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Better Late Than Never

10/19/2007 08:00:00 PM Eastern

If the looming writers' strike happens next month, it could shut down the late-night talk shows.

Late-night was an early casualty of the last major work stoppage, which began in March 1988. That strike lasted 22 weeks, and the collateral industry damage was put at $500 million. That was back when a half-billion bucks was a half-billion bucks, and not just 1/20th the value of Facebook.

But let's forget the industry a moment and try to gauge the immense emotional toll. This late shift would make me much more stressed and infinitely less cool. Not to mention less entertained, informed and engaged.

Currently, a typical night in Casa Grossman has me pining for 11:35 p.m. First, the missus and I must chase our 20-month-old demon spawn until he runs out of things to stick in power outlets and goes to bed. This is followed by an hour of my pregnant bride blaming me for the fact that she can't imbibe her beloved beer(s) in said condition.

Finally, when she goes to bed, I can reunite with the late-night crew that makes me laugh so I don't start to cry: Dave, Jay, Jimmy, Jon, Conan, Craig and Spike.

Their shows let a complete tool like me at least fake being somewhat hip.

For those of us who don't know where all the cool video clips are on the Interweb (to quote the eloquent Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock), the late-night shows are there. And a Jimmy Kimmel monologue originally tipped me off that “Chocolate Rain” was a once-hot YouTube clip and not some bad 1970s porn film.

If history repeats, this is the kind of diverting stuff we'd sorely miss come strike day.

The 1988 strike gutted late-night. Johnny Carson and everyone else closed up shop immediately and aired repeats. Carson was the first to return in early May, sans writers. As the producer of his show, he was able to cut a deal with the Writers Guild a few weeks after he came back, and the Guild allowed his scribes to go back to work.

David Letterman came back live in late June, but without his other 12 writers—though he apparently did have jokes faxed to him quietly.

You can expect the shows to shut down at the outset this time, as well. And much like Carson in 1988, it may be Letterman and Jay Leno who dictate if and when the others go live again.

While Dave owns his show, NBC owns The Tonight Show, so don't expect side deals for Jay. But neither will want to stay dark too long and risk having to cut staff. And when one comes back, the other will follow.

If everybody returns without writers, some shows could be better positioned than others. True, some topical jokes write themselves.

For example, Playboy TV sent out a press release last week promoting new shows that now last just 10 minutes. I don't need a staff of 13 writers to know why that's funny.

Kimmel, however, relies heavily on video clips in his monologue, so he could feel free to insert his own comments. And unlike Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman, most people find him pretty witty off the cuff, as evidenced by his annual killing at ABC's upfront.

Craig Ferguson's opening monologue is supposed to be just him riffing on a different topic every night. I guess we'd find out quickly how much of that opener is really Craig's own riff.

I'm not smart enough to know exactly what the writers and companies are fighting over. But here's what I do know: If this column gets increasingly bitter in a month, it's because I lost my late-night crew.

E-mail comments to ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com

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