Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, both of whom returned to television Monday without their writing staffs, largely devoted their first shows of 2008 to discussions of the Writers Guild of America strike, which began two months ago.
They also unveiled new titles for their Comedy Central programs.
For Stewart, his show has become “A Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Colbert’s program is now “The Colbert Report,” with an uncharacteristic emphasis on the “bert” part of the host’s last name (normally his surname is pronounced Col-bear).
“`The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’ is a show that we do with our very creative team of field producers and correspondents and studio people and video people and of course our writers,” Stewart said. “...From now on until the end of the strike, we will be doing `A Daily Show with Jon Stewart’ but not `The Daily Show.’”
Stewart in particular seemed vexed by the topic of the strike and repeatedly emphasized the fact that his show was returning under “uncomfortable circumstances.”
After filling the first half of his show with improvised material, some of which referred to the political developments of the last few weeks, Stewart talked about the strike with his guest for the evening, Ron Seeber, a professor of labor relations at Cornell University.
In his interview with Seeber, Stewart alluded to the fact that the WGA recently reached a deal with David Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants. That development led to the return of Letterman’s CBS late-night show with a full complement of writers.
Shouldn’t the WGA reach that deal with other shows, including, for example, “The Daily Show”? “Let’s say you’re on basic cable but you’ll (sign the same deal Letterman’s company got) and you’ve gotten your company to say OK, even though they clearly think you’re insane,” Stewart said.
“Are they being arbitrary?” Stewart said in reference to the WGA. “Would you consider (the lack of a deal for `The Daily Show’) anti-Semitism? ...The whole reason I got into this business is because I thought we controlled it,” joked Stewart, who is Jewish.
He made a few jokes at the WGA’s expense (in a mock serious tone, he noted, “Oh my God, you got Sean Penn to advocate your cause!”). But most of his shots were aimed at the producers’ side of the dispute.
If the Internet is really not a profit center, then why did Viacom, which owns Comedy Central and “The Daily Show,” sue YouTube, he asked. “Well, they sued (YouTube) for a billion dollars… If there were real money in the Internet, don’t you think they would have gone with a believable figure?”
Seeber had no answer to Stewart’s questions about when or how the strike would end, or to this query: “Do most negotiations end with a hug?”
For Colbert, who’s apparently calling himself Col-BERT for the duration of the strike, the labor action played right into the hands of his TV persona, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.
“Why am I doing this show tonight?” he said, after shedding his long (and fake) strike beard, “... I have always been anti-labor, always been anti-union. This is completely politically consistent.”
After interviewing political commentator Andrew Sullivan about the rise of Barack Obama, Colbert talked to another labor expert, Harvard’s Richard Freeman.
Colbert made a chicken-and-egg analogy about the strike: “The capitalists are the chickens and workers are the eggs that we have the right to scramble.”
By the way, it looks as though “The Daily Show” will not be visited by actors or celebrities this week (most actors are not crossing picket lines to appear on late-night shows). The show, which often features Stewart interviewing authors and political commentators, booked Republican writer David Frum for Tuesday and CNN’s Lou Dobbs for Thursday.