Showing solidarity with their writers, late night television -- from Letterman to Conan to Colbert -- shut down their shows immediately after the Writers Guild of America strike began at the beginning of November. However, after two months of layoffs, controversy (Carson Daly returning in December to prevent his staff from losing their jobs), and a severe lack of the funny in our lives, the shows are coming back -- but things won't exactly be the same.
The writers' strike isn't over, after all, and only The Late Show with David Letterman and The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson (both produced independently of the "big producers" by Letterman's own production company, who negotiated their own deal with the WGA) will be returning with writers. The rest -- the network shows began airing Wednesday night, while The Daily Show and The Colbert Report return next Monday -- are going to have to rely on self-prepared and improvised bits and segments by the host, and likely longer interview segments, to fill up their shows.
So if you didn't watch -- how was the first night? Well, first of all, there were BEARDS! When the writers' strike began, non-writing crew at Late Night with Conan O'Brien (led by researcher Aaron Blayaert) started growing beards. Conan decided to join them, and since the strike is still going on, he still hasn't shaven. Who knew Conan could grow facial hair?! But he and his staff aren't the only ones -- David Letterman was also sporting a big bushy grey-and-white beard, and Craig Ferguson talked about growing one in his trademark monologue. There was even some shaving on Jimmy Kimmel Live, with Kimmel shaving the goatee of show regular (and security guard) Guillermo.
As for the comedy, it wasn't too shabby. Letterman and Ferguson had their writers, so they had an edge in that department, but they were also writers who were off work for a couple months. So despite being without writers, Conan's Late Night was probably the strongest of the night, relying on his quick improvisation skills, a great taped bit of what he spent his downtime doing around the office (including playing electric guitar over top of his crew playing the Rock Band video game), and entertaining guest spots from Bob Saget and stand-up Dwayne Perkins.
Ferguson was a close second, as he also went with something a little different for the evening: no guests. It was just an hour of comedy, mostly regular bits that usually only appear in the first post-monologue segment of a normal show. It wasn't all GREAT comedy, but it was still nice to see something a bit different. (Although ironically, it was his improvisation that carried the show.)
I'm certainly very curious as to what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are going to come up with on Monday, as unlike the traditional late night talk shows, their programs rely quite a bit on prepared comedy bits from their writing teams. Plus, with the rules of the WGA in place, it's possible Stephen Colbert can't even perform in the "Stephen Colbert" character! What will they do? What will they say? Can they riff on the upcoming Presidential primaries without the help of their writers, or will it just be endless conversations with politicians and authors?
With no end in sight for the writers' strike, and television on its way to looking bleak at best, it's nice to at least have some of our favourite late night staples back on TV. It would certainly be better to have all the writers back (and not just on late night), but since the producers aren't even willing to go back to the bargaining table (nor do they seem to be willing to gain the ability of "logic"), television fans will take what they can get.
To cap off, there's a couple sites you should visit that I really should've passed along at the BEGINNING of the strike (but which are still amusing now, even with new shows airings).
If you want to check out a few pre-strike behind-the-scenes videos and photos from Late Night with Conan O'Brien, along with many regular taped bits made throughout the 2-month hiatus by his non-writing staff (some featuring Conan!), be sure to check out the Late Night Underground. It's filled with Strike Beardy goodness.
During the strike, Late Show writers have been blogging (and posting YouTube videos) about the strike and just bringing the hilarity in general. And even though they're back to work, they vow to continue the blog until ALL WGA writers are back to work. So go to the Late Show Writers on Strike page to read and see what they've been up to since the last episode aired at the beginning of November.
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)