment industry, then perhaps it’s because Hollywood still seems so far away for so many of them. As educators we can close that gap best we can by preparing our students about the business of the art our students will hopefully one day find themselves employed, regardless of where they may find themselves geographically.

Image Credits:
1. The picket line at Walt Disney studios
2. The line at FOX Studios, which some of Jenkins’ students encountered first-hand
3. Striking writers lie down on Pico Boulevard in front of FOX Studios

Please feel free to comment.




Putting the ‘F’ Back in Art

Editor’s Note: In accordance with Flow’s mission statement (“to provide a space where researchers, teachers, students, and the public can read about and discuss the changing landscape of contemporary media at the speed that media moves”) we present the following column by a member of the Writer’s Guild of America, which is currently on strike. The WGA has posted this video explanation if you would like further information.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJ55Ir2jCxk[/youtube]

As a comedy writer, I’ve always been fascinated by what people find funny and–let’s face it–people find flatulence funny. When one breaks down the elements of successful comedy, one normally finds that the comedy in question has some “truth” behind it that the audience can relate to. Quite often this “truth” involves something bigger than the audience, something they wish they could control in real life, but cannot. This “truth” causes tension in their real life, whereas the comic version of the “truth” helps them to relieve this tension through laughter. Yet when it comes to comedy on television, why do we feel that laughter has to stem from some edgy, politically-motivated, potentially painful observation of society in order for it to have redeeming value? Personally, I feel that this type of comedy invokes a “laughing to keep from crying” response. Why can’t laughter just be laughter? What I am advocating for is not the widespread acceptance of the scatological on television, however, just an appreciation for the place “fart jokes” have in our popular culture.

Edward R. Murrow argued in his famous 1958 RTNDA speech that television is “used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us” from events in the real world.[1] Well, television is still used for all of these purposes and more; however, what is different 50 years later is the existence of channels dedicated exclusively to news, and the rise of the Internet. As soon as I open my browser, I’m inundated with news of destruction and chaos. This often leaves me emotionally drained and in search of lighter fair on television; unfortunately, most of the time I’m met with political humor and “ripped from the headlines” violence. Sometimes I just want to have a good gut-wrenching guffaw; however, many believe that television has an obligation to refrain from certain types of comedy that may “dumb down” the nation. I, on the other hand, think that there are worse things than child-like fart jokes, funny flatulence sounds, and gaseous sight gags.

I like biting political satire as much as the next educated person, but much of the time the “truth” behind it is a bit too painful to process. It certainly has its place in the “educational” landscape of television, but sometimes I simply want to escape the real world with a good, mindless laugh. As much as I love Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, their comedy only serves to remind me how screwed up the world is. Maybe I want to be “dumbed down” a bit when things like war, disease and global warming become easy fodder for comedy. So, why not put more benign comedy on television? We’ve seemingly given up our fear of the effects of violence on television, so why is toilet humor still seemingly so threatening? Only in recent years has the word “fart” or any perceived action or noise associated with flatulence been “allowed” by most network censors and the FCC.

“I was a network censor for ABC for about 10 years starting in ’81. Contrary to what most people think, there is no all-inclusive rule book for what is and what is not acceptable in terms of entertainment programming,” says Dr. Philippe Perebinossoff. “During my tenure, ‘fart’ would not have made it through. The same would go for sounds.”[2] There was a time when Blazing Saddles aired on network television without the campfire scene sounds.[3] This scene doesn’t even make sense without the audio! The title of the film doesn’t even invoke a smirk without the reference. Many may have forgotten that the word “fart” was actually one of three “additional” words George Carlin noted couldn’t be said on television in his “Seven Dirty Words” sketch. The justices in the 1978 FCC court case spurred by the sketch concluded that words (like “fart”) “are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”[4] Less than a decade later, you can find both the word “fart” and flatulence references all over the tube.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GD6OebpHpjw[/youtube]

Family Guy

Nickelodeon’s ironically-titled program You Can’t Do That on Television featured many fart jokes.[5] Nickelodeon has continued to use fart references on its child-friendly channel. In an episode of Ned’s Declassified, the phrase “I am Farticus” is used when students decide to bond together over a farting incident.[6] For a short time, Nickelodeon even had a comedy short than ran between programs that explained the different types of farts. In an episode of The Drew Carey Show, a “toxic” cloud of glow-in-the dark gas is seen hanging over a character as he promises, “It wasn’t me.”[7] Then of course there’s South Park, where Terrence and Phillip face death by flatulence on a regular basis.

Terrance and Phillip

Terrance and Phillip

Is the use of farting and/or fart jokes on television a sign of the networks’ desire to appeal to a particular group of people or just a larger group of people? One doubts seriously that bodily function humor was what men like Murrow, Sarnoff or Chayefsky envisioned for television. I doubt seriously that they saw a future of everyday people eating rats, cheating on mates, and getting plastic surgery as the future of television either, but I digress. Everyone passes gas and most people find it funny when they aren’t the ones accused of it. Let’s face it, fart humor has probably been around since the first caveman turned to his cavemate and grunted, “Ugh, pullum finger.” Flatulence has been around in theatre and literature since well before the invention of the Whoopee cushion (circa 1950).[8]

There is evidence of flatulence humor as early as ancient Mesopotamia.[9] Respected authors, poets and playwrights across history have used flatulence in their writings. Aristophanes, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Franklin, Twain, and Dahl have all used flatulence as the subject of humor. If television is truly the literature of the masses, then it makes sense that its subject matter should appeal to the masses. Finding humor in the passing of gas is a part of the basic human experience; therefore, an occasional humorous reference to flatulence will not bring down polite society if published or broadcast.

Since all of us do it in real life and are typically embarrassed by it, the humor comes from the “truth” of it. The “release of tension” (pun intended) comes from watching someone else get away with what would otherwise be inappropriate in real life. As “lowest common denominator” material goes, it doesn’t make fun of religion, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, weight or age. We in academia typically condemn television for its focus on “the lowest common denominator,” but perhaps we are the ones who should reexamine our stance. Are we only able to laugh at that which challenges us?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0Fo7u_NoXQ&NR=1[/youtube]

Drawn Together

I leave you with one last thought. When I gave birth to my son, the doctor told me that his first smile wouldn’t be “real” but instead the result of gas. Nonetheless, the first time my baby “smiled,” it was a smile to me all the same. The first time my son laughed was when he passed gas audibly on the changing table. He started to giggle. It was the most beautiful and innocent sound in the world. I started to laugh. The harder I laughed, the harder he laughed. It was our first shared laugh. I suppose this type of humor is the “lowest common denominator” in terms of its origin, but does that mean that society suffers for laughing at it? In the grand scheme of things found on television, I don’t see how–that is, at least until Smell-O-Vision is invented.

I welcome your comments.

Works Cited

[1] Murrow, Edward R. Radio and Television News Directors Association convention. Chicago. 15 Oct. 1958.
[2] Perebinossoff, Dr. Philippe. Personal interview. 15 Sept. 2007.
[3] “Director’s Commentary.” Blazing Saddles. Writ., dir, and prod. Mel Brooks. DVD.
[4] Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation et al. 
Supreme Court Of The United States 
438 U.S. 726 
July 3, 1978, Decided. IV-B written by Justice Rehnquist.
[5] Atherton, Tony. “The Evolution of Gross.” The Ottawa Citizen. 29 Aug. 1998. “Article Archive.” You Can’t Do that on Teleivision.
[6] “Social Studies and Embarassment.” Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide. Nickelodeon. 12 Nov. 2006.
[7] “Drew and the Activist (Part I).” The Drew Carey Show. ABC. KABC, Los Angeles. 9 May 2001.
[8] Beggerow, Alan. “The Whoopee Cushion – A Tribute And Short History.” EzineArticles: Shopping and Product Reviews.
[9] Castor, Alexis Q. “Between the Rivers: The History of Mesopotamia (Part II: The Great City-States)”. Lecture 24 Audio CD. The Teaching Company, 2006.

Image Credits:
1. Terrance and Phillip

Please feel free to comment.