Late-Night TV Returns to New Reality

NEW YORK There were a lot of similarities between the NBC and CBS late-night shows in their returns on the air Wednesday.

Both NBC’s Tonight Show With Jay Leno and CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman featured a leading presidential candidate—Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Hillary Clinton, respectively. Both NBC’s Conan O’Brien and CBS’ Letterman sported beards they had grown during their two-month hiatus.

But there was one big difference—while CBS’ Late Show and Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson enjoyed a seamless return with their writers in tow, NBC’s Tonight Show and Late Night With Conan O’Brien taped their first strike shows behind picket lines. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike since early November.

“You’re watching the Late Show, the only show on the air that has jokes written by union writers. I know you’re at home asking yourselves, ‘This crap is written?'” Letterman said in his monologue, which opened with him walking through a dozen top-hatted chorus girls, all dancing with “WGA On Strike” signs.

The top 10 list of “demands from striking writers” was penned by the writers of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and delivered by 10 striking WGA members, including Nora Ephron and Daily Show and Late Night scribes.

It included “no rollbacks in health benefits, so I can treat the hypothermia I caught on the picket lines” and “the AMPTP must explain what the hell AMPTP stands for.” The No. 1 demand was from Alan Zweibel: “Producers must immediately remove their heads from their asses.”

Several blocks away from the Ed Sullivan Theater where Late Show tapes, O’Brien also addressed the writers strike.

“This has been a tough time not only for our show, but for a lot of people in the entertainment industry,” he said. “Good people right now are out of work. And possibly worse, with all the late-night shows off the air, Americans have been forced to read books and occasionally even speak to one another, which has been horrifying.”

O’Brien spent a lot of time vamping, as well as making fun of the fact that the strike was forcing him to vamp. “I should throw it to Max Weinberg and the Max Weinberg 7, you guys start playing some funky song and you keep going for an hour. And I start to freak out and bust out some classic Conan moves, the audience joins me, there’s nudity and it’s dancing for a full hour.”

Then he quipped; “Nothing would end this strike faster.”

O’Brien also had a set of personal improvised bits in which he riffed on his strike beard, showed off his collection of dolls and Christmas cards from his office and engaged in a game of spinning his wedding ring on his desk.

Guests were Bob Saget and comic Duane Perkins, who performed a stand-up act. Saget had a running bit about how good the water on the show was and addressed the strike only briefly, saying that he is in the WGA and has “tons of friends [in the guild] and I support the Writers Guild.”

Outside NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters, where Late Night is produced, film writer-director Terry George was among the several dozen who turned out on an unusually cold New York evening to protest the return of the show. The WGA East did not send out a member-wide call, as it has done with most of its demonstrations; instead, a few strike captains cherry-picked a handful of writers.

The WGAE kept the protest deliberately small and free of late-night writers to avoid the specter of striking writers picketing while those who work on Worldwide Pants shows were returning to work nearby. (Worldwide Pants is the company that owns Late Show and Late Late Show.)

“The goal with this picket line is mainly symbolic,” WGAE president Michael Winship said. “We’re trying to make it clear that we’re picketing the show so that stars don’t feel comfortable crossing the line and appearing as guests.”

Outside the Tonight Show studios in Burbank, Calif., about 60 strikers were unhappy with Huckabee’s decision to go on the show. Many carried signs scolding the Republican presidential candidate, including “Huckabee, Jesus wouldn’t cross” (Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, has been playing up religion in his presidential campaign) and another that said, “Huckabee is a scab.”

Sivert Glarum, co-executive producer on CBS’ Rules of Engagement, was among those carrying anti-Huckabee signs. “Over a month ago, John Edwards came to this studio and stood up for writers,” Glarum said. “Now Huckabee is the first person in 2008 to cross the picket line. He is actively courting labor support, but this is not the proper way to go about it.”