Late Night Winners and Losers: The Networks
Now that the late night comedy shows have had a few weeks to “find themselves” without their writers, I thought it would be a good time to look and see how the shows have fared since their return to the airwaves.
Today I will go over the shows on the broadcast networks, tomorrow I will go over the cable shows. So, lets get started:
The Late Show with David Letterman
Letterman is a big winner here. By having his production company, Worldwide Pants, strike a side deal with the WGA, Dave is more or less in the clear. He does not have to worry about coming up with writerless comedy bits, and big-name stars won’t have to cross picket lines to appear on his show. So far his show has looked much like it did before the strike, except for all the strike-related jokes of course, but that fact is a very good thing for Letterman, who needs some continuity in the face of fierce competition from Jay Leno… who he still somehow trails in the ratings. Still, if the strike keeps going, and there are no indications it is slowing down, then Letterman could come out of the strike much stronger than when he came in.
The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson
Ferguson is another big winner, because he gets his writers back thanks to Letterman’s side deal with the WGA. Ferguson, who is excellent at improvisation, probably would have been able to get by without writers, but having them certainly does no harm, and the lack of a picket line means he can get big names that his main opposition, Conan O’Brien, cannot. Ferguson kicked off his return to the airwaves with no guests, instead performing what was essentially a variety show of “all WGA scripted comedy.” It was ok, but not what his show is all about, he quickly returned to form, and has been slowly gaining on O’Brien in the ratings. Much like Letterman a prolonged strike could help Ferguson immensely.
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
Poor Jay Leno. His first week back he got in hot water with the WGA because he wrote his own monologue, a violation of the strike rules. Pity him because the monologue was the strongest part of the writerless show. Jay’s comedy bits have fallen flat, easy to do when you don’t have a team of people writing them for you. Some are cute, in a pedantic sort of way, but most just go nowhere. Even worse, with the show still being picketed, Leno has had some awful guests. Mike Huckabee was a good get, but most of the guests have been NBC game show hosts. Not a great way to start. Still, despite the problems, Leno is still beating Letterman in the ratings, though the novelty of seeing a writerless Tonight Show could wear thin with viewers. Jay is still winning this battle, but he had better hope the strike gets settled soon; otherwise he could be heading to second place.
Conan O’Brien, killing time on on Late Night
Late Night with Conan O’Brien
O’Brien, like Ferguson, is an excellent improviser. He would routinely take little things like a “woo!” from the audience and turn it into five minute of self deprecating comedy. Of all the hosts, he may have been best prepared for a writerless show, and it shows. His monologue is essentially gone (per the rules it has to be) but he still has some sort of comedy bit at the top of the show. Most have been field pieces, including some truly inspired ones (see him interrupting an NBC Studio tour below). Still, the guests are lacking, terribly. Much like The Tonight Show, O’Brien has been forced to have NBC talent on, and the quality is starting to wear thin. With a picket line outside, Late Night will have a hard time booking big name guests, and that needs to change soon, otherwise Ferguson could catch O’Brien down the road. A few excellent unscripted pieces cannot save the show during a prolonged strike.
Last Call with Carson Daly
I was never a fan of Daly to begin with, but by crossing the picket line to do his show, Daly brought the wrath of the WGA on himself. Writers in his audience interrupted a show taping, and there were rumors he only returned to work because of threats he would be fired if he didn’t. Still, Daly has an advantage: his show is only half an hour long, it never really had big name guests, and it is really really late at night. So Daly’s show has looked a lot like it did before the strike, not great, but certainly stable.
Saturday Night Live
SNL has been off the air since the strike began, and they will continue to be until it is resolved. Boo.
Talkshow with Spike Feresten
I know I know, talkshow with who-now? But yes, Talkshow with Spike Feresten, Fox’s late night Saturday, post Mad TV program returned this week with new episodes. Feresten was a writer on Seinfeld, where he wrote, among other episodes, “The Soup Nazi,” so he is unabashedly pro WGA and he has comedy chops, but he seemed disjointed in his return, and the show was little more than a half hour promo for Fox shows Terminator and Nothing But the Truth. Feresten will have a hard time booking guests thanks to the pickets, though his friend Jerry Seinfeld might drop by if he needs to. Still, Feresten only has one half hour to fill a week, far less than any other late night show, so if anybody could make it work, it would be him.
That’s it for now, check back tomorrow as we take a look at the cable shows, and Jimmy Kimmel. Sorry Jimmy, I forgot about you.