Leno, O'Brien returning to late-night Jan. 2

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UPDATED 4:35 p.m. PT Dec. 17

NEW YORK -- Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien are going back to work without writers Jan. 2.

"The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" will return to the air in their regular time slots on the first Wednesday of the new year. They join fellow NBC show "Last Call With Carson Daly," which came back two weeks ago.

No one's really clear what the Leno and O'Brien shows will look like when they return or whether the hosts will be allowed to write their monologues. The shows will not have writers.

"Obviously the shows may look a little different," "Late Night" executive producer Jeff Ross said. "We're going to have to fill time with things that we haven't before."

Johnny Carson stayed out for two months during the 1988 writers strike before returning to work on "The Tonight Show." When he came back, he did a scaled-down monologue, though it isn't clear whether the modern-day heirs to the late-night thrones can do that this time around.

"We'll spend the next day trying to figure (that) out," said Rick Ludwin, executive vp late night at NBC. O'Brien and Leno are guild members, which under strike rules means that they are not be able to perform "any writing services during a strike for any and all struck companies." This includes monologues and sketches that normally would be written by a guild member.

Ellen DeGeneres, who returned to her daytime talk show on the second day of the strike, came under fire from the WGA, who accused her of performing struck work by writing her monologue. DeGeneres denied that, saying that she is ad-libbing her monologues, not writing them.

On the late-night front, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson of CBS, Jimmy Kimmel of ABC and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central remain out.

Worldwide Pants, which owns and produces the Letterman and Ferguson shows, is working with the WGA to reach a contract agreement that would allow those shows to return with writers, which would bring them a competitive advantage in late-night TV. Most of the shows, with the exception of ABC's "Nightline," have been forced to run repeats that have garnered low ratings.

"It wouldn't be our first choice, going against them with writers," said Debbie Vickers, executive producer of "Tonight." It is unlikely that the shows, which are both owned by NBC Universal, would be able to forge separate deals with the writers.

Leno and O'Brien issued statements to explain what they described as a difficult decision to go back to work. Both said they had their nonwriting staff members in mind.

"I will make clear on the program my support for the writers and I'll do the best version of 'Late Night' I can under the circumstances," O'Brien said. "My sincerest hope is that all of my writers are back soon, working under a contract that provides them everything they deserve."

O'Brien's writers don't seem to have a problem with their boss returning.

"We all know what a tough decision it is," said Mike Sweeney, head writer of "Late Night." "The reaction I got from (the writers) is that everyone has really appreciated how supportive Conan's been. He stayed off the air (for two months)."

Sweeney said the writers thought much of O'Brien's loyalty during the strike. "We understand that it's a really tough decision," he said.

One thing is for sure, no one's going to muzzle the hosts, who are sympathetic to the writers' cause.

"In 1988, when Johnny and Dave returned, they both made plenty of comments about the strike," Ludwin said. "I think it's fair game."

Added Ross: "We've been taking shots at NBC for 15 years."

No guests have been announced, though both shows have been speaking to potential guests to see if they would appear. Execs would not discuss whether specific guests would or would not cross a picket line.

Nellie Andreeva in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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