The current strike by the Writers Guild of America is incredibly unfortunate. Though the internet is a relatively young medium, the writers are right to insist that they get compensated for sales/viewings on the web - particularly after making the sacrifice they made in 1988 to support the equally young at the time DVD market. There are far better sources out there for the why and the wherefores of the strike, so I’m not going to talk much about it. Readers should definitely check out Deadline Hollywood and United Hollywood, the first a good source for what’s going on and the second serving as a web arm for the writers’ voice in this mess. What I’m interested in is what might come out of this strike - by looking back at something that was part of the last.
Many say the 1988 strike set the stage for reality programming, but I think it’s arguable that it also was influential in creating the next paradigm in comedy - that being “The SImpsons.” At the time, George Meyer, who had talken a self-imposed withdrawal from the industry after stints at SNL and Late Night with David Letterman, starting toying with a photocopied newsletter called “Army Man.” At only 8 pages, it’s still coveted by comedy writers today.
“Army Man” had a ramshackle layout with several short typewritten jokes scattered throughout the page, but it was all pro when it came to the writing. I have copies of the three issues produced and each one I’ve poured over numerous times, digging into the little details - appreciate the economy of the comedy.
Here’s a taste of what Army Man was like:
That woman in the Virginia Slims ad is cute, but she smokes.
Due to the tiny volume of mail we receive, we are able to acknowledge every submission with a heartfelt personal note, and occasionally even a gift.
Okay. Here it is. The caption says, “Honorarium.” And it’s like an aquarium, only it has little trophies and plaques swimming around. Can’t you just picture it? I hope so, because otherwise I’m in deep trouble.
Army Man was begun before the writers strike, but after the first issue the strike was certainly on. And several comedy writers, who had jokes they wanted to tell, ended up contributing to Army Man - as contributor Ian Frazier relates here in this interview with Believer.
Once the strike was over, SImpsons producer Sam Simon, who was a big fan of Army Man staffed some of the Simpsons writers room with Army Man contributors including Meyer, John Swatzwelder and Jon Vitti.
Writers write. If the strike goes on for any length, they’ll start making stuff again but for themselves. Stuff like Army Man. And this time, it would be photocopied 200 times and handed among friends. It’s going to get to the rest of the world through the web.
Predictions have been that a long strike could be good for web entertainment and if the audience does go looking, and the writers are writing, they’ll find each other. There will be a direct connection between creator and audience. So a side project that’s creatively fulfilling like Army Man could become something that has demand in the marketplace. Demand that the studios could be totally cut out of.
Now of course, with broadband video maturing, that creatively fulfilling strike side project doesn’t have to be Army Man. It could be the Simpsons.
I’m not sure how close we are to this yet. I think the key would be getting a writer-created show sold through something like iTunes. Or some micro-payment structure equivalent to what ZeFrank did with the show and Jonathan Coulton does on his site. I can see this more likely in some ways for a sci-fi show, which has cult audience that will be loyal to something - but with many writers also being the performers in comedy, they have a chance to go beyond cult - attracting a general public who’s missing new work by them.
But if I was among the producers, I’d be looking to solve this faster, before writers start writing for themselves. Because it seems like to me, the longer this is drawn out, the producers resistance to giving up a residual looks like a risk at giving up the entire pie.
Note: If you want to see more joke from Army Man, Maud Newton typed up a bit of it a while back, here’s a larger version of page 1, issue 1 and The Believer put issue one in the middle of the book, the same issue where they interviewed Meyer and Fraizer.
I’d love to put all the issues online myself, but I’d rather have some kind of permission first. However, after the jump, you’ll find my favorite cartoon from “Army Man” ever…
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