The writers are back on late night and here's what we now know: Jon Stewart is much funnier with a script written by someone other than himself; Jay Leno may still have the chops to write amusing opening monologues on his own, but if he wants to reference events from, say, this decade, he needs a team; and Conan O'Brien should win a special strike-year medal of honor for actually obeying the Writers Guild strike rules and still remaining pretty darn funny.
In fact, watching him glue his eyes to the teleprompter for the first time in so many weeks during Wednesday night's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," one couldn't help feel a twinge of regret. Yes, there was an air of calm and security as he made all the expected jokes about how much he missed his writers ("and they wrote that for me"), but gone was that endearing nervous bounce, the almost kinetic energy of sheer panic that drove O'Brien to new heights of ring-twirling, rocket-racing and home-movie making.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 21, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Late-night TV: An article in Friday's Calendar section about late-night TV shows' response to having writers back at work referred to Conan O'Brien as having used the strike to engage in "McGyver television." The Richard Dean Anderson series was spelled "MacGyver."
He alone of the late-night hosts respected the call for "pencils down." He not only surrendered to the strike, he embraced the moment, used it to engage in McGyver television. Like the geeky, self-conscious rebel all late-night hosts were at some point in their lives, O'Brien created an entire new sub-genre of late night -- the reality talk show.
As O'Brien ran through a brief montage of the strike-weeks' greatest hits Wednesday night, one could already imagine the special DVD package just out in time for Christmas. (Which may make it bit less rebellious and cool, but still I would buy it.)
If at times these skits resembled something your younger brother and his high school buddies might throw together in the paneled portion of the basement, well, at least our man Conan did not capitulate, refused to collaborate by attempting to produce a show that was still the same as before only not as good.
Though no special badge or guild honor seems to be forthcoming, this fact has not gone entirely unnoticed by his peers. One of the hottest e-mails among WGA members these days include a link to remarks made by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (captured by Times reporter Matea Gold) at the WGA East Awards held Saturday night. Triumph, a dog puppet (operated by comedian Robert Smigel) and long-standing guest on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," laid it on the line to an appreciative crowd as he thanked guild leaders. "Patric Verrone, John Bowman . . . they're great comedy writers. . . . They've written hilarious material like 'Futurama' and 'In Living Color' and -- the Writers Guild strike rules! The strike rules, ha, prohibit all the writing, ho ho, by any guild member that would be performed on-air by that member, ah ha ha ha, including monologues!"
According to Triumph, all the late-night hosts "made a mockery of the strike rules" except O'Brien, who went out "with no material" and was worse than ever. (Triumph is the "insult" dog, after all.)
Not surprisingly then, with the exception of O'Brien's show, Wednesday late-night did not feel appreciatively different from the late-nights that proceeded it. Leno's monologue was more time-sensitive -- though how fresh jokes about Hillary Rodham Clinton's pantsuits are is open to debate -- skewering the primary results, the CIA torture tapes and recent scientific breakthroughs. But we still had cracks about "the clapper" because this is Leno, after all.
More important for Jay, of course, are the guests, which is to say the return of all the various Screen Actors Guild members to circulation. While bookers were not able to scramble fast enough to fill Wednesday with celebrities -- unless you count Larry the Cable guy, a hedgehog and a chinchilla as celebrities, and I don't -- Jay announced that "tomorrow we will have an actual star. Russell Crowe will be joining us." Perhaps not everyone's first choice -- what, Jay couldn't get any of the Oscar nominees? -- but obviously things are returning to normal.
Over on Comedy Central, the change was more in mood and attitude than content. Not surprisingly, the primary results and CIA torture tapes ruled, and it's good to have a team keeping an eye on the news and the Internet again. Stephen Colbert seemed to have jugged an extra quart or so of Red Bull, and even Stewart looked decidedly less rattled and morose. Which is good since he's on deck to host the now full-steam-ahead Oscars telecast Feb. 24 and rattled and morose don't play too well at the Kodak.
And if "The Daily Show" wasn't exactly sparkling, it's only to be expected. As Stewart (or rather his script) pointed out, it's like when you turn on the faucet after you've been away for a while -- before you get the good water, you have to put up with all the brown stuff. Words to live by, and, of course, somebody wrote them.