Rich Talarico

Pay Your Comedy Writers: a Q&A with Rich Talarico of Key & Peele

Photo: Stephanie NelsonGraphic: Stephanie Aly/latenightist

During summer 2021, when Late Night with Seth Meyers was taping without a live audience and transforming into something of a show about a late-night show, there was a running bit that they couldn’t afford an MC Hammer sample because Cue Card Wally was getting too much camera time.

As someone who has spent most of the past decade in digital audience development, it made me wonder how digital viewership is reflected in payments to creators — particularly now, when many late-night shows have evolved to play to online virality and routinely see certain online segments compete with or beat linear viewership. Even Late Night, which has so far resisted that transition, more than doubles its audience three times a week with ‘A Closer Look.’ 

That’s what led me to Rich Talarico, one of 17 members running in this summer’s election for eight open seats on the Writers Guild of America West’s Board of Directors. Talarico, best known for his work on Key & Peele, has spent most of the past decade fighting Comedy Central and Viacom (or whatever they’re currently calling themselves) for fair payment for writers on dozens of shows, including Key & Peele. He has also had to fight the WGA to enforce their contract, namely on provisions for residual payments and a requirement that promotional clips be no longer than 5 minutes. 

Talarico has been a member of the Guild for more than 20 years, is a two-time show captain and was strike captain during the 2007–2008 WGA strike. In addition to his work on Key & Peele, the four-time Emmy-nominated, WGA Award-nominated and Peabody Award-winning writer and producer has worked on shows including Saturday Night Live, MADtv and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.  

Although I mostly write about Late Night, I wanted to speak with Talarico because no show operates in isolation. My goal isn’t to dispassionately cover comedy for the sake of it, but rather to advocate for an art form that many seem to have convinced themselves is dying (comedy, late-night, sketch, variety, take your pick), and to strengthen the community that art makes possible. The media industry eating itself alive is antithetical to those goals. 

Talarico has been a standout voice against corporate greed and for the rights of workers in the industry. He provided valuable insight during our chat about the situation comedy writers — particularly sketch — face with Viacom, its impact on writers and the industry overall, what he’d like to see happen moving forward and how WGA members and comedy fans alike can push for change in an industry that is being exploited by mega-corporations that reliably put profit before people. 

Find our conversation below, and visit Talarico’s candidate website here.

Why are you running for Board of Directors?

Comedy writers have not been and are not being appropriately paid by the studios, and we need the Guild’s help in this fight. Unfair use and numerous MBA [the WGA contract] violations affect not just Key & Peele, but virtually all comedy writers, including many of the most known, most beloved shows. 

Companies continue to violate the 5-minute promotional clip exemption in our contract. Additionally, WGA writers’ material is being unjustly exhibited on cc.com as an “archive,” but we are not being paid archival rates (and according to the MBA, “archival is not promotional”). We need fair back pay for any and all archival postings exhibited on cc.com.

Why now?

I’ve been working on these issues since 2013 and in that time have discovered that so many other shows suffer the same fate as Key & Peele writers. I have tried submitting a report of wrongdoing to the Guild. (They refused it.) I’ve tried to start a grievance process. (The Guild will not allow it.) I’ve tried to get involved with the contract negotiating committee. (I was not responded to.)

I have been connecting with other show captains and shows on a grass-roots level, but the Guild refuses to facilitate the show captains of these abused shows and collect legitimate grievances. 

In 2019, 50 Viacom shows ([Amy] Schumer, [Nick] Kroll, Nathan For You, Jon Benjamin Has A Van, Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah, Jeselnik Offensive, Tosh.0, @midnight, The President Show, The Burn with Jeff Ross, Not Safe With Nikki Glaser, Mind Of Mencia, Workaholics, Key & Peele, various roasts, etc., and many more) were involved in an arbitration; however, only Key & Peele writers knew about it. 

I spent months begging the Guild to coordinate the other affected shows, but the Guild instead quickly took a ridiculously low settlement that got the writers about 500 bucks for years of abuse and underpayment while also wiping clean any wrongdoing by Viacom. And since 2019, the Guild refuses to engage on this issue, having taken only one meeting (with only me in it) to address it.

In that meeting, I presented questions to the Guild about our payments and was told the Guild would respond in writing. Most of the crucial questions about how we are paid and how the Guild concluded that this small payment was fair were ignored.

Do you think this is primarily a matter of contract enforcement, then?

It’d be fantastic if the contract were enforced. Having the WGA as your protector sometimes feels like having a body guard that keeps letting you get beat up, as just on our show, Key & Peele, we have hundreds of millions of contract violation views (abuse of the +5-minute promotional exemption). 

Additionally, the Guild needs to acknowledge that Viacom and other companies are engaging in over-promotion. A too-high percentage of the overall content is available for free. Typically, promotion adds value to the thing it is promoting; this full dump of our show and other shows destroys the value of the very thing it is promoting. The point of promotion is to entice the viewer, not satisfy the viewer. Why would anyone believe that someone being offered all the free samples in the world would ever pay for anything off the menu?

(Companies are) moving entire shows into promotional clip space where the writers can profit hardly any, if at all. Key & Peele only has 298 sketches in total. As of Dec. 2020 (just on YouTube) there were over 350 “promotional” full-sketch uploads and Viacom continues to add more day by day. 

Of these 350+ uploads, there are (at least) 35 compilations which include bundles of Key & Peele sketches; some of these are longer than the length of full episodes. There are also uploads that exceed 7, 8 and 12 hours. This does not even account for Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and other platforms where there are also hundreds of millions of “promotional” streams.

That said, do you think that considering how digital viewing habits have evolved, changes need to be made to how writers are compensated for non-linear viewership?

This evolution was not a natural one. Viewers only started watching online as companies realized they had a “piracy-literate” audience. That was not a natural evolution. It was a Viacom-led Pied Piper migration of, “Come over here, viewers! Here’s the free stuff.”  

Viacom is taking the material out of a venue where they have to pay the artists (linear TV) and placing all the material in a venue where they don’t have to pay the artists. Giving away the 50+ shows to piracy-savvy viewers while taking their cut on the ad revenues. So piracy is wrong except when the studio does it to us? 

Check it out, audience, there are two ways to watch the show: version 1, completely for free, or version 2, which you pay for. Obviously, the vast majority are going to take the free version. Why does a successful version of the show look exactly like an unsuccessful version to the writers? Why is Viacom “promoting” so heavily something they are already giving away for free?

If writers’ material is going to be used online, writers need to be paid by clicks, since that’s how studios charge advertisers. We used to be paid by clicks, but Viacom switched (with what oversight?) to paying us a tiny percentage of their unknowable receipts. 

We need to be paid by clicks since that’s how Viacom charges advertisers, and we also know that studios charge advertisers more in the digital space for views than they did when we were on linear TV. In the TV space, (Comedy Central) charged $16 per 1000 views and in the digital space they charged up to $24 for 1000 views. These numbers have likely gone up since I did the research.

So, yes, while Nielsen is no longer a way to measure what is being watched, certainly clicks are and need to be the universal metric. Pay us. And: Pay us by clicks.

How is sketch uniquely impacted?

You consume a sketch show differently than you would consume a sitcom or drama. A clip from a sitcom or drama would entice you to watch the full episode or season, which you would theoretically have to pay for, while a sketch show clip would entice you to watch more sketches, which are currently available for free. 

While the MBA is silent on the number of clips that can be used as excerpts, it is not fair and reasonable to gobble up whole shows and display them as “promotional.” The clips fail to be excerpts if the entire show can be watched for free in excerpt form. The promotion, in our case, is the exhibition.

Do you feel the Guild has fulfilled its duty to the impacted writers?

The Guild avoided bringing any of the 50+ shows together in the months leading up to our common cause case in 2019. Why? Why not collect grievances and present them to an arbitrator? Viacom is and was getting away with murder. Comedy writers and their families are being screwed over. The Guild needs to organize the comedy writers being affected by this over-promotion and by these +5-minute abuses.

Lack of transparency has been a significant problem for you with Viacom and to an extent with the Guild. Are there any transparency or access requirements you’d like to see added to future MBAs?

The Guild has never been able to show us how our payments work, even as we were told we’d be able to see some metrics. We were presented a few times with inscrutable charts that literally could not be explained by the Guild. The Guild also told me in emails that Viacom’s record keeping was “awful,” that Viacom was “shady” and that what they do is a “shell game.” 

No human being wants their livelihood tied to some unknown path. Writers should be able to easily see where their material is being used and how it is being used, and have a clear understanding of what they should be earning in royalty payments for that use.

We don’t pay our union dues for fun. We pay to have these kinds of protections.

Obviously, Viacom can track all these metrics. They need to share how the material is being used with us and our paid advocate — the Guild — and everyone needs to understand the models for payment. Often we get checks that are unclear on what the check is paying or how the material was used.

In 2020, Key & Peele was on 16+ platforms and we had zero idea of how we were being compensated for each. In [the second quarter of] 2022, we received zero residuals while we are still on numerous platforms and getting “staggering” views on YouTube and other sites. We currently have an open inquiry with the Guild on this Q2-2022 non-payment. This fight seems never-ending.

How would winning this seat put you in a position to help address these issues?

I hope my campaign will serve as a chance to spread the word — so that fans and all writers understand what is going on — as so much has been in the shadows. I want the comedy writers to know what is happening to them (the majority were not informed of our 2019 arbitration, our one golden chance to change this abuse) and I would love for the viewing public to understand how their favorite shows being delivered for free are not necessarily a good thing. It’s corporate-sponsored piracy.

I think there’s an assumption that writing for TV is kind of universally glamorous.

There is a lot of glamour. It is a joy to express yourself in your art, but there is a lot of shady stuff going on. I read an article recently that said how art museums often do not report thefts out of embarrassment, and when I heard that a light bulb went off for me. 

I think that is the same embarrassment that fosters silence among artists. I think there’s a little “shame” that happens to writers when we are robbed by our employers. Who wants to tell their friends and family, “Yeah, I’m a TV writer and I’m getting screwed over”? We have to overcome this ashamed silence and admit that we need to be paid a fair living wage if our material is getting viewed billions and billions of times.

Can you explain how these issues — the lack of payment and the way it’s been handled — impact the writers involved, materially and otherwise?

Royalty payments are not a luxury; they are a necessity for the majority of blue-collar working-class writers with families. Sure, you have the top-tier writers, but the majority of the writers are family people, working class. We knew during the 2007–2008 strike that at any given time, 48% of writers are out of work, pitching, developing, staffing … so these royalty payments are lifeblood, not a luxury.

If the products that writers made are being viewed and watched, writers need to participate fairly in the success of their show or product.

What do you see as these issues’ effect on the industry’s health more generally?

This is also happening to actors. An actor on Comedy Central’s Drunk History told me just this week:

“Viacom is doing a similar thing with old Drunk History episodes through Comedy Central. Instead of showing reruns so we can get residuals they have been cutting together full length “Best Of…” episodes but putting them on YouTube so we get no residuals.” 

So, overall, the industry method seems to be taking a fresh wave of comedy hopefuls, draining all their material and then discarding the talent, finding ways to not pay them, and waiting for the next wave of fresh blood.

This seems to be exacerbated by continuing media consolidation, with both the reach of Viacom’s decisions and the company’s broader influence. Do you think those circumstances impacted how events have unfolded?

Viacom seemed to be reacting to the loss of Jon Stewart, and other market forces as early as 2015 by making a huge move to dump full shows into the promotional and archive space. I talk about this on my WGA campaign site.

The U.S. is in the midst of a resurgent labor movement. Do you think the attention on labor issues at a national level could affect your ability to get traction moving forward?

I hope so. I think the real challenge is that corporations keep conglomerating and getting bigger and bigger and more powerful, while writers and artists are not really allowed to even negotiate together. Even the WGA itself is split between East and West. If companies can grow and grow and grow, we as artists (PGA, DGA, SAG/AFTRA, WGA) need to find a way to work together. How else can we compete with behemoths?

Do you have any advice for writers who find themselves in this situation?

I’d love to hear from these writers and hope to continue to organize and gather evidence of wrong-doing. Writers need to stay on their Show Captains and the Guild about their payments and demand a clear understanding of how the material is being used and how they are compensated. 

Currently, I don’t think a single comedy writer can explain how their material is used and how they are compensated. My repeated requests to meet with the WGA Residuals department have been denied and the Guild has shuttered the doors on this conversation, which is why I’m running. Even if I lose this campaign, I will continue to fight this fight.

What can WGA members do to help?

Get involved, make noise, demand to understand your payments. Demand fair payments.

Do you have any thoughts on how comedy fans can wield their power to push for change?

This is the crux. Viacom has pitted creators against the fans. Viacom: “Hey, fans, you like all this free stuff, right?”

So, who is going to be the bad guy if this all comes out? The talent and creators, that is who, when we say, “Um, fans, can you please try to pay for some of this?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m so happy that we have 5 billion+ hits on YouTube. I love that people the world over are laughing and enjoying the material.

But: If fans have seen Key & Peele, that’s great. Have they seen the whole show? Have they seen the whole show for free? If they have, they have to realize that’s taking money away from comedy writers and their families. Taking money away from performers.

My hope is that the fans might hear about this abuse and understand it, and maybe they can advocate for us. If fans laughed with us, maybe they will stand with us.

The real conundrum: I’m not sure how you tell people they have to start paying for something they have gotten for free for 10+ years. 

My hope is that the Guild can simply enforce the contract, stop the over-5-minute uploads and also not see a full dump of all the material as fair and reasonable.

Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you’d like to add?

Writers were hired to write TV shows, not endless web-shows masquerading as “promotion” for those TV shows. Viacom and other companies are blatantly abusing the 5-minute-clip rule. They are violating our contract. This needs to stop and writers need to be paid for their work. Period.

I hope your readers can visit my campaign site to read the full story of what is happening to the writers of all of their favorite comedy shows.

You can find more information on Rich Talarico’s WGAW candidate site. Follow @richtalarico on Twitter.

The voting period for the 2022 WGAW Board of Directors election is Sept. 1–Sept. 20. The Guild will hold a virtual Candidate’s Night forum on Aug. 31. 

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