Kamis, 03 Januari 2008

Filler evident in late-night TV's return (AP)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Late-night TV hosts returned to the air Wednesday after a two-month hiatus, displaying support for striking writers, plenty of creative stretch marks -- and at least two scruffy beards.

David Letterman walked onstage amid dancing girls holding picket signs. His writers are back on the job, but NBC's Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel returned without theirs.

Leno, however, offered a monologue that included jokes he said he had crafted beforehand. Whether that violated rules of the striking Writers Guild of America -- to which Leno belongs -- was not immediately clear.

"We are not using outside guys," Leno said in the monologue, according to a transcript provided by NBC. "We are following the guild thing ... we can write for ourselves."

The union said Wednesday it was withholding comment until it spoke to Leno about his show, which, like the other returning programs, was laden with references to the strike.

The walkout, Leno joked, "has already cost the town over half a billion dollars. Five hundred million dollars! Or as Paul McCartney calls that, `A divorce.'"

Guests on the shows included two presidential candidates -- with the Democrat, Hillary Clinton, making a camero appearance on Letterman's union-sanctioned "Late Show" while Republican Mike Huckabee ventured across picket lines to play bass guitar and trade jokes with Leno on "Tonight."

The biggest celebrity guest, Robin Williams, appeared with Letterman, while Leno welcomed chef Emeril Lagasse and rapper Chingy.

Filler was immediately evident on the shows without writers. O'Brien, sporting facial growth to match his red hair, showed off Christmas cards, danced on his table as his band played the Clash's "The Magnificent Seven" and tried to see how long he could spin his wedding ring on his desk. Leno took questions from his audience.

There was also plenty of free on-air promotion for the guild's cause.

"The writers are correct, by the way. I'm a writer ... I'm on the side of the writers," Leno said.

"I want to make this clear. I support their cause," O'Brien said. "These are very talented, very creative people who work extremely hard. I believe what they're asking for is fair."

Letterman, who had grown a gray beard, brought writers on to recite a top 10 list of their strike demands. They included "complimentary tote bag with next insulting contract offer" and "Hazard pay for breaking up fights on `The View.'"

"You're watching the only show on the air that has jokes written by union writers," Letterman said. "I hear you at home thinking to yourself, `This crap is written?'"

Williams teased Letterman unmercifully about his beard, alternately comparing him to Gen. Robert E. Lee, a rabbi and an Iraqi mullah.

A clean-shaven Craig Ferguson opened his "The Late Late Show" on CBS with a sketch showing him spending time during the strike tending sheep in Scotland -- complete with a long, fake beard.

Not all the hosts supported the writers. During his opening, Kimmel criticized WGA members picketing Leno and O'Brien: "I don't want to depart too much from the party line, but I think it's ridiculous. Jay Leno, he paid his staff while they were out. Conan did the same thing. I don't know. I just think at a certain point you back off a little bit."

On the eve of the Iowa caucus, presidential politics intruded: Huckabee appeared on Leno despite his apparent confusion about the strike and a bid by picketers to keep him away, and Clinton taped a cameo introducing Letterman.

"Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers strike," she said. "Tonight, he's back. Oh, well, all good things come to an end."

Huckabee said he supports the writers and did not think he would be crossing a picket line, because he believed the writers had made an agreement to allow late-night shows on the air. But that's not the case with Leno; "Huckabee is a scab," read one picket sign outside Leno's Burbank, Calif., studio.

The writers guild urged Huckabee not to cross their picket line after he flew out to California. But Huckabee appeared on Leno, even showing off his electric guitar playing with the band.

"Huckabee claims he didn't know," chief union negotiator John Bowman said. "I don't know what that means in terms of trusting him as a future president."

For fans of the late-night hosts, the controversy was secondary to seeing their favorites again. Chuck Gunther of Grand Junction, Colo., stood on a sidewalk outside of Letterman's New York studio on a frigid night hoping to get into the audience.

"When Dave is live, it's fresh and new every night -- instead of watching reruns of `Seinfeld,'" he said.

Letterman had writers because his production company, Worldwide Pants, struck a separate deal with the guild. The deal also allowed writers to return to Ferguson's "Late Late Show."

Leno's staff writers, who regularly picket at one of the gates to NBC studios, did not show up on Wednesday, instead walking the line at NBC Universal, the guild said. Writers insist they're demonstrating against NBC, not Leno, who was supportive of his writers in the strike's early days.

"It must be difficult for them to picket their own boss," said Allan Katz, a veteran sitcom writer. "Probably Jay Leno understands."

Comedy Central's topical nightly comedies, "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," will return Monday without striking writers.


Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela, Libby Quaid, Jake Coyle and Lynn Elber, and Raquel Maria Dillon, contributed to this report.


ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co. CBS is a division of CBS Corp. NBC is owned by General Electric Co.

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