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.
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."
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."
Leno took a more serious tone and seemed apologetic in his explanation of why he went back on the air without the blessing of the WGA, who said it is monitoring shows still affected by the strike and discouraging stars from appearing on them.
"The strike has cost this town $500 million," he said. "We had to come back because we had 19 people putting 160 people out of work."
Leno noted that while he has been crafting jokes before air, which may violate the rules of the WGA, he's been doing so in his bedroom, with his wife.
"I write jokes and I wake my wife up in the middle of the night," he explained. "So if this monologue doesn't work, it's my wife's fault."
After shifting from the strike to other news, Leno, like Letterman, killed time by fielding audience questions. The highlight of the show came later, when Huckabee picked up an electric guitar to jam with Kevin Eubanks and the "Tonight Show" band.
Guests: Andy Dick, Helio Castroneves, Kid Rock
Unlike the rest of the comics who voiced solid support for the writers strike, on Wednesday, Kimmel seemed to say that enough is enough.
Mentioning that he saw guild members picketing outside the studios for "The Tonight Show" despite the fact that Leno paid his out-of-work staffers out-of-pocket during the show's hiatus, Kimmel said, "I don't want to depart from the party line but I think it's ridiculous … I just think at a certain point, you back off a little bit."
He added, "I'm pissed off, I'll be honest with you."
But after blowing off steam, Kimmel departed for sunnier topics -- Jamie Lynn Spears' pregnancy; his holiday visit to the Playboy mansion. He filled monologue time by chatting with cast members Uncle Frank and Guillermo Díaz and re-running an old sketch from the show, which he said would help get his writers some much-needed residuals.
Guests: Bob Saget, Dwayne Perkins, Robert Gordon/Chris Spedding
Like Letterman, O'Brien jumped back on the air with a full beard, saying he "grew it out of solidarity for my writers and to prove that I have some testosterone," while seductively stroking his face for a close up.
The former "Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live" writer stopped laughing to hammer home his support for the WGA's cause, though his show of solidarity was preceded with, "With all the late night shows off the air, Americans have been forced to read books and occasionally even speak to one another, which has been horrifying."
O'Brien joked about not knowing how to fill his hour on air without his writers, but his physical and improv comedy -- shaking his tailfeather atop his desk, gleefully praising the taste of the NBC water and getting guest Bob Saget to play along with the bit -- helped his show run more smoothly than Kimmel or Leno's.
"Late Night" compensated for a shorter than usual monologue with a video of a bored and restless O'Brien meddling with his staff at the office during the strike, and a test to see how long he could spin his "$5" wedding ring on his desk (36 seconds).
With or without writers, as his show opened, Ferguson seemed overjoyed to be back on the air at all. Like Letterman and O'Brien, he also wore a beard, though it was a fake one he donned to play a Scottish shepherd.
But in his studio, Ferguson flaunted his with-writing-staff status as if it were a VIP ticket to a hot new club. "The writers are still on strike but we've got a special pass," he said about himself and Letterman. "It's the TV equivalent of diplomatic immunity. I'm like Switzerland."
Dismissing reports that he and Letterman will score a slew of A-list bookings because of their deal with the WGA, Ferguson assured his audience that his brand of 1:35 a.m. comedy won't change.
"I just want to send a message to the D-list celebrities of Hollywood -- you are still welcome here," he said. "Kathy Griffin will still be here, the guy who invented the electric cheese cutter will still be here, people who can fart musical notes, they'll be here … This show will be the same lame crap as always, we will not change a thing. It will be garbage."
True to form, Ferguson filled his show not with the usual slate of guests but with sub par skits, including a snarky thank-you letter to Letterman, a special appearance by "Saturday Night Live" alum Tim Meadows, and a phone call with a fake governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Talking about the length of the strike, Ferguson joked, "No one knows how long the strike is going to go on … The two sides aren't talking to each other. It's like being married. You have to go to bed at night without anything happening."
Well, now that late-night comedy's back, audiences can rest assured that there's something happening on their TV screens after hours. But as the hosts were the first to admit Wednesday, there's no guarantee it'll be good.