Early Tuesday morning, the Writers Guild of America East and West went on strike after failing to reach an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on a new contract. Now you might not think this is an issue that matters that much to Muppet fans, but my love of Muppets compels me to support the writers. You can thank Fozzie Bear and M.A.M.M.A. for that.
How does our semi-favorite funny man (or favorite semi-funny man) enter into this? Since Harry Belafonte’s passing last week, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the episode of “The Muppet Show” Belafonte guest-starred in. In the episode, Fozzie tries his hand at writing the script for that week’s show, and of course, he struggles to come up with ideas, occasionally just trusting his castmates to fill in the blanks. So what does he learn? Writing stuff isn’t easy!
Sure, a vast majority of people know how to write, but there’s a reason that not everybody is a professional writer. Writing is a specialized skill, and like any skill, such as playing an instrument or, in the case of Gonzo, tap dancing in a vat of oatmeal while singing “Top Hat,” it requires an awful lot of time, effort, and passion to become good at it. And writing for film and television typically requires something else that takes work to be good at: collaboration.
To bring shows and movies to life, they have to work with other writers, producers, actors, directors, studio executives, and more, and that demands that they be able to set their own feelings and egos aside, and open themselves up to feedback that they may not always want to hear or even agree with. After over a decade at ToughPigs, I still work to improve myself as a collaborator, and I have one of the best support teams that I could dream of.
Naturally, everyone on a production team has their own agenda. Actors want their part to be something they’ll do well in. Directors want to maintain their vision for the project. And yes, producers and executives want to keep costs down as much as possible, which is why, in addition to fair pay commensurate with the work writers do and the success of their creations, one of the sticking points of this strike is the growing rise of writing generated by artificial intelligence. In all honesty, it’s cheaper to buy an AI program than hire a team of writers. You don’t have to pay expenses like salaries, residuals, health insurance, and the like, but it comes at a dramatic cost: the value of human creativity.
Dudley Moore learned that the hard way when he brought M.A.M.M.A. to the Muppet Theatre. The robotic jukebox is there to musically accompany the guest star, to the fury of the Electric Mayhem, who knew that this unfeeling machine would rob them of their livelihoods. But the band gets the last laugh when M.A.M.M.A. malfunctions, and the Mayhem come through in a pinch to play with Moore to close out the show. Because no matter what, you can’t replace the human experience. Human beings aren’t driven by an algorithm. We adapt, we empathize, and we get inspired. We may cost more than an AI, but we’re worth it. Writers are not disposable. They deserve to be able to devote their skills to creating, and not have to constantly worry about being overtaxed or where the next paycheck is going to come from.
Much as I’d love to be, I’m not a WGA member, but I am a writer. I’m fortunate enough to be able to get my thoughts out in a way that people seem to enjoy. (At least I hope you enjoy it. I’ve never seen anyone comment “#FireSoberman” to any of the pieces I’ve written, so I figure I must be doing something right.) There’s nothing like that feeling of knowing that you’ve put words together in a way that has never been done before. In those quiet moments to myself where I feel burned out and questioning my life choices, I always come back to my steadfast belief that there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.
But it’s a hard-earned gift, and like any job, one that deserves to be rewarded fairly for all the work that goes into it. I’ve been sprinkling references to “The Muppet Show” throughout this piece. Somebody wrote that. Somebody came up with the idea to call Fozzie a “semi-favorite funnyman.” Somebody had the inspiration to put Gonzo in a vat of oatmeal in a top hat and tails. Every scene, every quote, every Muppet project you love came from the blessedly weird mind of a writer. And if you can come up with something like that, you deserve to be paid your fair share.
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by Matthew Soberman – firstname.lastname@example.org