The returns of Letterman, Conan, Leno

Hillary Clinton presented the cold open for David Letterman. Mike Huckabee provided plenty of time-killing filler for Jay Leno. Does that mean that the difference between Letterman and Leno really boils down to Democrat vs. Republican? It’s not that simple, although watching last night’s shows, you couldn’t help but think that Letterman’s show, backed by the unionized Writer’s Guild and featuring striking writers throughout, had the Democrats corner, while Leno’s picket-crossing staff — and his incomprehensible decision to write his own monologue and read it off of cue cards in direct violation of the strike — plus Huckabee’s decision to turn his back on his own union endorsements for free airtime (updated: and plus plus! what about Leno’s softball fluffing of Huckabee throughout the interview? as if he was so thankful someone showed up Leno didn’t want to screw it up by making the Baptist minister uncomfortable), certainly gave the traditional Letterman-Leno competition a new perspective, didn’t it?

As for the shows themselves…

Plenty of sites uploaded YouTube videos from the late-night talkers, which I’m not going to do, primarily because online media and revenues are at the heart of the strike negotiations!

Letterman: Hillary joked that after eight weeks off the air, "Oh, well, all good things come to an end." Dave’s strike beard: Color Code Silver! The Eugene V. Debs striking dancers. A monologue almost entirely devoted to the eight weeks off the air and the striking writers. A written audience strike Q&A segment. A Top 10 list of striking writers’ demands, presented by striking writers from The Daily Show, Colbert Report, Law & Orders regular and Criminal Intent, Conan, and writers Nora Ephron and Alan Zweibel. A joke from the desk interrupted by the show’s strike captain. A segment on life without the writers brought back Hal Gurnee and his Network Time Killers. Another segment, Know Your Staff, profiled an associate producer (and new mother) who’s one of the thousands of other victims from the strike. First guest Robin Williams riffed on Dave’s beard and talked about his USO tours. Musical guest Lupe Fiasco welcomed Dave back. All in all, you had the sense that Dave and the writers wanted to remind viewers most of all about the rest of the WGA and the strike first, jokes later.

Leno: When I saw him reading off of cue cards, I knew something was fishy. He mentioned running tonight’s jokes past his wife for confirmation, referenced Dave in passing, then somehow said that because he was writing his own monologue, that was OK? Didn’t he learn anything from Ellen DeGeneres???? Apparently not. He’s a writer. Not allowed to write. End. Of. Story. But no. My friend had a blink-and-you-miss-it non-speaking role. He also had an audience Q&A that appeared to be an actual Q&A which just made it all weird. He showed a JibJab cartoon putting 2007 in review. Yeah, yeah, I’m already done with 2007 and its topical jokes. Mike Huckabee acted like he was Bill Clinton, playing his bass guitar, they replayed an old satellite interview with him and Leno, and Huckabee sorta kinda endorsed Barack Obama (the only smart thing he said). Chef Emeril filled even more time with a cooking segment, but all I could think about were the reports I heard about Emeril dissing his New Orleans restaurant employees after Hurricane Katrina and so seeing him cross the picket line made sense and made me angrier. BAM! Chingy? Eh.

Conan: Strike Beard Color Code Orange! He expressed support for the writers in his monologue, joked about his beard. From the desk, he tried to break his own record for spinning his wedding ring on the table (with a producer timing it). No record broken, but time killed. A funny pre-taped segment on what he’d been doing during the strike, mostly bumbling around the offices. First guest Bob Saget, plugging his NBC game show 1 vs. 100, expressed sympathy for the writers. Comedian Dwayne Perkins did a set, and it turns out he’s at Gotham Comedy Club this weekend, which explains how he got booked for the first night. I know of two other comedians doing Conan in the coming days, so in the short term, the strike will get more stand-up on his show, which is good, right?

Letterman won the night because his company has ended the strike for its workers! Leno was a multiple loser for just about everything he did. Conan made the best of his tough situation.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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