LATE-NIGHT FOLLIES: The majority of the late-night talk show hosts returned to work Wednesday night, and if nothing else, they proved conclusively that, if they don’t have to, half of the men you know will stop shaving. David Letterman and Conan O’Brien both returned sporting full beards, which was a good thing, because writers or no writers, it gave them something to talk about that wasn’t the writers’ strike.
A beardless Jimmy Kimmel, the low man on the late-night totem pole, delivered his monologue — pointedly, perhaps — from behind his desk and made an observation that none of the other four hosts bothered with: “Here in L.A., the writers’ strike is all anyone talk about, all the time, 24 hours a day, but perhaps in other places no one cares about the writers’ strike.” All of the hosts based most of their shows around strike gags and material, even in interviews with guests.
I started feeling guilty — but not that guilty, obviously — about writing constantly on the strike here weeks ago, but then this is a column about television, and I’ve got the word “idiot” up there by my photo as well, as a bit of extra insurance, so it’s all good, if you know what I mean. But Leno, Letterman and their cohorts are supposed to be able to connect with an audience who might never have eaten catered meals on a set, called their lawyer over credit placement on a poster, shopped for a new tuxedo every awards season or peed in a honey wagon, so one hopes that, writers or no writers, they’ll come up with some new material fast.
Letterman looked absolutely professorial in his grizzled beard, and reinforced the impression when he referred to the picket-carrying chorus line that kicked off his show as the Eugene V. Debs. (Google it.) His show got a lead-in from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, which got a much bigger laugh than it deserved. Leno made a pointed joke about the WGA deal that allowed Letterman to go back with writers, and his awkward insistence that he wrote all the material himself led to speculation yesterday that he was trying to cover up for breaking some guild rule.
Craig Ferguson made jokes about being the home of D-list stars, then did a whole show without a single guest, and Conan, well, Conan made jokes about his beard. Kimmel was the only one who showed any unease with the brewing ugliness to come, talking about how the Screen Actors Guild had recommended a boycott of writerless shows like his. He also admitted to being upset by the picket lines outside the studios where Leno and Conan were taping — “Jay Leno paid his staff while they were out of work,” he told the audience. “Conan did the same thing and um, I don’t know. I just think at a certain point you back off a little bit.”
There will, alas, be little backing off if the strike grinds through winter and into spring, but one has to hope that, despite the dominant tone on their first night back, the late-night shows won’t degenerate into a telethon benefit for the WGA.