Conan O'Brien by Dana Edelson/NBC Photo
Did absence make our hearts grow fonder of late-night TV's hosts, missing in action for the last two months? I suppose it's possible, though I doubt anyone's preferences were changed by what they saw Wednesday night, when all of the network hosts finally returned to work, all but David Letterman and Craig Ferguson without writers. (If anything grew, it was facial hair, at least on Dave and Conan.)
If you're the sort who for whatever reason prefers affable Jay Leno over cranky Dave, or chooses to stay up late for the delectable derangement that is Conan O'Brien, nothing about Wednesday's opening night would likely have shaken you from your long-ingrained after-hours habits. The strike beards sported by Dave and Conan in solidarity with the still-striking writers ("and to prove that I still have some testosterone," joked Conan) were the most noticeable changes on the late-night landscape.
Here's my report card on late-night's opening night, keeping in mind that I was staying up unusually late on what had already been a long travel day back from vacation. (I'll admit right now that I fast-forwarded through every musical act.)
By the way, happy 2008, everyone. Now if only we could put this wretched strike behind us early in this new year.
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: B-
"B" for bland, the show's (and host's) usual condition. The populist, popular king of late night delivered a show that looked an awful lot like business as usual. Great news if you're a fan, not so great if you're looking for actual inspiration. His monologue, self-written (and vetted by his wife, he sorta joked), was just as scattershot and overlong as ever, but still somewhat heroic given that it returned him to his self-reliant stand-up roots. The audience Q&A that followed was pretty painful, except for the long-time Huckabee fan who prompted a Monica Lewinsky joke. Does it say something about Jay's audience that he was asked if he'd ever take the show to Branson, Missouri, or retire to Daytona Beach? Admitting he was glad to stay out of the New Year's Eve fray revealed a bit more complacency than he probably realized.
Best and certainly newsiest guest anywhere on the night: Mike Huckabee, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. His guitar jam with the band recalled Bill Clinton's sax riff on Arsenio Hall's show back in 1992, but otherwise, few original notes were played during the softball interview. Flashing back to an earlier
appearance, back when then-Arkansas governor Huckabee was more than 100 pounds heavier, was an eye-opener.
Jay cooking pepper steak with Emeril only made me hungry to be watching something else.
Late Show with David Letterman: B
Hardly Dave's best night ever, though he milked lots of humor from his new graybeard look. Alternately referring to himself as resembling "a cattle-drive cook" and "a missing hiker," his opening bit was upstaged by Hillary Clinton's taped cameo. ("Oh well, all good things come to an end," she said of his eight-week hiatus.)
Clearly pleased to have his writers back at work, Letterman honored the WGA with plenty of scripted references, highlighted by a top-10 list of writers' demands read by striking writers from the staffs of
The Daily Show, The Colbert Report
Law & Order
series, as well as celebrity writers Nora Ephron and Alan Zweibel. Did you notice Paul Shaffer at one point playing off with the "Look for the Union Label" theme? And did you catch Dave's reference to his showgirls as the "Eugene v. Debs" (a nod to the Socialist labor organizer)? Smart, subtle, rewarding.
Dave had the night's sole superstar guest on any network: Robin Williams, just back from a USO tour, in top form, ribbing the host over his grizzled appearance ("I just came back from Iraq. Everyone looks like you"). After he left the stage, the show pretty much collapsed. In other words: Rethink that "Know Your Staff" segment until you can make it more interesting than showing baby pictures.
Late Night with Conan O'Brien: B+
This grade would be higher if Conan had been able to score at least one intriguing guest. No matter how many times Bob Saget reached for the water, aping Conan's earlier attempt to fill time ("You can't write a moment like that"), he reeked of flop sweat.
Not so the host himself, whose spontaneity fueled by nervous energy kept the show hopping. He can't take over the
throne soon enough for me.
I howled when he compared his new look to the young Kris Kringle from the animated
Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town
. I enjoyed his spinning of the wedding ring, at least the first time. ("Trust me. There's time to do it again," he warned, and he was right.) His lunatic dancing on the desk, and his pretaped tour of his office, kept me amused.
What I liked most about Conan's first night back, besides his usual winning absurdism, was how he made time a character on the show. He took advantage of this awkward strike situation to make his show something special.
Jimmy Kimmel Live: D-
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there's ABC's miserable misadventure in misanthropy. Dead air would have been preferable to this torpid exercise in self-impressed, name-dropping boredom. Even the musical segment seemed an afterthought: a Kid Rock performance from Times Square on New Year's Eve. Huh? When Kimmel and Andy Dick ganged up on Helio Castroneves to rib him about his broken engagement, it wasn't as much funny as mean-spirited. Charm has no place on a show like this, quite clearly.
Hair moment, since each show had to have one: Uncle Frank shaving off Guillermo's goatee. It was about as funny as it sounds.
As for those flashback "Great Moments for which residual payments are made to our unemployed writers": Depends on your definition of "great," although the replay of Andy Dick's parody of the Audrey Hepburn Gap ad was the only time I laughed in the entire hour.
Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson: C
How audacious for the Scottish cutup to come back without a single guest, instead letting the show's writers carry the load with an hour of sketch comedy, improvisation and all-around cloying mugging. Describing himself as the "Switzerland" of late night, after his boss negotiated a middle ground so they could get back to work with "diplomatic immunity," Ferguson is capable of making a visceral connection with the camera and the audience as he rambles on in a style that can be quite disarming when it's not overdone. I like this guy, but Wednesday, it was just way too much of the same thing, over and over, resulting in an ultimately tiresome hour.
His hair moment: Wearing a fake beard as a shepherd too attached to his "Dolly" on the Scottish moors in the opening sketch. He also joked that he had grown a strike beard several times over the hiatus. Thankfully, we were spared pictures.
His best moment: Promising that D-list celebs "are still welcome here," even if his amnesty during the strike may open his doors to bigger names unwilling to cross picket lines elsewhere. "This show will be the same crap as always," "It will be garbage" and "We will
improve this show" were among his pledges.
Somehow, it wasn't that hard to take him at his word.