Leno vs. Letterman: The Writers Win

Under any other circumstances a two-month holiday would be a luxury. But not for the stars of late-night talk: Leno, Letterman, O'Brien and the lot, who had to halt production of their shows after losing their writers to a stubborn Writers' Guild strike. The bulk of their material comes from whatever their teams of quippy Ivy League grads write about the news of the day, so the idea of mounting a show without them was hard to imagine. But since the writers appear to be hunkering down for a long battle, the late-night hosts returned last night, in part because their crew members were also out of work through no fault of their own, in some cases having their salaries paid out of the host's own pocket. So how did they fare? Here's an analysis of the three major shows and how each host did in his first performance since the strike began.

David Letterman
Some guys have all the luck. Worldwide Pants, the production company responsible for "The Late Show With David Letterman" (and its chaser, "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson") was able to strike a Guild-approved deal directly with its writers, which allowed the staffs of both shows to return. So it really was business as usual for Letterman, with the exception of a thick white beard, grown as a show of solidarity with the writers. Naturally, most of Letterman's zingers were strike-related, a trend that will hopefully end quickly. (If you're fortunate enough to have your writers back, why not let them do their jobs?) That said, the strike did yield some pretty funny material, including Dave's Top Ten Demands of the Striking Writers. My personal fave was number 4: "Hazard pay for breaking up fights on 'The View'." In a taped intro, Hillary Clinton said, "Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers' strike. Tonight he's back. Oh, well. All good things come to an end." Leave it to the guy with writers to poke fun at the situation.
Prestrike quality (out of 10): 8
Post-strike quality: 8

Jay Leno
I know Jay Leno is beloved by millions, but, honestly, there have been famines funnier than the average Leno monologue. So my expectations for Leno's show weren't high. But he did as well as could be expected, considering the circumstances. The clean-shaven Leno opened with a joke about his dearth of material: "A Christian, a Jew and a Muslim walk into a bar. The Jew says to the Muslim … See, I have no idea what they say, because there's a writer's strike!" It's almost as if he thinks the rim shot is the punch line. The remaining jokes were equally tepid in a monologue he said he wrote himself and bounced off his wife. He explained that it's kosher for him to write his own material, though in truth the WGA hasn't stated its position on it. The monologue wasn't great, but was it so much worse than any other Leno monologue? Not really. He added some interminable filler, like a Q&A with the audience (sample question: "Mr. Leno, would you ever consider doing your great show from Branson, Missouri?"). Things got much better when the effortlessly-funny-but-mostly-not-on-purpose presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee joined the show, courting the ire of the striking writers in the process. Huckabee said he had written a joke attacking Mitt Romney but decided in the green room not to tell it. Then he held it up on a cue card. (I'm kidding! Hey-o!) Whatever, I'm funnier than Leno.
Prestrike quality: 5
Post-strike quality: 3

Conan O'Brien
Considering that Leno and O'Brien were in exactly the same position, it was remarkable how much funnier Conan's show was. I suppose it shouldn't have been that unexpected. He started out as a writer, including stints with "The Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live" back when it was still funny. He's also great at improvising material, which helps when you're struggling to fill an hour of television. He was the same hilarious, self-deprecating O'Brien fans have come to love, except, like Letterman, with a beard, one that actually suits him quite well. He had his share of filler, like Leno, but the difference is that much of O'Brien's written sketches—Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the "Walker, Texas Ranger" lever, the Masturbating Bear—all have a certain off-the-cuff feel that makes them not seem "writerly." So when he filled the time with nonsense, like dancing atop his desk or seeing how long he could spin his wedding ring, he didn't seem nearly as desperate. Where O'Brien is going to find difficulty is in booking. It's hard enough for a late, late show to book interesting guests. There's less exposure for a celebrity in appearing on a show that airs past so many people's bedtimes. Add the stigma of crossing a picket line, and you end up with … Bob Saget, who was O'Brien's headlining guest last night. There were also some random comic and musical guests, neither of whose names rang a bell. Prepare to ad-lib your little heart out, Conan.
Prestrike quality: 9
Post-strike quality: 7