'Daily Show,' 'Colbert' set for return



UPDATED 6:49 p.m. PT Dec. 20, 2007
UPDATED 5:20 p.m. PT Dec. 20, 2007

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are the latest late-night hosts to announce that they are returning to the air.

Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" will begin production Jan. 7 without the shows' writing staffs. The network will "continue to hold out hope for a swift resolution to the current stalemate that will enable the shows to be complete again," it said.

But questions over the format of both shows -- which rely heavily on writers -- remained unanswered Thursday, with many segments of both thought to be off limits according to WGA strike rules.

More than such returning shows as "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live," the Comedy Central series hosts could find themselves toeing a narrow line between guild acceptability and audience approval.

The "Daily Show" the opening segment, in which Stewart riffs on the day's headlines with a set of scripted jokes, is unlikely to pass muster with the WGA. Guest interviews, on the other hand, are thought to be fair game.

Another area of uncertainty is the material between those segments, particularly "Daily Show's" corespondent segments with such personalities as John Oliver and Samantha Bee. All correspondents are returning to the air, Comedy Central confirmed, but it was unclear whether their reports from the field would be part of the shows.

"We're in very uncharted waters here," one TV executive said. "If a host thinks of a joke and then writes it down on a piece of paper, will the WGA consider that writing?" Making things more complicated, both Stewart and Colbert are members of the WGA.

Observers pointed out that the guilds could look the other way if Stewart comments on the strike in support of the WGA, picking up on a routine he began before the show went on strike hiatus.

The "Colbert Report" typically includes scripted segments like "The Word," its thinly veiled riff on "The O'Reilly Factor," which likely would be a no-go.

The network said it was working on an acceptable format for the scribeless shows but declined to reveal it. It's likely that interviews -- which typically take up only one segment on both Stewart's and Colbert's shows -- will play a more prominent role.

Both shows do have one advantage over their late-night counterparts: While returning late shows like "Tonight Show" will be in the atypical position of relying on nonactors and lower-profile personalities -- studio publicists have expressed caution about booking A-listers on late-night shows -- Stewart and Colbert could follow their more traditional roster of authors, policy analysts, activists and nonentertainment personalities.

It's unclear whether politicians, who are a staple of "Daily Show" in particular, will appear; several Democrats have supported the writers strike at rallies and in public comments.

In announcing the return, Stewart and Colbert released a joint statement. "We would like to return to work with our writers," it said. "If we cannot, we would like to express our ambivalence, but without our writers we are unable to express something as nuanced as ambivalence."

Comedy Central explained that its show are returning on Jan. 7, rather than Jan. 2 when Leno and O'Brien are returning, due to a previously scheduled vacation shutdown unrelated to the strike.

Thursday's announcement also could pave the way for the network, which owns both shows, to potentially explore a separate signatory agreement with the WGA that would allow writers to return. Comedy Central declined to say Thursday whether it was speaking to the WGA about such an agreement.

Among all the latenight talk shows, only "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" have yet to set a return date. Worldwide Pants, which owns and produces both series, is expected to meet with the guilds today in a bid to work out a signatory agreement that would allow writers to return.

Late Thursday, the WGA released a statement critical of Comedy Central's move.

"Comedy Central forcing Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert back on the air will not give the viewers the quality shows they've come to expect," it said. "The only way to get the writing staffs back on the job is for the AMPTP companies to come back to the table prepared to negotiate a fair deal with the Writers Guild."