Late night shows return

January 2, 2008 7:56:12 PM PST
Late-night TV hosts returned to the air Wednesday after a two-month hiatus, showing support for their striking writers, plenty of creative stretch marks - and at least two scruffy beards.

David Letterman walked onstage amid dancing girls holding picket signs supporting striking writers. His writers are back on the job, but NBC's Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel returned without theirs.

Filler was immediately evident on the shows without writers. O'Brien, sporting facial growth to match his red hair, showed off Christmas cards, danced on his table as his band played the Clash's "The Magnificent Seven" and tried to see how long he could spin his wedding ring on his desk. Leno took questions from his audience.

"I want to make this clear. I support their cause," O'Brien said of the writers. "These are very talented, very creative people who work extremely hard. I believe what they're asking for is fair."

Letterman, who had grown a mostly white beard, brought writers on to recite a top 10 list of their strike demands. They included "complimentary tote bag with next insulting contract offer" and "Hazard pay for breaking up fights on `The View."'

"You're watching the only show on the air that has jokes written by union writers," Letterman said. "I hear you at home thinking to yourself, `This crap is written?"'

Guest Robin Williams teased Letterman unmercifully about his beard, alternately comparing him to Gen. Robert E. Lee, a rabbi and an Iraqi mullah.

Presidential politics intruded on the eve of the Iowa caucus: Republican Mike Huckabee appeared on Leno despite his apparent confusion about the strike and a bid by picketers to keep him away, and Democrat Hillary Clinton taped a cameo introducing Letterman.

"Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers strike," she said. "Tonight, he's back. Oh, well, all good things come to an end."

Huckabee said he supports the writers and did not think he would be crossing a picket line, because he believed the writers had made an agreement to allow late-night shows on the air. But that's not the case with Leno; "Huckabee is a scab," read one picket sign outside Leno's Burbank, Calif., studio.

The writers guild urged Huckabee not to cross their picket line after he flew out to California. But Huckabee appeared on Leno, even showing off his electric guitar playing with the band.

"Huckabee claims he didn't know," chief union negotiator John Bowman said. "I don't know what that means in terms of trusting him as a future president."

For fans of the late-night hosts, the controversy was secondary to seeing their favorites again. Chuck Gunther of Grand Junction, Colo., stood on a sidewalk outside of Letterman's New York studio on a frigid night hoping to get into the audience.

"When Dave is live, it's fresh and new every night - instead of watching reruns of `Seinfeld,"' he said.

Letterman had writers because his production company, Worldwide Pants, struck a separate deal with the guild. The deal also allowed writers to return to Craig Ferguson's "Late Late Show" on CBS.

Picketing writers outside of O'Brien's studio in New York's Rockefeller Center said they were hoping to encourage people not to appear on the shows where writers weren't working. Michael Winship, president of the WGA East, said he expected Letterman's "Late Show" to be a "bully pulpit" for striking writers and their issues.

Leno's staff writers, who regularly picket at one of the gates to NBC studios, did not show up on Wednesday. Writers insist they're demonstrating against NBC, not Leno, who was supportive of his writers in the strike's early days.

"It must be difficult for them to picket their own boss," said Allan Katz, a veteran sitcom writer. "Probably Jay Leno understands."

Besides depriving the nation of punch lines, the two months of reruns have been devastating for the networks - particularly NBC.

Late-night leader Leno is averaging 4.4 million viewers this season, losing a quarter of his audience from last season. Before the strike, his audience was off 10 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Letterman's average of 3.6 million viewers is 15 percent off last season. Before the strike, his viewership was down 9 percent.

Leno's audience was obviously far less interested in reruns or - even worse for NBC - decided to sample Letterman instead.

Kimmel's audience of 1.8 million viewers is slightly up from last season, because it follows "Nightline," which has been making fresh shows.

O'Brien's audience is down 29 percent from last season and he's been running virtually neck and neck with Ferguson: O'Brien has 1.8 million viewers, Ferguson 1.7 million. Now Ferguson returns with writers and O'Brien without.

How big the advantage might be for CBS likely depends on how long the strike lasts. At least at the beginning, the writer-less shows may draw viewers curious to see how the hosts respond.

The CBS programs will also probably have bigger-name guests. The Screen Actors Guild has urged its members to appear with Letterman and Ferguson. It's unclear whether Hollywood's glitterati will be willing to cross picket lines for face time on national television.

Besides being without writers, Leno, O'Brien and Kimmel will be unable to perform many familiar comic bits, including traditional monologues, because of strike rules.

Comedy Central's topical nightly comedies, "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," will return Monday without striking writers.

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Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela and Libby Quaid, and Raquel Maria Dillon, contributed to this report.

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ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co. CBS is a division of CBS Corp. NBC is owned by General Electric Co.


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