Kimmel, Leno, Letterman



(CBS) 11:35 p.m. weekdays
(NBC) 11:35 p.m. weekdays
(ABC) 12:05 a.m. weekdays

The late-night studio lights were on again Wednesday night after two months of reruns. Their bright glare not only lit up the stage but revealed sharp differences among late-night hosts.

CBS' David Letterman, whose production company agreed to all WGA demands, exulted in the return of his writing staff. NBC's Jay Leno, whose show is owned by his network, offered a semi-apology to the WGA to explain why his show must go on. A short time later, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, whose writers also are on strike, scolded both the writers and the Screen Actors Guild for illogical and ungracious behavior.

A bearded Letterman came on strong, starting with a taped announcement of his return by Sen. Hillary Clinton ("All good things must come to an end.") and cutting to chorus girls sporting top hats and WGA pickets. "The Late Show," declared Letterman, is "the only show on the air that has jokes written by union writers."

At times, the show looked more like it was aimed at the union writers, rather than a national audience. The Top Ten list, read by striking writers from other shows, listed the writers' demands, including that "producers must immediately remove their heads from their asses." Another segment, "Hal Gurnee's Network Time Killers," showed a painfully dull variety act that might have been used if the writers had not returned.

That notwithstanding, portions of the "Late Show" required little writer input. Letterman's monologue was short and largely anecdotal. His main guest, Robin Williams, once introduced, took control of the show for the duration of the segment. Another bit, "Know Your Staff," an interview with an associate producer, might have benefited from writer assistance.

Leno started his show with a joke about a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew who walked into a bar. "I have no idea what they said because there's a writer's strike," he said. As in the past, he wished the WGA well but said he had to return to the air. "We have essentially 19 people putting 160 people out of work."

Leno said he is allowed to write for himself, a point previously disputed by guild officials. In any event, his monologue was as strong as ever, for which he gave credit to his wife, Mavis, whom he said vetted the material. The next segment had Leno answering questions from the audience, hardly a risk considering his vast experience as a standup.

Where the strike took its biggest bite, for both Leno and Kimmel, was in booking guests. Leno's featured guest was Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, who took one softball question after another. Granted, this isn't "Meet the Press" but you'd think that, at some point, someone who seeks the highest office in the land might be asked to defend his stance against the theory of evolution.

Kimmel took a more cautious approach, refraining even from writing jokes for a monologue. ("I don't know what the rules are to be honest with you.") His main guest was longtime comedy pal Andy Dick, who would not normally have been first choice for a show coming back from a two-month hiatus.

Saying in advance that he was going to "depart from the party line," Kimmel chafed at writers who continued to picket Leno and, in New York, Conan O'Brian. "Jay Leno, he paid his staff while they were out of work. Conan did the same thing. I don't know. I just think at a certain point you back off a little bit."

Kimmel also chafed at SAG president Alan Rosenberg "telling actors not to do this show, not to do the 'Tonight' show." Kimmel said actors are continuing to work on films in production, and he ticked off several. "Those are OK but don't come on the talk show. That is the rule that makes a lot of sense here. I'm pissed off. I'll be very honest with you."