Late-night history lesson

Carson's '88 paved way for return


Late-night TV history will repeat itself Jan. 2 when, two months into the writers strike, NBC's "The Tonight Show" will return to the air without its scribes.

It was May 11, 1988. Two months after the beginning of the writers strike, "The Tonight Show" returned sans writers. It started off just like any other "Tonight Show" hosted by Johnny Carson, with "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" But then, in the midst of a louder and longer than usual standing ovation, an audience member shouted, "Welcome back, Johnny."

"The public was glad he was back, the staff was glad, everybody was happy to get paychecks again," said Carson's nephew Jeff Sotzing, president of Carson Entertainment, who was an associate producer on "Tonight Show" in 1988. "Nobody wanted to cross the picket line, but when they finally did, it was a huge relief."

Carson, who owned the "The Tonight Show," had been paying his nonwriting staff out of his pocket, something his successors, led by David Letterman, have replicated during the current strike.

Also taking a cue from his idol, Letterman, who owns CBS' "Late Show" and "Late Late Show," has been trying to negotiate an interim deal with the WGA that would allow the two shows to return with writers Jan. 2.

Carson had been pursuing such a contract in May 1988. According to news reports from that time, frustrated by the slow progress in the negotiations, he decided to return May 11 without writers. A couple of weeks later, his scribes followed after the WGA signed off on a deal.

Now, things are not moving fast on a contract between Letterman's Worldwide Pants and the WGA either, prompting a public appeal by the company last week to the guild that helped to start talks.

Additionally, today's WGA also is taking a page from its old playbook. Back in May 1988, while in a stalemate with the major studios, the guild pursued deals with about 80 independent producers. That also has been the WGA's recent tactic launched this month.

There were two guests on Carson's first night back, a copy of which is available at the Paley Center for Media: San Diego Wild Animal Park's curator of birds William Toone, who talked about the birth of the first baby condor in captivity, and actor-comedian Joe Piscopo, there to promote his movie "Dead Heat." The "Tonight Show" band also saluted composer Irving Berlin for his 100th birthday with a medley of his tunes.

Talent booking for the late shows is getting a lot of attention these days, with speculation that many actors won't cross a picket line, making non-Hollywood types like Jack Hanna and medical experts preferred guests.

So far, no main guests for NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," which are resuming production without writers Jan. 2, have been firmed up. Donald Trump had been booked to appear on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" on Jan. 2, but the show's return that day is contingent on inking an interim deal with the WGA.

While the scrutiny is high now, things were different in 1988, said veteran publicist and former Hollywood Reporter writer Charlie Barrett, who served as "Tonight Show" spokesman in the 1980s.

"There was never the picketing you have now," he said. "The strike is getting a tremendous amount of attention -- all the national and major cable networks are covering it. We never saw this kind of attention given to a writers strike that we see today."

Carson opened the May 11 show like any other, with a prepared monologue. Unlike any other night, he had written it by himself, something he was allowed to do as a non-WGA member.

That can't happen on any late-night show that returns without writers next week. As Letterman was in 1988, all current late-night hosts except Carson Daly are WGA members and thus banned from writing any bits for the show, including monologues. (On his first night back, Carson also did a skit, another no-no for today's hosts.)

No matter whether they do an opening segment, the writerless late-night hosts are certain to attract scrutiny in their return about anything they say.

Daytime talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, also a WGA member, came under attack from the guild for doing a monologue, qualified by the guild as "struck work." (DeGeneres vigorously disputed the allegation, claiming she ad-libbed her monologues.)

One of the biggest dilemmas for returning hosts is how to address the strike.

On her first show during the strike, DeGeneres replaced her monologue with an emotional defense of her decision to come back and a love letter to her writers.

"This is weird. Weird. It's a weird show," she said. "Channeling Johnny Carson all of a sudden. (Imitating Carson) 'Very Weird. Weird. Weird."

Returning late-night hosts probably also will look to Carson for inspiration on how to handle the issue of the strike.

In his comeback, Carson talked about the writers work stoppage several times, but the references often were incorporated in his comedy routine, complete with punch lines.

He opened his monologue with jokes about the length of his strike-imposed hiatus ("As I was saying when I was here last, President Carter said he had only lusted in his heart") and its effect on his marriage ("I really believe that one more week off and my marriage would be resolved by small arms fire") before addressing the strike for the first time.

"I'm sure most of you are aware there is a writers strike against the Motion Picture Alliance and the TV producers," he said. "A lot of people asked me: Why did you decide to come back. I'll be honest to you, it was really out of my hands, I had no control. Nostradamus. He predicted this 400 years ago."

That unleashed a slew of jokes about the then-recent exodus of Californians over what turned out to be a bogus interpretation of a Nostradamus prophecy for a major earthquake.

After that, he touched on the subject of the strike again.

"Let me explain the real reason I came back," he said. "I just could not stay away any longer from all the things that are going on in the country. I was compelled to come back."

Carson then launched a barrage of jokes about the controversy surrounding Ronald Reagan's former chief of staff Don Regan's accounts that the Reagan administration relied heavily on astrology. ("The horoscope is divided into 12 houses," one of the one-liners went. "I didn't know the White House was one of them.")

Carson ended his monologue with another mention of the strike, again in a half-serious way.

"We're very happy to be back. As far as the writers strike, we're not going to discuss it. I have a lot of friends who are writers; we hope they join us soon. Its not fun to come to work when you see your friends whom you've known for many years standing out on the picket line. It's a weird picket line, writers are out there holding these signs, and there is nothing on them."

That joke earned one of the biggest laughs and strongest applauses of the night.

After a chat with sidekick Ed McMahon about what they did during their time off, Carson made his the final and most straightforward reference to the strike.

"We're delighted to be back. We're delighted to have the audience back, and we really hope the writers work out the differences and come back soon," he said before moving onto the strike-free interview and music sections of the show.

While that wouldn't happen for three more months, Carson's own writers would came back shortly through a waiver granted to Carson's company.

"He was very relieved when the writers came back," Sotzing said. "It was a tremendous amount of work and tremendous responsibility. As good as he was, he was glad they came back."

Letterman was far less subtle in "Late Night's" June 28, 1988, return to the air without writers.

"The producers happen to be, in my opinion, money-grabbing scum," he said in one of a number of skewering references to the studios. "I want to make sure people understand I'm in favor of the writers guild."

As today's late-night hosts grapple with which road to take on their first show -- Carson's conciliatory one or Letterman's scathing assault on his employers -- they have plenty of advice on which to draw.

In addition to Letterman, who was on the air in 1988, Peter Lassally, who was executive producer for "Tonight Show" back then, now is exec producer at CBS' "Late Late Show." Maria Pope, then a staffer for "Late Night," is an executive producer for "Late Show."

But not all advice would be relevant, Barrett said.

"The shows now are much different than 'The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,' " he said. "Also, compared to what it was in 1988, it's a much different (WGA) contract now, with far more complicated issues in technology-related areas that didn't even exist back then."