NEW YORK – Jon Stewart was back for the first time since the Hollywood writers strike began, but he took care to draw a clear distinction between the show he was returning with and the show he hosted until two months ago.
"'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' is a show we do with our very creative team of field producers and correspondents and studio people and, of course, our writers," he said Monday night, then added with pointed irony, "From now on, until the end of the strike, we'll be doing 'A Daily Show with Jon Stewart.' But not 'THE Daily Show."'
Following Stewart's show, "The Colbert Report" host Stephen Colbert apologized to his audience for a technical snafu.
"I got a problem here," snapped Colbert in his most indignant tone. "There are no words on my (Tele)prompter."
Refusing to concede that writers are required to provide his "commentaries," Colbert declared, "My understanding is, this little magic box (the Teleprompter) reads my thoughts and lays them up on the screen for me to read to the audience."
His director advised him the words would have had to be furnished by staff writers.
"The writers!" Colbert scoffed. "The guys on the fourth floor with the opium bongs, playing Guitar Hero all day! I find that a bit of a stretch."
"I don't like unions," railed Colbert, whose on-air persona is a right-wing blowhard, "and I don't need writers. Which brings me to tonight's Word" -- a favorite feature of the show. But Colbert was quickly mortified: There was no word. That would have required a writer.
Fans of Stewart and Colbert had awaited their return to the air with eagerness and curiosity: How would these funnymen deliver topical satire while stripped of their writers?
That, of course, is the challenge facing "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," which have been out of production since the writers strike began nine weeks ago, and are now resuming with their writers still off the job.
Though both Comedy Cental late-night series have always largely been scripted, that would now violate strike rules of the Writers Guild of America. Even Stewart and Colbert, as guild members, are apparently barred from writing anything.
Monday, both hosts seemed equal to the task of riffing. And, as usual, they had interview segments to help them fill out their half-hour shows.
Stewart's guest was Ronald Seeber, a Cornell University professor and expert on labor relations, with whom Stewart conducted a serious discussion of the strike that consumed the second half of his show.
Colbert had two guests: The Atlantic magazine's Andrew Sullivan and Richard B. Freeman, author of "America Works: Critical Thoughts on the Exceptional U.S. Labor Market." (Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee was expected to appear Wednesday.)
Waiting in line to see Monday's taping of "The Daily Show," New Jersey teacher Scott Gamble called himself "a huge fan of Jon Stewart's. He generally has the best election coverage on the air."
Meanwhile, Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America East, was among about 15 picketers gathered outside the Manhattan studio of "The Daily Show."
Winship said the union's quarrel wasn't with Stewart or Colbert, but "that Viacom and Comedy Central will not yet make a fair and responsible contract" allowing the hosts "to get back their writers."
Also on the picket line, Adam Brooks -- who wrote and directed the upcoming feature "Definitely, Maybe" -- said: "We're trying to send a message that 'The Daily Show' and 'Stephen Colbert' are better shows with writers than without writers."
The strike, which hinges on Internet revenue among other issues, began Nov. 5.