Late Night Unscripted: Still Good For A Laugh?

What is Jon Stewart supposed to do on The Daily Show when it returns without writers Jan. 7–just mug for half an hour?
Some might say he does that now. But, seriously, it is a half hour satire of daily news events. Is he just going to sit there, read the paper and make faces? How is such a thoroughly scripted show supposed to work without writers scripting his desk bits plus all those “senior correspondent” reports? Do you remember the army of Harvard grads who swarm the Emmy stage every time this show wins the Best Writing award? Can this show still work without them?
Still, as reported at Nikki Finke’s must read web site, Deadline Hollywood Daily, both Stewart’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are scheduled to return Jan. 7 without their writers. Ratings have been in the toilet since both these comedy shows went into reruns nearly two months ago due to the writer’s strike. And no wonder–the only thing worse than old news is old news satire.
Also back, officially, by Jan. 7 is Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. The Big Man, David Letterman, along with his CBS colleague, Craig Ferguson, will also be back by then, but that side deal to come back with their writing staffs intact is very much in question. Rob Burnett, who runs Letterman’s Worldwide Pants (which produces both CBS late night talk shows) is reportedly meeting today with the WGA to try and rescue the deal which would have made an exception for Letterman and Ferguson’s writing staffs–although the reason why never really seemed to make a lot of sense, especially, I would think, if you are a striking writer still on the picket line and not working for either one of those shows.
Reasons given were a) these two shows employ an army of cameramen, grips, hair and makeup people and dozens of other non-writers who are all suspended due to the strike and they need to get back to work–but so do the large staffs at the other late night talk shows. b) Letterman back on the air would be great PR for the Guild because cranky Dave would tee off on the evil producers every night. Like Kimmel wouldn’t?
The other reason it was ever even a possibility is that Letterman, through Worldwide Pants, owns these two shows and thus could sign a separate deal. Leno, O’Brien and Kimmel’s shows are owned by their networks. The WGA is done dealing with the walk away networks and signing separate deals is seen as an end run around an otherwise united producing front. It is the oldest tactic in the booK divide and conquer.
The hitch in the deal is apparently the fact that CBS still retains ownership of the show on its web broadcasts–ironic because future residuals from that kind of streaming revenue are at the heart of this labor dispute. So Letterman’s writers, striking to get a penny or two per web hit, may be forced to remain on the picket line because of a %&*!#! dot com dispute.
So, let’s assume that everybody goes back Jan. 7 without writers. Who will be funny and charming and watchable and who will wish he’d stayed on strike? If you could predict their grades, how would they score? Thanks for asking:

Craig Ferguson (A): The forgotten man in this whole equation will have the smoothest transition back on the air. The biggest hurdle for most of these shows will be that opening monologue. Ferguson’s is unique and personal; it’s like a fabulous dinner conversation. He literally stands there and bonds with his audience, sometimes for 11-and-a-half minutes. I know because I timed him when I sat in his studio and caught a taping almost a year ago.
There are no cue cards or TelePromPter to guide him through his rant. Ferguson, I’m told by the producers, sits in his office for a couple of hours each day and works up the opener. He does invite his writers in to punch it up at one point, although he has a much smaller writing staff than any of the other talkers. But look for him to be just as charming, engaging and quick on his own two feet when he returns Jan. 7.
He’s also great at the desk, where he frequently ignores his notes and just wings it with guests. The man has a gift for the gab. CBS might have even moved him up to 11:35 and held Letterman back if everything wasn’t so competitive and cutthroat in late night. Still, this should be Ferguson’s chance to shine.

David Letterman (B): After 25 years, Dave could do his show in his sleep. The hurdle for him will be the first half hour, which is intensely scripted. A lot of comedy bits will have to be shelved.
Still, the best moments on Late Show are often the unscripted, live and dangerous ones. Please, please, please bring back “Know Your Current Events,” for example. Stupid Pet Tricks wouldn’t seem to require any writing, either. As for “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches,” Bush writes that for free.
The other plus is the strike could force Letterman to hand more of the show over to Paul Shaffer’s CBS Orchestra, always a plus. The bad thing is that we could be in for more of that awkward banter between Dave and Paul, or too many of Dave’s odd idiosyncrasies, those desk bits where he coughs or repeats one phrase over and over.
Still, if the strike means we finally get a peak at the real Dave for a few minutes each night, including more stories about Harry, that might not be such a bad thing. The other plus is the prospect of Letterman having more time to interview guests, to really have intelligent conversations, especially with politicians heading into the U.S. primaries.

Jimmy Kimmel (B-): Where Kimmel is screwed is in that first ten minutes. That has become the best opener in late night, with the sharp, irreverent host taking a razor to the news of the day, trashing stupid celebrities and politicians with equal ease.
He’ll either have to ditch most of that and move to the desk sooner or try and wing it on his own. Kimmel is naturally quick and funny (as are all these guys, really) and might just be able to pull it off. He’s also got a regular guy thing going for him–Kimmel will be easy to root for in the coming weeks.
The fact that he’ll probably have to go without all the scripted bits may be a blessing in disguise. Most of the stuff with Uncle Frank and Guillermo are signals to switch back to Letterman. More of Jimmy at the desk is a good thing. That all-over-the-map interview style keeps things keen and lively plus he’s libel to say anything (as he did on Monday Night Football earlier this season, getting the former Fox NFL football comic banned from the ESPN booth). That is tough on censors but great fun for viewers. Kimmel will do just fine without a net if he doesn’t get kicked off the air first.

Conan O’Brien (C+): The writers’ strike is going to hurt this guy, who has perhaps the most scripted half hour opener of them all. O’Brien’s show has always been more SCTV than Tonight Show. Having to kennel Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog, to name just one example, will be a loss.
Not that O’Brien isn’t a brilliant writer himself (having penned for both Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons)–but that could be a drawback, too. O’Brien will likely be very conflicted about carrying on his show without his writers. As much as he wants to help keep his large production staff employed, he may hold much of his wit in check until the whole issue is resolved.
The one plus is that his opening three-jokes-and-out monologue will not be as hard to replace as Leno’s marathon of jokes. My guess is we’ll see more of O’Brien at the desk chatting up guests, and while that is not what he is know for, we may see his more thoughtful self emerge as he matures toward the guy who will take over the Tonight Show (maybe) in 2009.

Jay Leno (C): What will Leno’s opening monologue be like? That is what most viewers will tune in for, at least for those first few shows. The guy tells, what, 100 jokes in 10 minutes? He can’t make them all up himself.
My guess is that this always resourceful comedian will find a way to get his hands on enough jokes to weather the strike. Leno would take joke steroids to keep batting 300.
Where Leno doesn’t always shine is when he has to vamp without a script. Still, the guy does, what, 300 stand up dates a year. He has a million of them and loves to perform so we will probably never see him sweat.
The prospect of fewer Tonight Show comedy bits shouldn’t deter fans from watching, either. The lamest part of the show for years, they have been sharper lately. Leno could probably still do bits like Jaywalking since the man on the streeter stuff is unscripted. Holding up those stupid newspaper headlines should also still be on the table.

Jon Stewart (C-): That first show back will be hilarious. “What??? No…no WRITERS???” Stewart will look under his desk, reach for a gun and shoot himself in the head. HUGE laffs.
Shows three, four and twelve–not so funny. Satire is rarely spontaneous. It is the best writing staff in the business that makes The Daily Show soar every day. Taking them out of the equation has to hurt.
Plus, I didn’t think his stint hosting the Academy Awards was Stewart’s finest moment, but mainly because–unlike Leno, for example–he makes very little effort to try and ingratiate himself with his audience. Being the smart guy in the room works behind the desk and the script, but may not wear as well night after night off the cuff.

Stephen Colbert (D): Colbert is gifted and brilliant but this guy won’t be just working without a net, he’ll be working without pants. That may be funny, too, but no show depends more on sharp writing and nuance than Colbert’s and while watching him try to squirm through this predicament may be fun for five minutes it isn’t going to work every night. What will help, however (just as it will for Stewart and, really, all the others), is the fact that the U.S. is heading into an election year with plenty of primaries to goof on in January and February. It just won’t be as funny without the writers–which hopefully will be obvious enough on all these shows to help bring everybody back to the table.

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