Striking: The Real Hollywood

Striking comedy writer Michael Colton has a lot on his plate. His wife Carla is expecting their first child next month. He has a mortgage to pay, mouths to feed, shoes to buy, and, with no end yet in sight to the Writers Guild of America walkout, little hope of a secure income stream anytime soon. But the stress doesn't stop there. Each day during his four-hour picket shift Colton has to handle a new type of anxiety. What if a "funny" picket sign he writes bombs? "There's definitely competition for funny signs, but also fear of being unfunny. You don't want the biggest comedy writers in town thinking you're not good. Some people are scared to even risk it."

Take a joke he tried out last week. Attempting a twist on one popular chant he'd heard-"More Money, Les Moonves," a play on the name of Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS-Colton tried to start up his own version: "More money, Jeff Zucker," referring to Moonves's corporate counterpart at NBC. The verdict from fellow picketers: "It didn't really work."

The Hollywood movie "Norma Rae" portrayed a labor strike as uplifting blue-collar solidarity. But this is Hollywood's real picketing style: carefully crafted-and competitive. Stars tell the press when they will be delivering support and food to the walkers. Versace-suited agents from CAA and their assistants deliver churros to picketers on silver platters, while rival agencies plot how to upstage them. "I'm walking four hours every day and I've gained two pounds already," says Eric Abrams, a sitcom and movie writer. The writers are trying to play it cool but can't help getting caught up in their own geeky version of star worship. "I must've gotten 25 e-mails from people telling me, 'I'm picketing next to Judd Apatow right now!'" says Nikki Finke, who chronicles the strike's news and cultural absurdities on her blog www.deadlinehollywooddaily.com.

For tourists to L.A., it's never been so easy to observe major celebrities in their natural habitats. "We saw Ray Romano picketing the other day. It seemed like he was telling jokes, but we couldn't really hear," says Chicagoan Mike Schultz, who on Friday had gone to the Fox lot in hope of seeing more stars. "It was awesome."

Among strikers, a pecking order of sorts has emerged at the various picketing sites. The Fox studio lot (Beverly Hills-adjacent, next door to agent-heavy Century City and with two malls within walking distance) "is where the cool people go to strike. The agents are nearby, and if you want you can go to the mall," says Finke, adding that in contrast the Paramount lot, several less than glamorous miles to the east, is considered "a wasteland." Abrams says he has been trying to hit up a different picketing site each day "to keep it interesting." So far he's noticed that one CBS studio site in particular attracts vocal types, shouting loudly at trucks as they pass through the studio gates. "It's great. It's almost militant," he says. But there are limits. When members of the Screen Actors Guild-i.e., actors and actresses-take to the picket lines in support of their writing brethren, things can get awkward. "They're really into performing, and so they love to chant. We writers are quieter types. We're not so comfortable shouting," Abrams says.

As always in this town, there is shmoozing aplenty. Writers used to spending their days in front of their computer screens can meet more people in one week of picketing than they normally do in a whole year. Says Colton, who before last week was writing a pilot for Fox television, "I have yet to hear of anyone getting hired off their chants or signs, but the strike is young." He's kidding-and he's not actually feeling amused. "I joke," he says, "but very little about this is fun."

Striking: The Real Hollywood | Culture