Tuned In

Better Late Night Than Never: How They Did

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craig_bono.jpgFrancis Specker/CBS

Through the magic of TiVo, I’ve just powered through the rest of last night’s first strike-era late-night (or, in my case, early-to-mid-morning) talk shows. My impressions:

Jay Leno: If the return was largely an expectations game, then Jay, working without writers, beat it last night. Did his show make me laugh a lot? No. Did it make me laugh much less than usual? No. Jay’s monologue, for better or worse, was polished and typically Jay, from the Britney Spears and New Jersey jokes to the line that the writer’s strike cost L.A. $500 million, or, as Paul McCartney would call it, “a divorce.” Penning his remarks himself, Jay sounded like himself–comfortable, supportive of the writers, amiably taking questions from the audience. His interview with Mike Huckabee was predictably toothless, but again, no more so than I would have expected pre-strike. Given his handicaps–(1) he had no writers and (2) he is Jay Leno–Jay had an impressive first night out.

David Letterman: Dave’s very funny opening monologue showed that his writers were back in form. (On what he learned about himself over the strike: “Show or no show, I really enjoy drinking in the morning.”) Dave himself, though–not so much. The host, sporting a beard that made him resemble the Grand Wizer from Alley Oop, seemed a little rusty, stumbling through an audience Q&A segment. Dave supported his writers with a number of strike jokes, but most weren’t that funny, and they never really got across the reasons why the writers were on strike. Granted, the bar was much higher for Dave, as he was working with writers, but given that he and they were carrying the banner for All That Is Good and Union-Writer-Generated, I would have expected them to really bring it their first night out. Oh, one more thing: it’s great that you have the juice to book Robin Williams on your show. Now turn him off.

Conan O’Brien: Conan is the most extemporaneously, off-the-cuff funny of the late-night hosts, so I’d expect him to do fairly well winging it, and last night he did fairly well. His performance was not as polished as Leno’s, but that’s what I was looking for in a writerless strike show: a chance to watch a funny guy working without a net and killing time on TV. Conan gave us that, slipping into easy self-deprecating humor, seeing how long he could spin his wedding ring on his desk and playing Sunshine of Your Love on the guitar in his office. Once it came guest time, however, he came up with Bob Saget, new host of NBC’s 1 Vs. 100, apparently marching in with a GE rifle at his back. Then again, I’ve never watched Conan for the interviews. I’m not sure how many weeks his riffing will hold up, but so far I’m enjoying finding out.

Jimmy Kimmel: Kimmel (somehow the first-name thing doesn’t work with him) has been solidly behind his writers from the get-go, bankrolling his striking staff with even less fanfare than Leno et al. So he had the leeway, perhaps, to utter the only dissent of the night, spanking the writers for picketing Leno (after the host’s efforts to stand by the WGA) and knocking SAG for telling actors to stay off his show while letting them work on movies still in production. The nice thing about Kimmel is that nothing seems stage-managed about him: he’ll support the writers because he wants to, and he’ll criticize them because he wants to. And while last night’s show wasn’t stellar, it did bring back the feel of Kimmel’s early, sloppy, but exciting early shows, back when his show was getting launched and he couldn’t book guests even without a strike.

Craig Ferguson: Forget Jay and Dave–the forgotten man of late late night may turn out to be the real winner of the writers’ strike. Ferguson, known to many viewers simply as Mr. Wick from The Drew Carey Show, has steadily been catching up to Conan in the ratings, and judging by last night, viewers have all the more reason to try him out. He did an entire show of writer-scripted jokes and sketches, completely guest-free, and it was easily the funniest hour of the night. He kicked off with a skit opposite a stuffed Dolly the sheep (“You know, before this writer’s strike, I used to have my own TV show, in America!”) and tore through a salty monologue promising that, despite the show’s advantage of having writers, it will still book Kathy Griffin and “people who fart musically.” If he keeps this up, though, Ferguson may have to deal with actual celebrities trying to appear on the show. Hats off to him and his team for reminding us there’s a reason that writers get paid.