Drew Barrymore, Bill Maher and the whole, confusing talk show strike mess, explained

The overlapping nature of the dual Hollywood strikes means you can scab even while complying. Salon breaks it down

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic
Published September 17, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)
Updated September 18, 2023 1:50PM (EDT)
Bill Maher and Drew Barrymore (Photo illustration by Salon/CBS/HBO)
Bill Maher and Drew Barrymore (Photo illustration by Salon/CBS/HBO)

Shortly after thousands of film and TV scribes represented by the Writers Guild of America went on strike, actor and talk show host Drew Barrymore bowed out of hosting the MTV Movie & TV Awards ceremony in solidarity with striking writers.

"I have listened to the writers, and in order to truly respect them, I will pivot from hosting the MTV Movie & TV Awards live in solidarity with the strike," Barrymore said in a statement to Variety. "Everything we celebrate and honor about movies and television is born out of their creation. And until a solution is reached, I am choosing to wait but I'll be watching from home and hope you will join me." 

That published on May 4, just 48 hours into the writers' strike. Four and a half months later, and with Barrymore's own union, the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), also on strike, she decided she'd waited long enough. After CBS announced that a new season of "The Drew Barrymore Show" would premiere on Sept. 18, she took to Instagram on Sept. 10 to explain herself.

How quickly can a person flip from being America's sweetheart to the labor movement's heel?

"I made a choice to walk away from the MTV, film and television awards because I was the host and it had a direct conflict with what the strike was dealing with which was studios, streamers, film, and television," Barrymore posted. "It was also in the first week of the strike and so I did what I thought was the appropriate thing at the time to stand in solidarity with the writers.

"However," she went on to add, "I am also making the choice to come back for the first time in this strike for our show, that may have my name on it but this is bigger than just me."

And how. Following that announcement, the National Book Foundation rescinded its invitation for her to host its National Book Awards Ceremony in November since, um, books don't happen without writers. This, after the headline broke that two audience members at the taping of her season premiere were kicked out for wearing pins supporting the WGA.

As Barrymore continued to draw fire – especially after she posted a tearful apology, which she promptly took down – other talk shows, including "The Talk" and "Sherri" announced their fall season returns as well. But that move may have also emboldened one nighttime talk variety host, Bill Maher, to move forward with a new season of his HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher" without his writers.

How quickly can a person flip from being America's sweetheart to the labor movement's heel? For Barrymore, it took about a day. She's the most prominent celebrity with a daytime talk show next to the hosts of "The View," which never stopped production. Earlier Sunday, after this story was written, Barrymore announced she would pause her show's return until the end of the strikes. Then on Monday, Maher also announced his show would also delay returning until a contract was signed.

Due to the unique circumstances of this rare dual strike and the different rules governing SAG-AFTRA and the WGA, the entire situation is a bit confusing. So here's our best effort to cut through the fog of these developments on the talk show front and explain, for example, how hosts could be both operating within SAG-AFTRA's strike guidelines while crossing the WGA's picket lines, whether each case has historical precedents (in a word, yes), and what the odds are that they'll pay for these violations in the long run.

The dual strike: An overview

Starting on May 2, 11,500 film and TV writers represented by the WGA ceased work on scripts for existing productions, including movies and TV shows, and began picketing the Hollywood studios and production companies represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

When SAG-AFTRA went on strike July 14, that added its guild's 160,000 actors to the picket lines, effectively grinding Hollywood to a halt. To date, the combined guilds' labor stoppage has cost the California economy upwards of $3 billion, according to a recent CNBC report.

While the studios expressed early confidence that both guilds would bend to their demands, with some executives bragging about stonewalling writers until WGA members began losing their homes, they weren't counting on audiences turning against them.

Shockingly, it turns out that the average viewer doesn't have much empathy for studios led by people taking home salaries in the mid-six figures while the people making the shows that fatten their wallets are struggling to pay their bills. According to findings from a Data for Progress poll reported by Variety in August, 67% of likely voters support the strikes, and 48% have an unfavorable view of the major studios.

So when Carol Lombardini, the lead negotiator for the AMPTP, tweeted out a photo of Barrymore in "E.T." kissing the lovable titular alien that cast E.T. as the producers, it did the actor no favors.

Wait, didn't SAG-AFTRA release a statement placing Barrymore in the clear?

Yes, according to its guild rules. "The Drew Barrymore Show " operates under the Network Television Code, which is a separate contract that SAG-AFTRA members ratified in 2022 and is still in place. According to SAG-AFTRA,

Covered programs include morning news shows, talk shows, serials (soap operas), variety, reality, game shows, sports and promotional announcements. Current programs covered by this contract include "Good Morning America," "Tamron Hall," "The Young and the Restless," "Jeopardy," "Saturday Night Live," "The Voice," "So You Think You Can Dance," "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl.

Additionally, like Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar and other talk show hosts, Barrymore is a member of SAG-AFTRA. That means there are certain jobs she can perform, like hosting her talk show, and ones she can't without violating the rules of the strike, like appearing in a scripted TV series or movie or promoting one of those projects.

Does this mean that SAG-AFTRA actors can appear on her show and other daytime talkers without violating?

Sure, as long as they aren't promoting any of AMPTP studio-affiliated movie or TV show. Hence her insistence in her Instagram post that "We are in compliance with not discussing or promoting film and television that is struck of any kind."

So why are members of the WGA and her fellow SAG-AFTRA writers upset?

Because the strike guidelines governing the actors guild differ from those governing the WGA which, like SAG-AFTRA, represents workers operating in different parts of the industry.

Salon is an example of how this works — its unionized employees are represented by the WGA East, which has separate bargaining units for online journalists and TV news writers.

Writers for film and TV shows, including game shows like "Jeopardy!," daytime soaps and many talk shows, are covered under a single bargaining unit — many, but not all.

Some talk shows, including "Live! With Kelly and Mark" and "Tamron Hall," which are currently airing new episodes, and Sherri Shepherd's syndicated talker "Sherri," which also debuts it new season on Monday, do not employ WGA writers.

"The View" and "The Drew Barrymore Show" do, as do "The Talk" and "The Jennifer Hudson Show," which are also returning with new episodes. This is why the WGA is picketing Barrymore's show and "The View."

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Alright, so . . . there are no WGA writers working on these productions, and yet they were still moving ahead. How?

According to the hosts of "The View" and Barrymore — and Maher, but more on him in a bit — they're not writing any material for their programs. Even if that's true – both highly doubtful and debatable! — if they're performing the jobs that a WGA writer would ordinarily perform in that writer's place like, say, researching and coming up with questions for their guests, that constitutes scabbing in the guild's view.

Even for Maher? He said in his social media announcement, "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. 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," he said. 

Especially for Maher, says the guild: "Bill Maher is obligated as a WGA member to follow the strike rules and not perform any writing services. It is difficult to imagine how 'Real Time With Bill Maher' can go forward without a violation of WGA strike rules taking place. WGA will be picketing this show."

As they should. Although Maher said in the same announcement, "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," on a recent episode of his "Club Random" podcast, he told his guest Jim Gaffigan that the writers are "asking for a lot of things that are, like, kooky."

He added, "They have really morphed a long way from 2007's strike, where they kind of believe that you're owed a living as a writer, and you're not. This is show business. This is the make-or-miss league."

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About 2007 . . . did anything like this happen back then?

Yes. Quite famously in mid-December of 2007, shortly after David Letterman reached a deal with the WGA by negotiating apart from the AMPTP — his CBS late-night show was produced by his company Worldwide Pants — NBC announced that Jay Leno and WGA member Conan O'Brien would return on Jan. 2 without their writers.

"This is exactly how strikes are broken."

Comedy Central brought back Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report" under similar circumstances, although Stewart, Colbert and O'Brien made a point of supporting the strike on their shows, constantly pointing out the absence of their writing staffs.

Meanwhile, Ellen Degeneres never stopped producing her daytime show, wringing her hands about feeling "caught in the middle" between the WGA and the AMPTP and, like Maher and Barrymore, expressing the need to support her the rest of her non-WGA affiliated staff and crew.

OK, so . . . Barrymore and Maher keeping their other staffers paid by going back into production. That's a noble reason, right?

Is it, though? As many have pointed out, the other hosts of late-night talk variety shows have been paying their staffs out of their pockets, which is not in violation of the guidelines. Very recently Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyer, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert banded together to create a podcast called "Strike Force Five," supporting their shows' benched late-night staffs with the proceeds. Fallon, who has faced his own bit of controversy recently, is joining Kimmel and Colbert to perform together in Las Vegas in a one-night-only event on Sept. 23 for the same purpose. Other actors started an auction to raise money for struck crews.

Maher and Barrymore could do the same, thereby preventing the dilution of their guilds' negotiating efforts.

That's a lot to ask of two individuals.

Bill Maher and Drew Barrymore are both multimillionaires. While various reports of their respective net worths aren't entirely reliable, they could certainly do what other celebrities are doing to help out their workers. (Imagine how much Maher could charge for his own Vegas charity show. Then again, imagine Maher doing anything for a charitable cause benefiting anyone other than Bill Maher. Rimshot!)

 What does all this mean for these shows' ability to get guests, both now and in the future?

Won't that be interesting to watch? One imagines that the booker for "The Drew Barrymore Show" will have a tough time getting top stars onto the show given the radioactive PR fallout to Barrymore's announcement.

Some of the biggest names in the industry are enjoying having their names associated with large donations to strike funds or other charitable efforts dedicated to assisting industry workers; their publicists would probably warn them against going on a show that's being pilloried by the likes of Josh Malina and Bradley Whitford. And Stephen King is no Maher fan either: "This is exactly how strikes are broken," the author posted on X.

As for how well the other WGA-struck talk shows that are still going will fare, it'll likely depend on how much an actor really needs the platform  . . . or still has the stomach to hold the strike lines for both their guild and the WGA's writers. Remember when Dermot Mulroney made headlines by "symbolically" walking off "The View" mid-conversation in support of the writers? That was in June, before SAG-AFTRA went on strike.

When that labor stoppage began there was a terrific pageantry related to the actors' solidarity, including the cast of "Oppenheimer" promptly walking off the stage of that film's London premiere the moment the guild's contract deadline expired.  Will that hold in the run-up to Oscar season? Who can say?

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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