NEW YORK – NBC's two late-night franchises are coming back. Will the laughs come with them?
Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien plan a Jan. 2 return with fresh episodes, ending two months of reruns brought on by the writers' strike, the network said Monday. But until the strike is settled, the hosts will be on their own.
While late night TV will forge ahead without joke writers, they won't be far from anyone's mind.
"I will make clear, on the program, my support for the writers and I'll do the best version of `Late Night' I can under the circumstances," O'Brien said in a written statement. "Of course, my show will not be as good. In fact, in moments it may very well be terrible."
Both NBC hosts indicated it was a torturous decision for them to come back, torn by their support for the writers and knowledge that several dozen other staff members would be laid off if the shows remained dark. Some of the late-night stars covered employees' salaries during the holiday season.
Leno said that with talks breaking down and no further negotiations scheduled, he felt it was his responsibility to get his 100 non-writing staff members back to work.
Mike Sweeney, chief of the "Late Night" staff of 14 writers, said "we all know what a difficult position Conan is in. He's been incredibly supportive of us."
Sweeney said he didn't want to comment on his boss's decision to come back without the writers. The "Tonight" show's chief writer, walking the picket line in Burbank, Calif., was similarly reluctant to criticize his boss's decision.
"I'm happy that he's been able to hold out this long," said Joe Madeiros. "He's not the only one. There's a lot of pressure on late-night hosts.
Marvin Silbermintz, who has been writing for Leno since 1987, said a "quality" monologue will be tough to produce without writers, but he's confident Leno can carry the show on his own.
"Jay traveled the country doing comedy clubs for years, working the audience. He warms up every show talking to people about what they do, where they're from," he said.
In a statement, the guild chided NBC.
"NBC forcing Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien back on the air without writers is not going to provide the quality entertainment that the public deserves. The only solution to the strike is a negotiated settlement of the issues," either by the studio alliance or individual companies, the guild said.
The strike has left the nation's public discourse without its laugh track as the baseball steroids scandal spread, pop stars Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears continued to spiral out of control, and the presidential campaign heated up in anticipation of the first votes.
NBC's announcement could make it easier for other programs like Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" or "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" on ABC to return. Also, the WGA is talking about a separate deal with David Letterman's production company so his CBS show can return with its writers.
The development could cut both ways for the union. Suspended late-night programming has been the most visible sign of the strike for the viewing public, and bringing the shows back could remove a significant piece of leverage. At the same time, the hosts could come back and pepper their network bosses with ridicule in support of the writers' cause.
That's what Johnny Carson did in 1988, when he similarly returned to the air after two months off during a writers' strike then. Carson worked without writers for three weeks, then reached a separate deal with the union to bring his staff back.
"We've been taking shots at NBC for 15 years," noted Jeff Ross, "Late Night" executive producer.
The networks have been suffering in the ratings without the live programming, giving ABC's "Nightline" its biggest boost since the days of Ted Koppel.
Both Ross and Debbie Vickers, executive producer of "Tonight," said they are beginning to contemplate how their shows will be different. It's not even clear whether Leno will open the show with a traditional monologue, Vickers said, although she noted that Carson kept that element even without his joke writers by writing his own.
But Carson was not a guild member, whereas Leno and O'Brien are. For that and other practical reasons, they may be forced to return to an old-fashioned notion of a talk show by spending more time with guests. In recent years, the late-night programs have relied much more heavily on prepared comedy bits.
"There are a lot of ways we can go with this," Ross said. "Now we have to be serious and figure it out."
If Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company strikes a separate deal, it raises the prospect of a Letterman show with its writers competing for a prolonged period against Leno without writers. It could give Letterman a competitive edge in a time slot where Leno has dominated in the ratings for the past decade.
A similar imbalance is possible an hour later: Worldwide Pants owns Craig Ferguson's CBS talk show that airs directly opposite O'Brien.
"It certainly isn't our first choice to go against them with writers," Vickers said. "But this is beyond our control."
With Kimmel's show ultimately controlled by the Walt Disney Co. and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" by Viacom Inc., it's far less likely they would strike separate deals with writers.
Both the NBC show executives said that many potential guests privately expressed a reluctance to cross picket lines to appear. But as the strike has continued, that opposition is melting, they said. Neither of the programs has announced any bookings for their returns.
On Monday, the writers guild said it would meet with the Directors Guild of America to discuss new media and DGA studies on the issue. The directors guild has said it could begin its own contract talks with the alliance as early as January, which could increase pressure on the writers to reach a deal.