NEW YORK – Late-night TV hosts returned to the air Wednesday after a two-month hiatus, displaying support for striking writers, plenty of creative stretch marks – and at least two scruffy beards.
David Letterman walked onstage amid dancing girls holding picket signs. His writers are back on the job, but NBC’s Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel returned without theirs.
Leno, however, offered a monologue that included jokes he said he had crafted beforehand. Whether that violated rules of the striking Writers Guild of America – to which Leno belongs – was not immediately clear.
The union said Wednesday it was withholding comment until it spoke to Leno about his show, which, like the other returning programs, was laden with references to the strike.
The walkout, Leno joked, “has already cost the town over half a billion dollars. Five hundred million dollars! Or as Paul McCartney calls that, ‘A divorce.’ “
Guests on the shows included two presidential candidates – with the Democrat, Hillary Rodham Clinton, making a cameo appearance on Letterman’s union-sanctioned “Late Show” while Republican Mike Huckabee ventured across picket lines to play bass guitar and trade jokes with Leno on “The Tonight Show.”
The biggest celebrity guest, Robin Williams, appeared with Letterman, while Leno welcomed chef Emeril Lagasse and rapper Chingy.
Filler was immediately evident on the shows without writers. O’Brien, sporting facial growth to match his red hair, showed off Christmas cards, danced on his table as his band played the Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven” and tried to see how long he could spin his wedding ring on his desk. Leno took questions from his audience.
There was also plenty of free on-air promotion for the guild’s cause.
“The writers are correct, by the way. I’m a writer … I’m on the side of the writers,” Leno said.
Letterman, who had grown a gray beard, brought writers on to recite a top 10 list of their strike demands. They included “complimentary tote bag with next insulting contract offer” and “Hazard pay for breaking up fights on ‘The View.’ “
Not all the hosts supported the writers. During his opening, Kimmel criticized WGA members picketing Leno and O’Brien: “I don’t want to depart too much from the party line, but I think it’s ridiculous. Jay Leno, he paid his staff while they were out. Conan did the same thing. I don’t know. I just think at a certain point you back off a little bit.”
On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, presidential politics intruded: Huckabee appeared on Leno despite his apparent confusion about the strike and a bid by picketers to keep him away, and Clinton taped a cameo introducing Letterman.
Huckabee said he supports the writers and did not think he would be crossing a picket line, because he believed the writers had made an agreement to allow late-night shows on the air. But that’s not the case with Leno.
The writers guild urged Huckabee not to cross their picket line after he flew out to California. But Huckabee appeared on Leno, even showing off his electric guitar playing with the band.
“Huckabee claims he didn’t know,” chief union negotiator John Bowman said.
“I don’t know what that means in terms of trusting him as a future president.”