No Laughing Matter

As WGAW president, comedy writer Verrone takes a no-nonsense stance

Patric M. Verrone wants to correct the record. While testifying at an FCC media-consolidation hearing in October, the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) president vowed to be brief “on this subject of vital importance to our industry, to our democracy and to free speech.” Then, he added, he'll return to his profession: “writing cartoons about a crab monster from outer space.”

“Actually, it's an octopus monster,” Verrone says of his work on Fox's animated Futurama. “I don't want to deceive the government.”

All kidding aside, the lawyer-turned-comedy-writer takes seriously his role representing the interests of his Hollywood brethren. Since sweeping into office last year atop a slate of candidates who vowed to take a tougher stance on contract negotiations, Verrone has shown his willingness to butt heads with the studios, networks and even other unions.

With the writers' contract set to expire next October, months before the other major Hollywood guilds', he has been at the center of a turbulent storm. After producers charged the guild with engineering a “de facto strike” next year by spurning contract negotiations in January, Verrone railed at the industry's “histrionics” and refusal to negotiate early on the issue of new technologies in an e-mail to guild members.

He took on the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees last week after the union accused him of jeopardizing employment with delay tactics.

“My sense of Patric, notwithstanding how he is frequently painted in the press, is that he is looking for the deal,” not a strike, says David White, an entertainment labor consultant and former general counsel of the Screen Actors Guild. “It may not be the deal the studios want,” White adds, but “he's been in the room before and feels like he knows his way around that room. He can't be pushed around.”

Verrone became a comedy writer after a brief stint practicing law in Florida. A former editor of the Harvard Lampoon, he followed his future wife, TV writer and novelist Maiya Williams, to Hollywood in 1986 and landed a job on Joan Rivers' short-lived late-night show on Fox.

He spent three years at The Tonight Show, writing monologues for Johnny Carson (“my greatest job ever”). After writing for HBO's late-night satire series The Larry Sanders Show, Verrone made his way into animation writing, joining old Lampoon chums Greg Daniels on King of the Hill and Al Jean on The Simpsons.

Until a union-organizing effort in 1998, when Verrone joined Futurama, animation writers on Fox shows were not covered by WGAW contracts. Verrone joined the guild then and ran for the board the next year. In 2001, the guild asked him to run for secretary-treasurer. Four years later, he led a contingent that was dissatisfied with the previous management's handling of 2004 negotiations.

Balancing Career and Union

Since taking over in September 2005, Verrone has increased the union's organizing budget and directed members to interrupt industry events. Unimpressed with corporate protocol, he ousted the WGAW's old-guard executive director, John McLean, and others.

But being the face of the guild hasn't endangered Verrone's writing career.

“This is a tough business, and I feel lucky to get offers,” he says. “I'm worried less about that than the entire way writers are paid, employed and given benefits.”

Despite his comedy background, Verrone refrains from injecting humor into the serious business of union bargaining. “Jokes tend to confuse people,” he says.

But straddling both the legal and creative worlds provides its own moments of levity. Says Verrone: “Lawyers always want to talk about show business, and writers want free legal advice.”