Late Night Strikes Back

The Writers' Strike of 2007 looks to be going into 2008 as well; but late-night programming won't be following it anymore.

NBC has announced that on January 2, both Jay Leno's The Tonight Show and Late Night with Conan O'Brien will return with new episodes. It's being reported that David Letterman's Late Show on CBS will soon announce its plans to do so as well.

Both The Tonight Show and Late Night will have been off-air for almost two months by early January, the same time-frame that Johnny Carson stayed off the air during the Writers' Strike of 1988. Then, like now, TV was suffering from nosedive ratings due to almost no new content for weeks, and networks felt they had to do something to retain viewer numbers while the strike continued. Of course, that was the summer of 1988, when viewers were used to having little to nothing new on TV. But the 2007 strike fell in the heart of the season, when audiences are home more, and expect more.

This move makes sense in that light, but also has to do with the retention of the non-writing production teams on these shows, which may have otherwise been lost due to a protracted strike. Leno, O'Brien (and assumedly Letterman and Kimmel, soon) have said as much. "[I am faced with the decision to] either go back to work and keep my staff employed or stay dark and allow 80 people, many of whom have worked for me for fourteen years, to lose their jobs," O'Brien said in an NBC press release. "If my show were entirely scripted I would have no choice. But the truth is that shows like mine are hybrids, with both written and non-written content. An unwritten version of Late Night, though not desirable, is possible - and no one has to be fired."

And just so no one will harbor any false expectations in regards to program quality, O'Brien added, "Of course, my show will not be as good. In fact, in moments it may very well be terrible." And he's not kidding. Letterman proved this in the 1988 strike, when he too went back to air after a short time off. His opening monologue lasted literally a couple of jokes. Sometimes he read the newspaper. The comedy segment after the first break was replaced by "Hal Gurkner's Time Wasters"—still funny (at times), but obviously poking fun more at the fact that the show had no writers than actually making a joke unto itself.

So what can viewers expect when Late Night programming returns in the New Year? A few things. All four major hosts on the three networks have a comedy background, so they can still entertain off-the-cuff. Some better than others—Leno will probably have the worst of it here, since his onstage comedy was always more scripted than others. O'Brien and Letterman already thrive on the absurd, so look for that to increase, along with their own extemporaneous comedic commentaries. Kimmel may be the wild card here, and his envelope-pushing brand of humor might challenge the censors more than it already has.

We can also look for the guest spots (which were always more or less unscripted) to start earlier in the show, and be more spontaneous, too. The Tonight Show started as a chat-show more than a comedy show, though Carson always had his bits—but we'll see a reverting to that original format now, on all the late night programs. This will be an interesting experiment in understanding who the better interviewers are, without the usual writer-prep. Letterman's been doing it the longest, Leno's the most ingratiating, O'Brien's the most clever, and Kimmel—well, Jimmy might be in trouble, on this one.

And in the end, expect viewers to breathe a small sigh of relief that they have something fresh to watch on TV again. Just keep an open mind in terms of what we may see—writers are more involved with the production of late night programming than most people understand, and that's going to be all too apparent as these shows return. So ready yourself for anything, because anything is exactly what these shows will be trying. My advice: embrace the absurd. -- Teague Bohlen

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