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Late night hosts pay their out-of-work staffers

Late night hosts pay their out-of-work staffers — Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Kimmel support their crew while striking

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Hollywood writers might be forced to hawk their Rolexes to pay for holiday gifts if the strike drags on much longer. But if that happens, another segment of the entertainment industry will still be able to serve turkey with all the trimmings. Last week, Jay Leno became the latest late-night talk-show host to agree to personally cover the salaries of his staff members — in this case, about 100 Tonight Show employees whom he’ll pay on a week-to-week basis, and that’s on top of $500,000 worth of Christmas bonuses he has already distributed.

Leno’s decision comes after he took a drubbing in the press for not immediately following the lead of David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and, reportedly, Jimmy Kimmel — all of whom have made similar promises to their non-writing teams since the Writers Guild began its work stoppage last month. (Many of these employees have been temporarily laid off by the networks.) Letterman, for example, will compensate employees of Late Show and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, both of which are made by his Worldwide Pants production company. O’Brien isn’t getting off cheap either: He’ll feed nearly 80 mouths through at least the end of the year. ”When Dave made the announcement that he was paying the staff, that was a tremendous weight off us,” says Late Show writer Bill Scheft. ”This is a job a lot of us have had for years. There was a chance our friends — people we work with whose fight this was not — would lose their jobs.”

These out-of-pocket payoffs literally buy the hosts — whose shows have been in reruns since the strike began on Nov. 4 — great publicity while they’re out of the public eye. And it gives them some leeway at a time when hyphenates (industry slang for writers who also executive-produce their shows) are under conflicting pressures: Should they respect the picket line or fulfill their contractual duties to the network? While shows like Desperate Housewives, Heroes, and Grey’s Anatomy have gone dark, others — like Brothers & Sisters and CSI:NY — were still in production at press time. Their producers, short of writing, are quietly doing what they can to keep their production crews employed for as long as possible.

Of course, there’s a wildly unpopular way for late-night hosts to keep their staffs employed without spending a cent: Go back to work. Johnny Carson returned to the air 10 weeks into the ’88 strike. And this time around, another Carson (Daly) crossed the picket line, on Nov. 28, to resume production of NBC’s Last Call. Though he’s the only one of these hosts who’s not a WGA member, he still endured public tut-tuts. Surprisingly, some striking late-night writers are now coming to his defense. ”Carson is getting a raw deal,” says one. ”He supported the strikers for a month at his own expense. They threatened to pull the plug on his show and fire his entire staff of 75. What’s he supposed to do? These shows aren’t so easy to get, you know.” — Additional reporting by Vanessa Juarez