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The Dry Spell Ends

A bewhiskered David Letterman returns to late night with his first original monologue since November.
A bewhiskered David Letterman returns to late night with his first original monologue since November. (John Paul Filo -- CBS)
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Johnny Carson, following in the footsteps of Jack Paar, made "the monologue" an American institution, a cultural artifact, a political barometer and a virtually guaranteed source of laughs with which to end a day.

Carson sat out a few weeks of a similar strike in 1988 and then, chafing at the loss of his pipeline to America, returned to "The Tonight Show" without his writers, having come to terms with the Writers Guild on his own. Some talk-show stars and producers thought the current strike also would last for only a few weeks, but when it grew to two months, the tipping point seemed imminent.

There loomed the danger of a national habit being broken (with viewers who'd wandered off to cable or iPods or the Internet perhaps continuing to stay away). Now that the talk shows not only comment on the news but are in the news themselves, it does seem likely viewers will return in huge numbers.

For the Writers Guild, there's a clear advantage to having the shows back; the comedians are bound to spend time, as they did last night, joking about the strike and taking the writers' side in the process. The shows may prove a valuable platform -- especially since giant corporations like Time Warner control such major and influential news sources as CNN. There have been complaints that coverage of the strike on Fox News, owned by right-wing billionaire Rupert Murdoch, has been biased against the writers and their plight.

O'Brien had not previously been absent from the airwaves for longer than two weeks in the 15-year history of his show, sources said (all the sources contacted for this report asked not to be named because the labor situation continues to be delicate). O'Brien found the two-month shutdown personally unbearable. He spent much of his time making sure that all members of his staff got paid, sources said.

"There will be no jokes," at least no written jokes, on the O'Brien show, one insider said before O'Brien's return at 12:35 a.m. Instead, O'Brien planned to rely on man-on-the-street segments taped outside the building, a collection of oddball guests from around New York, and his estimable prowess -- second only, perhaps, to Letterman's -- as an ad-libber.

Like Leno's show, O'Brien's "Late Night" is owned by NBC Universal.

It seemed inevitable as the clock ticked down toward the shows' returns yesterday that Letterman and Leno would be making pro-guild jokes about the strike as part of their topical comedy. On the Web site, which is maintained by Letterman's staff, writer Justin Stangel recently wrote, "The writers can't wait to get back to writing for Dave, and you better believe we're going to bring attention to the strike as long as it lasts."

Letterman's writers did not make the Web site (which will continue indefinitely) an alternative source for Letterman comedy -- no Top 10 lists, it was explained, because those are written for the show and not for the Web.

But writer Bill Scheft, who appeared on last night's show, did contribute one joke about the Oscars when it was revealed that, if the strike is still going on, the guild will not allow members to write for the show and will not lift its picket line. Wrote Scheft: "Without all that carefully scripted material, the Oscar show will be forced to cut back from four hours to three hours, 53 minutes."

One victim of the humor drought has been ABC's Sunday-morning news show "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." One regular feature of "This Week," a selection of timely jokes culled from the late-night comics' monologues of the preceding week, has had to be dropped for the duration.

Stephanopoulos and his producers tried to rig up a replacement segment relying on political cartoons from across the country, but word is that it fell flat. "There's a reason these guys get paid so much for what they do," a source at "This Week" conceded.

It really isn't easy writing good topical jokes, especially when there are four or five competitors; Carson was supreme, but then most of the time, he had the field to himself. It could be argued that Letterman, Leno, O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel -- not to mention the satirists on Comedy Central's mock newscasts, who are scheduled to return next week despite the strike -- all have to try harder.

At any rate, the long national nightmare is over, and Americans who suffered during the two-month comedy drought can presumably have sweet dreams once again.

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