Late-night returns to new reality

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UPDATED 5:48 p.m. PT Jan. 2, 2007

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

Both NBC's "The 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.

"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 "Writers Guild of America 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 "members of 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.

O'Brien suggested the last one could be a running strike gag. "There's time to do it again," he said when an audience member called out for him to try it once more. "Let's not be in a rush to do it again." He then tried it later in the show.

Guests were Bob Saget and standup 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 memberwide call, as it has done with most of its demonstrations; instead a few strike captains cherrypicked 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.

"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."



Winship said that while the details haven't been worked out yet, the guild likely would take a similar tack next week when Comedy Central's "Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" go back into production without writers. He added that other potential interim agreements with independent producers could be forthcoming. "We'll listen to anyone who wants to talk to us."

The picket line wasn't the only unusual sight outside of 30 Rock. While the scene at the entrance to the show usually features a line of audience members waiting to get in, no such line was visible Wednesday night. There was speculation that NBC had moved audience members through a back entrance to avoid exposure to picketers.

In Los Angeles, Ferguson also wore a beard, albeit a fake one, in the opening skit that featured him as a shephard in his native Scotland where he gets the news about the "Late Late Show's" return. He put his writers to the test with a guestless first show back that was entirely scripted.

In Burbank, "Tonight Show" host Leno lamented having to go alone agains CBS' "Late Show," which has its writers.

"We have to go by ourselves up against the CBS machine," he said. "One man against a monologue."

His monologue will probably raise eyebrows within the WGA as it appeared to feature written material, something Leno admitted.

"I write jokes," he said. "We are following the guild thing, we can write for ourselves."

While network sources have claimed late-night hosts are exempt and should be allowed to write monlogues, WGA has been adament that, under the strike rules, hosts who like Leno are WGA members cannot perform any "writing services" for their shows, including writing their own monologues.

Outside the "Tonight Show" studios in Burbank, about 60 mid-morning 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."

Glarum pointed to the WGA's position that the guild isn't picketing the late-night hosts themselves but rather the "companies for which their shows are produced," according to a letter sent to members during the weekend. Still, he said he would have preferred if Leno had "waited it out."

WGA West vp David Weiss also wasn't happy about Huckabee crossing the picket line and expressed hope that future potential guests "have a conscience." He also predicted that the initial ratings for the late-night shows without writers will be solid but will then start to fall off.

"After a while, people are going to want to watch stuff with writers," he said.

On the show, Huckabee didn't address the strike, but in an interview with the Associated Press Wednesday, he pledged his support for the writers."

At NBC Universal headquarters in Universal City, Calif., "Tonight Show" writer Joe Medeiros was among the 20 or so picketers outside the Forest Lawn gate.

"We're here at NBC Universal to see if we can persuade NBC to give us the same deal that Letterman's writers got," he said, noting that he had been picketing outside the "Tonight Show" studio in Burbank since the strike started but decided to switch to the Universal City lot. "I felt like it made more sense to picket the people who give us the contracts. It doesn't do any good to picket our own show."

Medeiros said that earlier Wednesday morning, he had talked by phone with Leno, who expressed his support for the writers. Medeiros noted that the late-night host has been supportive of the writers since the strike started Nov. 5.

"He was forced back to work for economic reasons," Medeiros said. "He was paying his staff, which is the generous thing to do, but (that can only last so long) because of simple economics."

He also said he would be watching to see what the show's first episode sans writers looked like Wednesday night.

"It's not going to be the same old show -- it'll be interesting to watch," he said. "The show has a talented, hardworking staff who will do their best under very difficult circumstances."

WGAW president Patric Verrone, who was at both strike locations, said he was pleased with the turnout given the last-minute nature of the picketing plans (the guild originally was scheduled to resume picketing Monday but called the picket lines back this week because of the late-night shows' decision to go back into production).

He expressed hope that NBC would strike a deal with the WGA so that "Tonight Show" and "Late Night" writers could go back to work on their respective shows, similar to the Worldwide Pants deal.

"Jay Leno does not own his own show (unlike Letterman)," Verrone said. "NBC is in a position to make a deal so Jay's and Conan's writers can go back to work."

Paul J. Gough and Steven Zeitchik reported from New York; Kimberly Nordyke reported from Los Angeles. Nellie Andreeva in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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