The Late-Night Score

Keeping track of post-prime-time TV during the writers' strike

The ongoing television-writers' strike entered another phase on Jan. 2 as late night's Big Five returned to full production despite what in any other industry would be crippling working conditions. Nobody has died yet for lack of a writer, but quality has definitely taken a new course, to say the least.

Worldwide Pants Inc., the company that produces David Letterman's Late Show and the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, scored a coup by breaking ranks with their nominal brethren and signing a deal with the Writers Guild of America that reportedly allows the Pants-produced shows to come back with a full writing staff in exchange for temporary concessions equal to the WGA's demands. Jay Leno's Tonight Show, being wholly a property of NBC, couldn't make an equivalent deal and was forced back into production without a writing staff (and Leno may very well be bucking guild standards by writing his own monologues).

The tale of the tape gives Letterman an easy victory on this one, as Pants' union-approved deal gives his Late Show both a real-time benefit and a PR boost. But something happened during Letterman's two-month vacation: Maybe he got cabin fever during all that time off, or maybe starting out with the advantage of a full team has given Letterman a "Casey at the Bat" kind of gusto. His new beard seems to have taken over his mind. He's acting, on occasion, like an addled old coot. It's hilarious, but whether it's going to work for the audience at large is another story.

The difference between pre-strike and mid-strike Leno might be imperceptible to fans of his politely bland humor, but considering how funny the show already isn't, every bit of lost humor hurts that much more. Leno without writers feels like Regis Philbin if he wasn't funny. (Let that sink in.) That's not so different from the last 15 years of Leno's run—replacing bland scripted bits with stale talk-show fillers like audience participation and cooking segments gets the job done about the same as it was before. This round goes to Letterman. Easy.

As for the 12:30 a.m. time slot—imagine being woken at one in the morning by the Ghost of Talk Shows Past, a Dickensian spirit who takes you back to a time when Conan O'Brien, now beloved for his irreverent, early-Letterman-style antics, had the look of a deer caught in headlights. That's strike-era Late Night. The show doesn't lose much for its lack of writers; watching O'Brien react to whatever situation he finds himself in has always been a strength of the show. But after all this time, O'Brien still doesn't seem to know that. He's reverted to his adorable-but-sickly Tiny Tim form. Given his experience, though, he should quickly grow into these ill-begotten circumstances.

Craig Ferguson, who's not so much a talk show host as a rare specimen of unrefined BBC ore mined directly from the Scottish Highlands, is taking a less impromptu approach. He's gorging vigorously at his Pants-provided WGA trough, even going so far as to forgo guests altogether for his first show in favor of an array of tongue-in-cheek monologues and skits. Maybe Ferguson's British-comedy sketch antics are part of a plot by the BBC to permeate American culture with British influences and make their product more marketable. The fact remains that the Late Late Show team means to squeeze those lost two months out of their writers. Late Night and The Late Late Show are both good at what they're doing, but directly comparing their current incarnations gets dangerously close to apples vs. oranges territory. This one's still a toss-up.

To complete the Big Five, Jimmy Kimmel needs to be singled out as being Not Long for the Late Night World. There are two things to say here about Jimmy Kimmel: One, he's the only host so far to be openly critical of the WGA, having called the guild out on his show for picketing The Tonight Show and Late Night. Two, his is the only show that didn't post at least a 25 percent viewer increase on its first night back. Infer from that what you will; the better option would be to watch Man Show reruns and long for better times.