After the ongoing writers' strike forced audiences to spend the past two months surfing channels, the return of late-night television talk shows on Wednesday was every bit as hairy as predicted. No, nobody flopped outright (though Jimmy Kimmel joked that he was out of material 10 seconds into his first show back), but both David Letterman and Conan O'Brien did return from their forced hiatus with full mountain-man beards, which provided plenty of material for laughs. And in Letterman's case, those jokes were the only ones written by union writers, thanks to a special deal he cut with the Writers Guild of America through his Worldwide Pants production company.
It was only the first night, but if it's any indication, late night should survive the strike just fine, assuming the talkers can get enough high-caliber guests and the Spears family continues to unravel on a daily basis. But, like Letterman's bushy gray beard, it won't be pretty.
Leno — who still does stand-up comedy and used to perform 300 nights a year before taking over "The Tonight Show" — used his opening monologue to remind people that writing jokes isn't exactly a new thing for him. "You know what I'm doing?" he said. "I'm doing what I did the day I started. I write jokes and wake my wife up in the middle of the night and say, 'Honey, is this funny?' So if this monologue doesn't work, it's my wife's fault. She said the joke was funny."
Like O'Brien, Kimmel, Letterman and Craig Ferguson, the one topic Leno made sure to hammer over and over was the plight of the writers on strike, which he illustrated by showing what he claimed was the palatial mansion of NBC Universal's boss versus the tumbledown shanties that make up "Writers' Town." But that didn't stop the WGA from lashing out at Leno, saying he violated the union's rules by writing and delivering punch lines during his show, according to The Associated Press. The union reportedly did not say, however, what it will do about Leno's move.
Leno's guests included Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who left Iowa less than 24 hours before the state's caucuses not only to be interviewed, but to play some bass guitar with the show's house band. In addition to a cooking segment with chef Emeril Lagasse, rapper Chingy took the stage with Amerie to perform his new single "Fly Like Me."
Lupe Fiasco helped Letterman keep things moving with a performance of "Superstar" and gave some love to the striking writers. "Shout-out and much love and support to the writers. Being a writer myself, I really appreciate and really understand what they're going through, fighting with some of these huge, huge tycoons to get a little bit more cheddar in the pocket," said Fiasco after Wednesday's taping — during which Letterman referred to him as "Loopy" three times. But, like some of the hosts who crossed the picket lines, even Fiasco wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing by performing.
"When we came out it was kind of weird, 'cause people were like, 'Should we be here, should we not be here?' " he said. "I was thinking, 'Should I be here? Am I going to get stoned to death or hit with rotten mangos and pears when I walk out?' But it was actually quite copasetic. It was nice." With no fruit attacks in sight, Fiasco summed up his views on the strike by saying, " 'CSI' needs to come back, know what I'm saying?"
Also returning with his writers intact was Craig Ferguson of "The Late Late Show" (which is produced by Letterman's Worldwide Pants), who joked in his monologue that he too had grown a strike beard, but it "got itchy so I shaved it off. Then grew it back again. That was just the first day. Next time, I'll grow it on my face."
O'Brien's couch was warmed by comedian Bob Saget, comedian Dwayne Perkins and musical guests Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding, while Letterman's main guest was the man of a thousand shticks, Robin Williams, who referred to the grizzled Letterman variously as "Grandpa," "General Lee" and "Rabbi."
Despite being back at full strength with the writers' blessing, Letterman made sure to hammer home the strike theme, from an opening bit with high-kicking dancers prancing across the stage holding "Writers Guild on Strike" signs to a top 10 that featured out-of-work writers making demands of producers. He also boasted a cameo from Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton, who lamented, "Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers' strike. Tonight, he's back. Oh, well, all good things come to an end." In keeping with his self-deprecating persona, Letterman crowed during his monologue that his show was the only one written by union writers and that, yes, he knew what everyone was thinking: "This crap is written?"
Like Leno, Letterman opened up the floor to audience questions, with one fan asking why there were still some writers outside Letterman's studio protesting, prompting the host to quip, "Those are just people who hate the show." Kimmel, who joked that he'd been gone for two months because he's the father of Jamie Lynn Spears' unborn child, seemed to struggle the most without his writers, tripping over his words at times, falling flat with a bit highlighting clips from previous seasons and a musical performance from Kid Rock that was pre-taped.
O'Brien, a former staff writer for "The Simpsons," was atypically serious when discussing the strike, earnestly saying during his opening monologue that the writers are responsible for many of his show's classic characters like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. "It's all writing," he said. As if proof was needed, he also spent nearly three minutes on a bit about how long he could spin his wedding band on his desk. (For the record, it's something he does during rehearsals, and he managed 36 seconds during the show, or five less than his all-time best.)
With some A-list celebrities saying they won't cross picket lines to appear on late night and no end in sight for the strike, things could go downhill very quickly if a resolution isn't reached soon. Though he held his own, one of the jokes penned by Leno — whose ratings during the two months of reruns have fallen almost 40 percent in some key demographics — could have been a bit of foreshadowing. "Of course, the strike is especially hard on NBC," he joked. "Do you know there are actually more people picketing NBC now than watching NBC right now?"
The ratings, however, reflected strong enthusiasm on the part of the viewers. According to AP, Leno enjoyed his biggest audience in two years — 7.2 million viewers — while Letterman drew 5.5 million people, 45 percent more than his pre-strike average this season.
[This story was originally published at 11:11 a.m. ET on 01.03.07]