Late Night Returns, But Laughs Lag

Bounding back with beards, self-deprecating jokes and segments as stale as Christmas fruitcake, the late-night comics returned to network TV Wednesday after a two month hiatus caused by the Hollywood writers strike.

As expected, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, the two CBS hosts who struck a side deal with the Writers Guild of America to get their writers back despite the ongoing strike, fared better than their competitors.

With a full monologue and a "Top 10" list recited by striking writers from rival shows, "The Late Show" virtually taunted Jay Leno, who Letterman has trailed behind in ratings since 1995, and Jimmy Kimmel. The funnier-than-thou tone was echoed in Ferguson's "Late Late Show" at 12:35 a.m., which went up against Conan O'Brien's "Late Night."

But whether they had WGA members scripting their lines or not, all the comics made sure to voice their opinion about the strike, and why union writers are as essential to their shows as navy blue suits and mugs of unidentifiable drinks.

'The Late Show With David Letterman'

Guests: Robin Williams, Lupe Fiasco

To reintroduce New York's reigning funnyman, one of the state's most buzzed-about personalities made a special appearance from the heartland:

"Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers' strike," began Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton, via satellite from Iowa. "Tonight, he's back. Oh well, all good things come to an end."

With that, Letterman strutted back on stage as rows of dancers holding WGA picket signs kicked up their legs. Looking a bit like Tom Hanks in "Castaway" after a few weeks on the island with the volleyball, he joked, "I know what you're thinking, you're thinking, 'Gee, Dave looks like a cattle drive cook … Dave looks like a missing hiker.'"

Letterman spent most of his monologue on the strike, taking a crack at the competition ("Earlier today over at ABC, the writers tipped over Regis"), acknowledging his debt to the writers ("Without the writers and without caffeine, I would have virtually no personality whatsoever") and fielding set-up questions from the audience about the strike.

In a guest appearance, the captain of "The Late Show's" strike team took a swing at the producers and studios battling with the WGA over residuals, telling them to "stop spending all your money on cocktails, cufflinks and whores."

Presenting No. 2 on the "Top 10" list of the striking writers' demands, a "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" writer dealt another blow, saying "I don't have a joke -- I just want to remind everyone we're on strike, so none of us are responsible for this lame list."

'The Tonight Show With Jay Leno'

Guests: Mike Huckabee, Emeril Lagasse, Chingy

While Letterman had the writers, Leno had the most anticipated guest of the evening, the day before the Iowa caucuses -- Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee, who prior to taping Leno's show, revealed on his campaign bus that he didn't know he'd be crossing picket lines to appear on it.

Riding on the Huckabee buzz, Leno sped through his monologue, referencing the writers strike but not dwelling on it.

"A Jew, a Christian and Muslim walk into a bar," he said after taking the stage. "The Jew says to the Muslim … See, I have no idea what they say because there's a writers strike."

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