Letterman and Leno Flip Roles in a Return Filled with Sniping About the Writers' Strike
After all, David Letterman was returning to air Wednesday night after an eight-week absence with his entire writing staff, thanks to an 11th-hour deal cooked up with the striking Writer's Guild of America. The agreement, drafted by Letterman's Worldwide Pants company to cover his show and Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show, was meant to stick it to producers by providing a high profile example of someone who could cut a deal with the WGA.
Letterman's rivals, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel had to come back last night without that luxury (earning pickets from the striking WGA, show at the Tonight Show studios at left). So why did Leno's show feel like the smoother ride, buoyed by jokes the Tonight Show host said he wrote himself and a couple of guests that weren't necessarily A-list, but were famous enough to fill the void?
Despite having a full writing staff, Letterman's show felt more haphazard, featuring the kind of stuff you'd expect from a show which didn't have writers, such as an awkward Q&A segment with audience members, a laugh-less interview with an assistant producer on the show and a reprise of retired director Hal Gurnee's "Network Time Wasters" -- a gag the host cooked up 20 years ago, when he had to return to air during the last writer's strike WITHOUT writers.
Facing the crowd with a bushy, gray beard he grew during the hiatus, Letterman strode onstage after a taped introduction from Hillary Clinton lamenting that fact that he was back at all, launching into an uncomfortable monologue about how he had nothing to say to his family over the holidays and later featuring an odd diatribe against TV and film the producers by longtime writer Bill Scheft.
"I know what you're thinking at home," Letterman cracked in a knowing aside. "This crap is written?" Later, when even an appearance by WGA ally Robin Williams fell a little flat -- his best jokes poked fun at how old Letterman looks with the beard -- and the band kept playing as he tried to start a conversation with the comic, he noted "I'd like to crawl under a blanket now."
By contrast, Leno offered a smoother monologue, noting "there are more people picketing NBC now than watching the network," saying he had to bring his production staff back to making the show to avoid "19 (striking writers) putting 160 people out of work." Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee channeled Bill Clinton's famous sax session on Arsenio Hall's long-gone show by sitting in with the Tonight Show band on bass guitar, and Leno presented an already-released year-end film by online political satirists JibJab that soared.
Of course, Leno's show was so smooth, you had to wonder whether he was really writing it all himself. And it seems that, even if he was writing all the jokes himself, the host would still be violating the WGA strike -- a card-carrying member who once strode the picket line, now crafting jokes for a network TV show he happens to host. See a more detailed analysis on LA Weekly columnist Nikki Finke's kicking blog documenting the whole strike, Deadline Hollywood Daily.
Elsewhere, O'Brien offered a clumsy show much more like what you'd expect from a writer-less production, appearing in his own strike beard and offering a bit where he timed how long he could spin his wedding ring on his desk (Really!). Craig Ferguson came back with no guests -- keeping actors from having to cross picket lines in front of the CBS studios where he taped his show in Los Angeles -- while ABC's Jimmy Kimmel played bits from old episodes after opening his show with a moment of silence, noting "normally, I would say something funny here, but I don't have any writers. So we'll just sit." (He also read a list of movies actors were filming, even while the actor's union was telling members not to appear on their talk shows, admitting "I'm pissed off, I'll be honest.")
After one night of shows, two things were obvious: Letterman better shake off the cobwebs to keep from embarrassing himself and the writer's union. And the WGA's gambit with Letterman just might backfire with producers and viewers, if the shows presented without striking writers turn out to be more entertaining.
Check Letterman's opening here: