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The late night shows: first night back

by Bob Sassone, posted Jan 3rd 2008 7:32AM

LettermanIf there's one thing that the return of the late night shows taught us it was this: late night hosts shouldn't grow beards.

Seriously, they just don't look good with hair on their faces. David Letterman looks like an old professor and Conan O'Brien looks like Gay Wolverine. I have a feeling that they'll both shed their beards by the end of the week (Letterman even hinted he might do it on the air). Let's hope so. As for the shows themselves, it was a mixed bag to say the least.

The Late Show with David Letterman: Did anyone else think that Letterman seemed ... drunk? Of course he wasn't. Maybe the beard just makes him seem old and tired. The show opened with dancers holding WGA strike signs and Letterman doing his monologue. Thankfully Robin Williams didn't open the show as was first reported (that duty went to Hillary Clinton, who blew her joke). Williams was the guest, and he was typical Williams. He couldn't just tell a story, he had to over-tell it, but he wasn't as bad as I've seen him in the past. The Top 10 List was a nice touch. They got writers from other shows (including The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien) to give a list of their strike demands. The worst part of the show was the "Know Your Staff" segment, which had a staff member of the show sit in the chair and get interviewed by Dave. The whole segment had the whiff of filler, even though Letterman's show is one of only two shows that came back with writers, so I'm not sure what this whole segment was about.

Jay Leno: Leno did a full monologue that he said he wrote with his wife Mavis. I'm still not sure how he can (or would want to) do this, since he's a WGA member and you'd think he wouldn't want to do an entire monologue of his own material. His attitude about the strike was odd, seemingly centered on himself, and too smirky, but it was rather funny and he got in a dig at Jeff Zucker. He actually mentioned Letterman and how he gets to come back with writers, but The Tonight Show is stuck as the underdog. They had filler too: a segment where he let audience members ask him anything. They also premiered the new Jib Jab video, which was a pretty clever look back at 2007 (though oddly didn't mention the strike). After that, it was back to business as usual, with an interview with Governor Mike Huckabee and other guests. The most annoying part of the show was the bug in the corner for the premiere of American Gladiators. Yeah NBC, we get it, it's coming back.

Update: I'm not the only one wondering how Leno can write his own monologue.

Jimmy Kimmel Live: Kimmel started the show from his desk with stories about his private life and what he did over the holidays. Out of all the late night hosts tonight, he was the most forceful in his support for the writers and his disagreement with the Screen Actor's Guild head, who recently said that stars shouldn't go on talk shows during the strike. He also spoke out against the writers at one point, saying they shouldn't be picketing people like Leno and O'Brien who paid their staffs during the strike and are caught in an odd position. He also said the studio wasn't as fun without the writers there, though it does smell better. After repeating a clip of Kermit The Frog talking with Uncle Frank (a segment run so writers can get residuals), the show settled back into the usual interviews, with guests Andy Dick, Helio Castroneves, and Kid Rock.

Late Night with Conan O'Brien: O'Brien is good at ad libbing, yet his opening was so-so at best, and he had the most nervous, most lame explanation of the writers strike. One of O'Brien's guests was standup comic Dwayne Perkins, and that got me thinking: the late night shows, the ones without writers anyway, would be smart to book some standups. They can bring their own material to the show and can act as a kind of substitute for the writing that would ordinarily be on the shows.

The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson: Ferguson took the most daring route of the night, deciding to go with zero guests and just do go it alone. The whole show was sort of like his monologue, only four times as long. He told stories about his past, talked about the strike a bit, read letters from viewers, had some quick visual gags as other characters, that sort of thing. I think that tomorrow he'll be back to the usual show (he has guests tomorrow night), and this was an interesting choice for the first night. Though I think you really have to like Ferguson and be a hardcore fan of the show to have appreciated it.

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I didn't catch any of the late night shows, but I might try to tune in tonight. Though I can kind of see why Letterman would try to make his show not quite as funny as normal (since only his writers, not the others, are back working) - I think the logic is flawed. If the average viewer is flipping back and forth between Leno and Letterman, and sees that the more interesting show is the one WITHOUT writers... well, wouldn't that influence your opinion about the strike? What's the point in having writers if your show isn't funny with them anyway?

Though I think people generally will stick with the side they're siding with, but the logic behind it is just flawed.

I always thought "scabs" were people who were hired to replace (temporarily) the strikers... or employees who worked anyway despite the strike. So in this strike - I would interpret it as meaning a writer writing material or something along those lines. Obviously, since I'm not in a union, my definition is probably different, but I wouldn't consider Mike Huckabee a scab. He's not a writer, he's not writing material. Though he is "performing", so to speak, on the show - he's not part of the union (nor part of the sister union, SAG) so why is he a scab?

Now, Jay Leno, on the other hand, is a member of the WGA, so I could understand why they would be upset that he wrote material for his monologue. I guess it would have been okay if he just stood there and made comments/observations off the top of his head, rather than having prepared it ahead of time? Honestly, what did they think was going to happen?

January 04 2008 at 10:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
wcoghill

I am mostly a Letterman fan and was highly anticipating his return, but I thought he was definately off his game. He wasn't all that funny, the "Know you Staff" thing was beyond lame, and the beard look ridiculous. Even Paul and the Band were off, once he continued playing as Dave started to talk, and it was obvious Paul was confused. I was suprised that Dave seemed so lost. Hopefully he will improve in the coming days.

I was pleasantly suprised at Ferguson. I think he is best when doing skits- I love when he does the Prince Charles "Rather Late Program". If he wouldn't relye so much on the cheesy sould effects machine, he would be the best in late night.

I haven't liked Leno for years, so I can't comment on his return.

January 03 2008 at 6:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ac

Leno was funnier than he has been in a while.

Letterman (tuned in after Leno went to break) was the same as usual only with a beard.

I watched a 7 minute clip of Conan on youtube of what he's been doing for 2 months. Him singing like Edith Bunker for the Rockband game made me laugh more than anything the two Ls did.

I've never watched Furguson.

January 03 2008 at 2:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nancy

Kimmel has never been funny anyway, so that part is irrelevant. I liked Letterman and O'Brien letting their hair down (no pun intended) and having a more personal show. I think it worked well.

Lenos writers are really lame for the regular question and answer segments (or Leno can't pull it off), so asking real questions is refreshing.

January 03 2008 at 1:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ChristopherP

wow. I though Letterman and Conan were terrific. Especially in Conan's case, I think you got to see more of a personal side. Especially in the segment where it showed him in the NBC offices showing "what he did during the last 2 months." To me it played as if that's what Conan would be like if one was lucky enough to just hang out with him, and I actually thought the beard help convey that as well. I turned off after the Bob Saget interiew but there, again, it was a more natural feel for me, almost as if the two were just hanging out. I love Conan but feel as if his interviews seem too forced most of the time. I actually think the 3 late night hosts that are actually naturally funny anyway (Letterman, Conan and Kimmel--still unsure about how Stewart and Colbert will fare) will be just fine until the writers are able to strike a deal.

January 03 2008 at 1:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ChrisM70

I think the point here with the beards and the bad jokes is that these hosts don't want to be on tv without the writers, so they are trying to make the show hard to watch.
First step: Grow and unattractive and distracting beard.
Second: do skits that are absolutely pointless (spinning a ring?)
Third: Don't say anything that's really that funny.
Letterman has his writers, but I think he is trying to support all the OTHER writers by making his show terrible and boring (interviewing staff? Hal Gurney time wasters?)

These guys are purposely sabotaging their own shows, because they need the writers, but they don't want anyone else to lose their jobs. So, they go on, but they do their jobs POORLY hoping that no one will watch, and the writers will win the strike.

January 03 2008 at 1:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ChrisM70's comment
Scott

That element of SABOTAGING THEIR OWN SHOWS is what worries me most about Stewart & Colbert's returns next week (since they're the only two I watch regularly). It's an impossible situation. If they're funny, then who needs writers? If they're not, then they make lousy shows, and potentially turn people off. I'm thrilled that they're both coming back, but I have a feeling I'm not going to like their returns very much (especially since Stewart is either electric in his interviews, or a kiss-up bore, usually the latter).

January 03 2008 at 1:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
SeanTubbs

The Network Time Killers is a throwback to the last time in 1988 there was a writer's strike, and Letterman had to kill time. I don't think it will be on again, but it was a nice throwback to those of us who were watching then.

January 03 2008 at 5:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dave

I watched both Leno and Letterman and ended up turning Letterman off. If his show is just going to degenerate into the writers taking jabs at the studios for an hour I'll not tune back in.

Leno was actually funny. If the WGA gives him any flack for writing his jokes then I think he should tell them to piss off and not come back. I haven't enjoyed the tonight show in years and it was funny and original last night.

January 03 2008 at 12:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
SeanTubbs

Letterman and Conan looked great with beards. Then again, I'm bearded.

Letterman phoned it in, and it's sad for me to see him just going through the motions. I gave up and switched to Leno, who was much more interesting without wires. The questions from the audience seemed planted, and I wonder how they can do that without writers.

But, Conan, Conan was awesome. I'm paying the price today for staying up so late to watch, but he was funny as he flailed. He looked kind of uncomfortable, which is an interesting thing. His ad-libs were sharp, the bit with Guitar Hero was funny, and was he serious about the thing with his wife?

With all of it, though, how are they getting cues to the control room and so on? Don't there have to be scripts for that kind of thing so everyone is on the same page?

January 03 2008 at 12:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Oreo

Hillary Clinton blowing a joke?!?! No way!

Jay Leno acting like a self-centered jackass?!?! No way!

And I love Ferguson, but I missed his show.

January 03 2008 at 12:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ryan

I thought Leno and Conan did a good job with the former doing a better job than he usually does (overcompensating maybe?).

I tuned into Letterman, but he did seem holier than thou and I was turned off by it.

January 03 2008 at 12:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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