It was probably inevitable, but late-night talk show hosts will be returning to the airwaves starting Wednesday, Jan. 2. Dismissing the Writers Guild of America strike, Jay, Dave and the rest of the lot will be back behind their respective desks starting this week. Actually, “Last Call with Carson Daly” was the first show to openly defy the strike, returning to ABC in early December. Not that anyone noticed.
The return of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “Late Show with David Letterman,” on the other hand, marks a major turning point for today’s blighted TV landscape. Letterman was the first to hint at a comeback. His show is not actually produced by his network conglomerate CBS but is an independent production of Letterman’s own Worldwide Pants company. That means the striking Writers Guild can negotiate an independent agreement on the show. Although CBS and its parent corp. Viacom have dug in their heels, refusing to bow to Guild pressure, Letterman’s company has reportedly agreed to all the Guild’s demands regarding alternate distribution (DVDs, streaming video, etc.). The agreement includes Craig Ferguson’s late-night show, which is also produced by Worldwide Pants.
Believing there’s strength in numbers, NBC quickly announced Leno and O’Brien would be coming back on the same night as Letterman. Unlike Letterman, NBC’s stars are technically strikebreakers and will have to operate without their writers--all of whom are currently walking the picket lines. Leno and O’Brien--both members of the WGA--say they continue to support the strike but cannot allow their 200 or so non-writing staff members to be laid off. Up until now, both stars have been generously paying the salaries of their unemployed coworkers. The move is not without precedent. After two months of forced vacation, Johnny Carson returned to “The Tonight Show” during the 1988 writers strike.
What these shows will look like remains a mystery, though. A strike does not prevent talk show hosts from using old jokes or ad libbing with guests, but scripted sketches and lengthy monologues will almost certainly be absent. Also, there is the nagging question of what stars will be willing to cross picket lines to appear on these shows. Studios are desperate to promote their major holiday movies, but bookers for the talk shows have allegedly been struggling to find A-list guests. Donald Trump will be happily plugging “Celebrity Apprentice” on Wednesday’s “Late Show with David Letterman,” but most Hollywood publicists seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude about rushing clients back onto the talk show circuit.
So where does that leave the next tier of talk shows, Comedy Central’s much-missed “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report”? They’re supposedly returning on Jan. 7. Although those shows rely far more on political and literary guests than movie stars, both are heavily scripted and it remains to be seen how far Stewart and Colbert will get by simply winging it, sans-script. Oh well. At the end of the day, some talk is better than none.