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Seeking the right words

With or without guild writers, late-night TV shows try to find their way in the dark.

January 04, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

After two strike-bound months, we are once again a nation in which late-night network television is up and running -- trotting, anyway. (Limping, at times.) This is possibly a victory for the studios, who have persuaded Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and (some weeks ago) Carson Daly to return to the air -- for the sake of their staffs, all inarguably declare. Or it is possibly a victory for the writers, whose guild made a deal with David Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company that allowed the independently owned Letterman and Craig Ferguson shows to come back with union scribes attached. Either way, it probably isn't going to end the strike -- or prolong it, for that matter.

Guild-sanctioned Letterman had Wednesday's only real star guest with Robin Williams; Leno's booking of Mike Huckabee probably did Huckabee more good than it did Leno, even factoring in whatever negative publicity the GOP presidential candidate may have incurred by crossing the picket line. Andy Dick crossed for Kimmel, guild member Bob Saget for O'Brien. Ferguson -- possibly the host most able to fill an hour solely from the contents of his head -- went without guests: As if in tribute to his returned writers, his hour was filled entirely with sketches and digressive monologues.

Although these are generically known as talk shows, it is all the bits that aren't talk that are at issue. (Note that all through the strike, KCET has been airing the post-prime time talk shows of Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley -- whose Wednesday guest was the A-plus-list Will Smith.) Late-night TV is really the last bastion of what used to be called variety: a little comedy, a little music, famous people waving, all held together by an amusing host. Writers are needed for the skits and sketches and the monologue. There is some latitude there, of course: Bad jokes in the monologue are a sort of tradition, and reliable laughs can be had by admitting it. Johnny Carson was the master at that, and Letterman, who wears irony like neoprene, almost never makes a joke that somehow does not carry with it the seeds of its own negation.

"You're watching the only show on the air that has jokes written by union writers," he said Wednesday, forgetting Ferguson for the sake of the joke. "I hear you at home thinking to yourself, 'This crap is written?' "

Still, on their first night back, the hosts with writers were clearly the more comfortable, the less distracted. They were able to just put on their usual shows -- acknowledging the unusual situation -- while the unsupported hosts attempted to put on something resembling their usual shows, with varying degrees of success. None failed completely. Leno's opening monologue, apparently self-penned, was within the tolerances of a typical Leno monologue; the rim shots, at least, rang no less loudly. ("It's fun writing it yourself!" he gushed to bandleader Kevin Eubanks, though fun isn't quite what he seemed to be having.) O'Brien, who opened noting that, "Americans have been forced to read books and occasionally even speak to one another, which has been horrifying," literally hurled himself against the void, jumping onto his desk to dance to the Clash's "The Magnificent Seven," and every so often shaking himself out like a Tex Avery cartoon. But none attempted the sort of radical reorganization that might have produced something new and notable in late night.

Then again, staying true to expectations is part of the job. Most people go to late night as a step toward sleep; they want to know where they are. There's a presumed intimacy to late-night television: the audience possibly in pajamas, in curlers, in bed; the guests there supposedly to "be themselves." And of all the people on TV, the talk show host represents the most direct expression of individual character. It's not necessarily the private self you get -- Johnny Carson, the most convivial of men on-screen, was socially awkward off. ("Without writers and without caffeine, I have virtually no personality whatsoever," Letterman said.) But they work from their core, and given that they all do more or less the same job in more or less the same way, we choose the ones whose essence we find the most congenial. The rest -- the guests, the skits -- is icing on the cake.

They're back now. You will take them for what they are.


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