NEW YORK – Not a moment too soon to help make sense of things, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will be back on duty Monday, ready to mock everything in sight.
The New Hampshire presidential primary scheduled for the next day? A likely topic!
The woes of Jamie Lynn and Britney Spears? Why the heck not?
And they'll surely make hay of the writers strike that has kept them off the air, and kept their viewers satire-starved, since Nov. 5.
But how will they carry out their mission without writers?
The returning "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert" face a challenge even greater than that of writer-deprived Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel, late-night hosts with a shared task of injecting humor into what are basically interview shows.
"The Daily Show" and "Colbert," which air weeknights back-to-back on Comedy Central at 11 p.m. EST, are something else. Each is a topical half-hour that lampoons human foibles, as well as the excesses of TV journalism. They may find it far more demanding to adapt to the mandates of the striking Writers Guild of America.
Sidelined the past nine weeks, Stewart (in his role as fake-news anchorman) and Colbert (playing the blowhard pundit) have been conspicuous in their absence from the bubbling brew of cultural discourse. Meanwhile, because both series are so news-driven, their stretch of reruns has taken a cruel toll on viewership. "The Daily Show" (which, pre-strike, averaged 1.6 million viewers) and "Colbert" (1.3 million) have seen their audience shrink by as much as 50 percent.
What would have happened had America been forced to go any longer unreplenished by fresh doses of Stewart's arch "reporting" and Colbert's I-am-the-way "commentary"?
The answer became moot two weeks ago, when both shows announced their imminent return, then added, in typically ironic fashion: "We would like to return to work with our writers. If we cannot, we would like to express our ambivalence, but without our writers we are unable to express something as nuanced as ambivalence."
Ambivalence aside, one of the most popular features on both shows is conveniently unscripted: the interview segment. But this could present another set of problems (difficulties already being felt by Leno, O'Brien and Kimmel, in marked contrast to David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, who have an interim agreement with the guild). Among the favorite guests on "The Daily Show" and "Colbert" are politicians, some of whom, along with A-list celebrities, may refrain from crossing picket lines to appear.
It's unlikely the shows will be completely off-the-cuff. Performers who don't belong to the guild will be free to write material for themselves, although it's not clear who on either series that might include.
But WGA members Stewart and Colbert are barred from writing anything.
That is, unless they're not. At week's end, the guild and "Tonight Show" host Leno were locked in a dispute over just such an issue: whether he, as a guild member, is permitted to write his own monologue. Leno insisted he had gained approval from the guild. He continued to deliver nightly monologues he said he'd crafted himself. The guild, crying foul, vowed to take some form of action, as yet unspecified.
"Leno will not get a pass. The guild has told him he can't write his monologues," said Sherry Goldman, a spokeswoman for the Writers Guild of America East.
Guild rules will surely result in a different "Daily Show" and "Colbert" than their fans are used to. But as viewers try to predict what the necessary changes will be, it's worth remembering that Colbert is an improv whiz who, script or no script, seems to channel his "Stephen Colbert" alter ego from some parallel world inspired by Bill O'Reilly. Stewart is witty and fast on his feet, befitting his background as a standup comic.
Will it suffice for this pair as the strike drags on? No one from either program was available Friday to respond to questions or offer a hint of what Colbert and Stewart have in mind for the audience.
Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox said, "Stephen and Jon are still figuring out what they're going to do on Monday night's show."
Probably so. But the nation's ruling class, presidential hopefuls and others ripe for ridicule should be all too aware of what's going to happen. Their two-month respite is coming to an end. Stewart and Colbert are on their case again.