NEW YORK — Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart all plan returns to late-night television the next two weeks, but aside from their familiar faces, viewers may not recognize much.
After two months away because of the still-unresolved writers strike, NBC’s Leno and O’Brien, and ABC’s Kimmel, resume their programs next Tuesday, Jan. 2. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert come back to Comedy Central the following Monday, Jan. 7.
(MSNBC is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Barring a New Year’s miracle, none of their writers will be joining them.
David Letterman is also pushing to return Jan. 2, but his Worldwide Pants production company is still trying to reach its own deal to bring his show’s writers back onboard.
The hosts — with the exception of NBC’s Carson Daly — are also members of the striking Writer’s Guild of America, making them subject to union rules that would severely limit what they can do.
The union’s strike rules say members cannot write or perform any material that would normally be written for them. Under this interpretation, for example, Jay Leno couldn’t perform a monologue, because his staff of writers normally crafts his jokes.
The comic skits that are a part of several late-night shows would also be off-limits without writers.
“I think that people will see some interesting television,” said Chris Albers, former president of Writer’s Guild of America East and a comedy writer for O’Brien. “Obviously, these are some of the funniest people in the country so they’re probably going to do a very good job. It’s just a different animal than what they’re used to and what we’re used to.”
‘I don’t know what they’re going to do’
In a conference call with reporters last week, producers of NBC’s “Tonight” and “Late Night” said they were still trying to figure out what their shows would look like. They weren’t willing to talk further this week, a spokesman said.
Comic ad-libbing, musical performances and lengthier appearances by interview subjects willing to cross picket lines are the most likely recourse.
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“I don’t know what they’re going to do,” said Mike Sweeney, head writer for O’Brien’s NBC show. “My obvious speculation would be more guests, and maybe talk to them more slowly.”
Stewart and Stephen Colbert would appear to have the toughest time reconfiguring their programs, which have a large amount of scripted material. By a strict interpretation of the guild’s rules, a member would be prohibited from performing as a character if union writers normally write material for the character.
Colbert performs his entire show in the character of a blowhard political commentator.
“We don’t know how he’s going to do it,” said Sherry Goldman, spokeswoman for the Writers Guild of America East, “and I’m not so sure that he’s figured it out yet.”
Comedy Central would not let its executives talk about planning for the shows’ returns.
55 minutes of accordion
Only two late-night shows were affected when writers went on strike in 1988: Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show and Letterman’s program, both on NBC. Carson was not a writer’s guild member, so he wrote his monologue himself for the few weeks that he worked without writers.
His monologue, part of the fabric of American life, was welcomed back but Carson’s writer-less debut in May 1988 didn’t draw raves: “The whole show seemed lame,” wrote the Washington Post’s Tom Shales at the time, “unfunny comic Joe Piscopo, Ed McMahon showing photos of his little girl, a hackneyed arrangement of Irving Berlin tunes by the band and film of mating condors.”
Letterman’s “Late Night” substituted comedy with freewheeling filler. One gag had the show’s associate director playing “Lady of Spain” on the accordion, night after night.
“Fifty-five minutes, ladies and gentlemen, 55 minutes to go!” he said early in one show. “That’s all we’re really trying to accomplish, is to eat up valuable network time.”
Letterman weighed in frequently on the strike, calling network management “money-grubbing scum.”
While the strike raises the possibility of train-wreck television, some performers may thrive in without-a-net circumstances. A critic in The New York Times wrote that Letterman’s strike programs were often “downright exciting,” a throwback to the early years of late-night television when there was more improvisation.
It’s uncertain whether Letterman will get the chance to repeat the experience. His representatives were still talking with the union on Thursday. Donald Trump and Shooter Jennings are booked as a guest for Letterman’s Jan. 2 show — if there is one.
There’s a difference of opinion among union members about whether cutting a separate deal with Letterman is wise, Albers said. Some believe it would put pressure on NBC to settle the strike because Leno would be at a competitive disadvantage; others think it would be wrong to effectively reward CBS with a show using the services of writers, he said.
Sweeney has his own secret wish for O’Brien if he returns without writers.
“I hope he tries to hold a telethon to raise money for us,” he said.
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