Stewart, Colbert return to late night

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UPDATED 11:38 p.m. PT Jan. 7, 2008

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert returned to the airwaves Monday night with similarly in-depth but divergent explorations of the strike.

On "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," the host dissected the various positions, mocking both sides though saving a little more acidity for the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

Colbert, on the other hand, stayed mostly in character, knocking the idea of unions and strikes in general.

Stewart supported the writers' cause when he jabbed at the AMPTP's position that new-media revenue was not yet sufficiently established (the $1.99 charge for "The Daily Show" on iTunes was "not a content charge; it's a shipping and handling charge").

And show's boldest moment came when Stewart asked a parody question of his guest, Cornell labor-relations professor Ron Seeber, wondering if Sumner Redstone -- the majority stockholder in Comedy Central owner Viacom -- made a mistake by bragging to shareholders that with new-media revenue "you'll all be dipping your balls in gold."

But Stewart also had what some writers said they perceived as a cantankerous moment when he riffed on how David Letterman got a strike-waiver deal while he did not.
 
Stewart also took a poke at SAG solidarity. Writers were gaining public support "by getting actors to speak out on their behalf. Oh my God, you guys got Sean Penn to advocate your cause. You must have -- a cause."

Colbert, in a discussion with guest Richard Freeman, author of a book about unions, satirically took up the congloms' side when he said that without companies "the workers would not be workers; they'd just be people unless the capitalists said, 'Here's a place to work.' "

The use of the airwaves to give time to the writers strike -- as well as how they position the stoppage -- could be a key determinant of shaping the public perception of the strike especially among both shows' young, tastemaking demo.

Both hosts used the lack of writers as a source of material in its own right -- Stewart had the line "Space Reserved for Clever Pun" in the box normally devoted to same, while Colbert riffed about an empty teleprompter.



"My understanding is that this little magic box, it reads my thoughts and it lays them on the screen right there," he said, then quipped when told the jokes were usually written by scribes. "The writers? The guys on the fourth floor with the opium bong playing 'Guitar Hero' all day?"

The public perception of writers was a common comedic target for both hosts.

"I don't believe the AMPTP understands the struggle that it's in, and I don't believe it understands the blowback thats going to happen," Stewart said -- then went into a comic bit about how "out-of-shape, sickly writers" will transform into "hugely strong destruction machines ... by walking in a circle," showing Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian.

Stewart also flipped easily to serious issues, teasing out the WGA's divide-and-conquer strategy and coming to the conclusion that "the idea is to create a tipping point where it becomes almost an industry standard from the bottom up."

Comedy Central ordered Stewart and Colbert back to the air after late-night hosts from the broadcast nets were similarly instructed to return.

Earlier in the day, a small group of about 30 striking writers from the WGA East each turned out to picket in front of the two Manhattan studios where the hosts tape their shows. Late-night writers were not asked to picket.

Some of Stewart's early bits appeared polished -- Colbert noted in the hand-off that he was alarmed because "you seem way too prepared" and threatened to call the WGA -- and strike observers will likely be watching the WGA's reaction closely.

But several writers said privately they were confused by Stewart's jokes as well as the fact that they seemed written, and the WGA, as it did with Jay Leno, may be forced to balance the use of Stewart as a spokesman against potential member backlash.

Stewart also brought out Seeber as his first and only guest; the professor brought an academic detachment to the show as he analyzed the way the motivating factors in a strike move from economic to psychological.

Seeber offered a reassuring note on the strike, of sorts, saying they all eventually end, usually when one side "inflicts more pain" on the other.

Stewart also made what amounted to a call for keeping things in perspective.

After noting that the writers had been off the air for about nine weeks, Stewart also joked that the last time late-night shows went off the air was for a week after the Sept. 11 attacks. "So if my math is correct the writers strike is nine times worse than Sept. 11," he quipped.
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