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The Couch Caucus Finally Returns

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NBC Photo: Paul Drinkwater

The late night shows are back! The 2008 election may now officially begin!

I’ll have a review of Jay, Dave, Conan et al. later today, once I’ve had a chance to get to them all on Tivo. But tonight was also an important return for another group of celebrities: the presidential hopefuls deprived of crucial late-night oxygen for two months.

On the Tonight Show, Jay Leno, the longtime ratings leader, pointed out that he was competing against David Letterman’s full staff of writers, because Letterman was able to negotiate a temporary contract with them: “One man against a monologue!” It was appropriate, then, that Leno should be paired with another frontrunner trying to run as an underdog: recent Iowa GOP poll leader Mike Huckabee.

Despite the popular image of late night as a crucible where policians are mocked and torn down before the masses, Huckabee and Leno showed why politicians must miss being able to sink into the bathwater-warm embrace of the shows. Among the tough questions Leno hammered Huckabee with: Did you know Bill Clinton in Hope? How did you become a minister? Did your congregation mind your playing in a rock band? What was it like living in a trailer while the governor’s mansion was being renovated? How’d you lose all that weight?

Huck deftly delivered one-liners, such as the subtle dig at Romney that voters want to work for someone who reminds them of a guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off, and reminisced about getting his first guitar from the J. C. Penney catalog in 1966. When Leno did turn to issues, he basically let Huckabee deliver a stump speech on his plan to replace the income tax with a consumption tax, without challenging him on the details. And he got to play with the band! And nobody asked him anything about any hard foreign countries!

Meanwhile, on the writer-blessed Late Show with David Letterman, Hillary Clinton pulled a cameo that required crossing neither a picket line or a state line, delivering one joke to welcome Dave back (“Oh, well. All good things must come to an end”). But in its own way, the bit may have been just as important to her, on the eve of an Iowa caucus where it looks like every caucuser–every caucasian?–will count. Given that one of the knocks against her has been whether she has the charisma to win a general election, it doesn’t hurt her to have one last image of her cutting up on Letterman replaying on the morning shows this a.m.

Unfortunately, the close-cropped, tight talking-head shot left her looking a little like she did in that Hillary 1984 Obama video. And while she delivered one joke by remote, the guy jamming on bass with Leno’s band was more pop-culturally reminiscent of a certain other Arkansan blowing sax on Arsenio Hall. But it was a decent joke and, hey, at least–between Dave and Conan O’Brien–late night last night was full of guys in beards talking about unions! That’s got to be a good sign for the Democrats, right? It was like Late Show with Robert Reich up in there!

Of course, all is not entirely restored in the world of late-night political commentary: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will be back next week, without writers for their heavily scripted shows. And the first night of the writerless Tonight Show was forced to run an animated 2007 year-in-review clip by masters of topical humorlessness JibJab, to the tune of, yes, We Didn’t Start the Fire. Dear God, please let this strike end.