Letterman says all the write things

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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."

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 WGA East did not send out a memberwide 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.

"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.

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.

The picketed "Late Night" featured Bob Saget as its first guest. Meanwhile, "Late Show" was headlined by Robin Williams.

Over at NBC's "Tonight Show" studios in Burbank, about 60 midmorning strikers were unhappy with Huckabee's decision to go on the "Tonight Show." Many carried signs scolding the Republican presidential candidate, including "Huckabee, Jesus wouldn't cross" (Huckabee is a former Southern Baptist minister) 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.

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.

"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. "It's not going to be the same old show — it'll be interesting to watch," he said.

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 was set 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."

Kimberly Nordyke in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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