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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Late-night TV hosts relish their return to the airwaves

Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel arrives for the 74th Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Sept. 12, 2022.   (Getty Images)
By Neal Justin Star Tribune

No fans suffered more from the Writers Guild strike than late-night TV addicts.

Granted, membership in the club is dwindling. Viewership for “The Tonight Show,” for example, is down more than 60% over the past decade. And it’s clear that Hollywood doesn’t need the genre to push its products as much as it once did. Both “Barbie” and Taylor Swift had spectacular summers without stars doing interviews.

But night owls still take comfort in the ritual: topical monologues, goofy skits, celebrities letting their hair down. It’s an addiction we’re not ready to kick.

The hosts clearly feel the same way.

“I’m more excited than a guy seeing ‘Beetlejuice’ with Lauren Boebert,” Jimmy Fallon said this past Monday, just one of the many barbs directed at the Colorado congresswoman.

Jimmy Kimmel pointed out that nobody clapped for him when he visited Costco during the hiatus. Stephen Colbert joked that his wife had grown tired of having to chant his name.

So forgive them for savoring the moment.

Colbert and John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight,” extended their opening monologues on their first nights back. Seth Meyers of “Late Night” went one step further. He went without guests Monday so he could unload for an entire hour, dropping in impressions of Mike Lindell, Greg from “Succession,” Rudy Giuliani and all five living presidents. It was a tour-de-force tirade that once again proved he has TV’s hardest-working writers’ room.

But at times, it was clear that the former strikers didn’t have much time to cook up anything special for their bosses’ return.

The opening sketches on Monday wouldn’t make the 11:55 p.m. slot on “Saturday Night Live.” Colbert imagined himself as a fisherman rushing back to the studio on the back of a dolphin. Kimmel took back his stage from pickleball players. Fallon welcomed a fake Bono trapped in a rolling ball, a nod to U2’s residency at Las Vegas’ Sphere.

Fallon kept up his tradition of sidestepping touchy issues. He only alluded to the Rolling Stone article in which some former staffers criticized his offstage demeanor. His most hilarious moment on Tuesday was a goofy impersonation of France’s Emmanuel Macron. It was about as political as a “Peanuts” strip.

But his competitors were more than happy to return to slamming Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans. The most memorable dig at Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the interim speaker of the House, came courtesy of Colbert, who nicknamed him Old Sheldon.

But the network hosts largely avoided jokes about Hunter Biden and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who was indicted last month on federal corruption charges.

Aside from Fox’s Greg Gutfeld, who remained on the air during the nearly five-month strike, the only late-night personality that made Democrats sweat was Bill Maher. His call last Friday for President Joe Biden to stop running for reelection followed a semi-chummy chat with Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis.

But those liberal leanings are nothing new. What was? A shallower pool of potential guests. Because screen actors are still on strike, most aren’t allowed to promote TV and film projects. That means lots of newscasters and veteran stand-ups as guests. For them, doing talk-show appearances is as routine as brushing your teeth.

That makes for good, not great TV. Expect more mediocrity when a new “Saturday Night Live” episode airs Oct. 14 and “The Daily Show” returns Oct. 16 with yet another round of guest hosts.

It’s far from ideal. But late-night addicts are grateful for any fix they can get.