O'Brien, Ferguson

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LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN
(NBC) 12:37 a.m. weekdays
THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG FERGUSON
(CBS) 12:37 a.m. weekdays


It was difficult to tell which of the two late-night warriors was operating without a writing staff Wednesday night as both Conan O'Brien and Craig Ferguson emerged from their strike-imposed two-month hiatus. Ferguson's the one without his writers, right? C'mon, right? No? Well, then, the first strike-era battle in the 12:30 a.m. wars goes to spontaneity over preparation, which ain't exactly destined to brighten the spirits of the Writers Guild of America. O'Brien was newly bearded, rested and mostly ready; Ferguson was clean-shaven, restless and painfully dopey. But while O'Brien showed off some genuine comic dexterity, neither guy exactly knocked it out of the park.

The naturally savvy and quick-footed Conan did all he could considering his lack of a writing staff, vamping through an alternately witty and earnest monologue that both seriously addressed the plight of the striking scribes ("I want to make this clear: I support their cause. These are very talented, very creative people who work extremely hard and I believe what they're asking for is fair") and riffed on the void in our lives created by the walkout ("With all of 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"). He was much more freewheeling by obvious necessity, and Conan mostly used his lack of a net to good self-deprecating effect -- though the pair of timed spins of his wedding ring on his desk was one too many.

We also got the feeling from watching him that O'Brien was expending a tremendous amount of nervous energy that will be difficult to sustain as the days stretch into weeks. It's tough to imagine his being able to endlessly riff on how funny his show isn't due to the walkout without it becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. Moreover, if the level of guest doesn't rise substantially from night one's Bob Saget, unknown comedian Dwayne Perkins and who-the-heck-are-they musical guests Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding, don't count on Conan's being able to hold onto much beyond his most loyal viewers while the strike rages on.

Yet whatever problems O'Brien had were miniscule compared with Ferguson, who came across as positively amateurish while making the unfortunate decision to go without guests on the first night back. Nearly his entire shtick surrounded the idea that despite having his writers by his side, the show was still somehow lame. And darn it if that assessment wasn't dead on. "I make this pledge to the people of America!" the Scottish comedian announced during his opening. "We ... will ... not ... be ... funnier!!!!!!" Consider the pledge met.

That kickoff monologue seemed to stretch nearly as long as has the strike itself, with the host appearing to repeat the same lines without letup. We found out that during the break, Ferguson learned how to ski. Badly. We also discovered that he grew his own strike beard and shaved it off and then grew it again and shaved it again -- and that, oh man, it's good to be back. A series of dashed-off bits (Craig's a buck-toothed, talk show-hosting Prince Charles! Craig's a Scottish shepherd talking to a stuffed lamb!) filled the time, mostly driving home the message that the show wasn't just unfunny but purposely so. It certainly isn't that Ferguson is himself untalented or lacking in charm. So let's assume for the sake of argument that his writing staff has reverted to off-season form.

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