When the 2007 WGA strike lasted 100 days, many Hollywood staffers — not just the writers — went without. An exception was the staffs of broadcast television’s late-night talk shows, thanks to their generous (and yes, well compensated) hosts. Those hosts — Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Kimmel — returned to TV eight weeks into the strike; only Letterman, through his own unique deal with the Writers Guild of America, had writers.
Letterman, his longtime rival Leno, O’Brien, and Kimmel each promised to continue paying staffers while their shows were off the air. For the 2023 strike, Kimmel and relative newcomers Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Seth Meyers have made the same vow — just a few years after they each picked up the tab for staff members during the earliest part of the Covid pandemic.
We don’t know how long this writers strike will last, but we can assign some sort of a rolling price tag to the late-night-shows stewards’ generosity. According to several people with knowledge of the payrolls who spoke to IndieWire for this story, covering the bills will cost each of the late-night hosts several hundred thousand dollars per month — or more. A former network executive we spoke with for this story believed a high-six-figure estimate was a bit much, and recalled more of a “stipend” payment system in ’07 vs. a “full boat” paycheck.
It jives. In 2007, the payroll coverage ran between an estimated $150,000-$250,000 per week, depending on staff size, according to the New York Times. In today’s dollars, that would be roughly $220,000-$365,000. “The Tonight Show,” at the time hosted by Leno, had about 80 non-writing staffers; O’Brien paid his 75-person staff. Letterman, through his Worldwide Pants production company, paid out both his “Late Show” and Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late Show” staff. With Ferguson’s successor James Corden hanging it up last week, there is no more “Late Late Show” or staff.
Across our conversations with multiple former and current late-night insiders, there was also discrepancy about whether or not striking WGA writers could be among the collectors, or if the float pay would only go toward non-writing staffers. On a macro level, it almost doesn’t matter. These shows have far more non-writers than writers: “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” for example, currently has approximately 300 staffers, a person close to production told us. Traditional writers’ rooms are made up of maybe a dozen people, give or take.
Spokespeople for Kimmel, Meyers, and Fallon’s shows declined comment on this story; reps for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” did not respond to our inquiry. Spokespeople for the WGA did not respond to our requests.
There is at least one major difference between the late-night TV space then and now. Leno and Letterman were bitter rivals at the time of the last WGA strike and one former network executive recalled to IndieWire that the two tried to fake each other out (through executive producers, of course) about whether or not they would return to TV. Since then, the late-night wars have long since made way for the streaming wars, a fact that might lead to a more collaborative return. For now, the studios probably wouldn’t mind a bit of time — and hundreds of time cards — off their books.