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Writers strike keeps late-night comedy hosts in a bind

Rick Kushman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The mess from the writers strike just keeps growing, and one place where that's most evident is, ironically, late night TV, which gets back to the strike version of full strength tonight when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert return.

But both of Comedy Central's fake newsy shows have some battles ahead. "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" are normally highly scripted, and they're back without their writers. That will probably mean some riffing from two talented guys, and a heavy load of interviews.

However, like most of the other late night shows, guests will have to cross picket lines, and already, according to news reports, Colbert has been getting turned down by some people, including authors, who would usually kill for the exposure.

Meanwhile, NBC's "Tonight Show" is taking heat from the Writers Guild of America because host Jay Leno, a guild member, appears to be breaking WGA rules by writing for himself. When there's a strike, there's no TV or movie writing allowed, period.

There's even a mess on the aesthetic front. Both David Letterman and Conan O'Brien came back with beards, apparently as solidarity-with-the-writers gestures. Letterman, who also grew a beard during the 1988 writers strike, more or less promised on his "Late Show" Friday that he plans to shave the thing off on the air tonight.

There's messiness, too, beyond late night. The WGA continues to reject pleas for a strike waiver for the Golden Globes, which are - at least for now - still scheduled for broadcast on NBC on Sunday.

The writers plan to picket, and with a bunch of big name stars from Denzel Washington to Sarah Jessica Parker on the record saying they don't want to cross picket lines, the Screen Actors Guild issued a statement Friday saying "there appears to be unanimous agreement" that actors will honor the strike.

Even the after-parties may go starless, though NBC is still promising a show of some sort. But since the Globes (handed out by the barely reputable Hollywood Foreign Press Association) are considered a semi-charade of an award packaged with great parties, it's hard to imagine any Globes show worth watching without those parties.

All of this would seem great fodder for the late night crowd, particularly Stewart, who must be aching to get back on. He's already missed two months of the puffed-up national primary season, and now, much of the building chaos around the strike.

For what it's worth, watching the late night shows that have returned so far has been an odd experience.

The late, late guys - O'Brien on NBC, Jimmy Kimmel on ABC, and Craig Ferguson on CBS - have been better than Letterman and Leno, but they all feel a little off-rhythm, like, say, a football team missing a bunch of starters. They're hustling, but they don't expect to win.

The reverse is true for Letterman - he needs to win, and may be pressing. For an explanation, this needs a quick detour.

Letterman owns his show and "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson." His production company, Worldwide Pants, and the WGA settled, so both shows have all their writers and, just as importantly, no picket lines keeping guests away. That's why Letterman could get stars like Robin Williams and "Juno's" Ellen Page last week.

But Letterman, whose comedy gifts include a talent for big, insane gags, seems to be missing on those gags more than he's hitting. He's been good at doing his usual irreverent, slightly wacky interviews, but there's still something off target, though it may just be Letterman and company need to get back into the flow.

Oddly enough, his Top 10 lists - which were so tired and stale in the past couple of years - have been sterling. Maybe his writers needed a break. The best was Thursday's "Top 10 Things To Ask Yourself Before Having Sex With a Robot" (No. 7: Am I AC or DC?).

Leno, on the other hand, is doing his standard comedy-lite - he telegrahs a joke and the band gives a rim shot. It would be such a better show without that lame, lame rim shot.

It seems that it might be a better show if Leno had no written material, not even his own. Leno is one of the nice guys in TV, and almost everything he's done seems aimed at pleasing his network bosses, maybe including writing monologues for the strike shows.

But he's a sharp, funny guy who's dumbed himself down for NBC and the "Tonight Show" gig. In the strike shows, however, he's had to wing it more and shown increasing flashes of his underlying quick, satirical wit. One possible bizarre twist to the whole strike story might end up being that Leno gets better as the strike wears on.

The late, late hosts have been solid. Ferguson is a terrific stand-up, and has a perpetual twinkle in his eye. Kimmel is an everyman who's good company, smooth and droll. And O'Brien has been doing what he does best, which includes dancing on furniture and climbing ladders to catwalks and generally acting borderline nuts.

But the guest segments are just so-so, and you can sense the hosts almost playing for time until the strike settles. Unfortunately for them, and for viewers, the growing bitterness around the labor dispute likely means the late night guys are going to have to vamp for a long time.

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