Leno, O'Brien to return on Jan. 2

NBC latenight hosts Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien will return to work Jan. 2, two months after their shows went dark in sympathy with the WGA strike. The big question, though, is whether top-tier stars will return as guests.

The return of the two shows had been expected for some time now, with the early January start date becoming an inevitability last week (Daily Variety, Dec. 14). Over the weekend, David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants said it was trying to get its two CBS talkers — Letterman’s own “Late Show” and “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” — back on the air and was seeking an interim deal with the guild to bless the return with writers.

O’Brien and Leno issued separate statements explaining that their decisions were motivated by the need to keep their non-WGA staffers employed.

“The truth is that shows like mine are hybrids, with both written and nonwritten content,” O’Brien said. “An unwritten version of ‘Late Night,’ though not desirable, is possible — and no one has to be fired.”

Leno indicated that the lack of progress in talks between the WGA and AMPTP was key in his decision.

“Now that the talks have broken down and there are no further negotiations scheduled, I feel it’s my responsibility to get my 100 nonwriting staff, which were laid off, back to work,” he said. “We fully support our writers and I think they understand my decision.”

Leno and O’Brien aren’t returning to work immediately because, with the holidays next week, it didn’t make sense to return for a few days only to go dark again.

The big uncertainty facing the hosts is whether top celebs will agree to appear on the latenight shows. “Tonight” exec producer Debbie Vickers and “Late Show” exec producer Jeff Ross said it’s too early to say what their guest lineups will look like — but they’re hopeful.

“We’ve been on the phone with publicists for the last six weeks. January feels better than December did,” Vickers said. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but we’ll be able to do shows.”

With the possibility of a strike resolution, or a return to work sans writers, talent coordinators on all the latenight talkers have been continuing to line up guests over the past two months; several stars have told stories recently of being booked on gabfests, then canceled, then booked and canceled again.

Also unclear is whether Leno and O’Brien will serve up full monologues. Johnny Carson prepared his own monologue when he went back to work — without scribes — six weeks into the 1988 strike.

“The situation at the time was that the hosts were allowed to write and perform their own material,” said NBC latenight chief Rick Ludwin.

But in a statement released Monday by the WGA West and East, the org contended that the hosts would not be able to tell any of their own jokes.

“The strike rules, among other provisions, prohibit guild members from performing any writing services during a strike for any and all struck companies,” the WGA said. “This prohibition includes all writing by any guild member that would be performed on-air by that member (including monologues, characters and featured appearances) if any portion of that written material is customarily written by striking writers.”

Vickers said she thinks Leno will do a monologue of some sort but said he would respect WGA rules. Leno’s and O’Brien’s services as performers are covered under their AFTRA contracts.

Should Letterman secure waivers for “Late Show” and “Late Late Show,” the ability to include a monologue and other comedy bits would seemingly give the CBS shows a big advantage over their NBC counterparts.

“It would be great if we were playing on an even playing field, but we may not,” Ross said. “It’s gonna be hard. We have 12 writers here normally. We’ll just have to figure it out.”

O’Brien said he plans to talk about the strike on his show.

“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,” he said. “Of course, my show will not be as good. In fact, in moments it may very well be terrible. My sincerest hope is that all of my writers are back soon, working under a contract that provides them everything they deserve.”

Host also noted that he has been and continues to be “an ardent supporter of the WGA and their cause. My career in television started as a WGA member and my subsequent career as a performer has only been possible because of the creativity and integrity of my writing staff.”

“Late Night” head writer Mike Sweeney said he and his fellow scribes have “appreciated the support (O’Brien) has been giving us,” and they understand the reasons behind the host’s decision to return on air.

“He’s always been really loyal to his writers and the rest of his staff, and I think it’s important to him not to have all those people laid off,” Sweeney said. “We all understand what a tough position he’s in.”

Of course, sans writers, “Late Night” will be a very different show — and Sweeney said he wasn’t quite sure how the show would fill time.

“I’m assuming there will be a lot more guests,” he said. “Maybe they’ll have people with interesting coin collections on, I’m not sure.”

Sweeney — who, like other “Late Night” staffers, has started growing a “strike beard” (albeit later than most, which is why he’s sporting an early growth) — admitted it will be interesting to see how the hosts manage the time.

“It’s like a high-wire act,” he said. “I remember during the 1988 strike, I was excited to see when Letterman came back on what he would do without writers.”

Leno said keeping his staff working was key to his decision.

The host said he had been “hoping for a quick resolution when this began” and that while talks were continuing, he had kept “Tonight” dark “in support of our writing staff.”

Ludwin said both hosts were “incredibly anxious to get back on the air. They’d much prefer to be back on with the writers,” however.

With Leno and O’Brien agreeing to return to work, it’s expected that NBC will again resume paying their staffers, even though the shows won’t be back on the air until Jan. 2.

As for the potential backlash, Ludwin said he felt “the latenight hosts have been singled out and used as a visible shield by the Writers Guild.”

“Others are allowed to do non-WGA functions on other projects without retribution,” he said. “It’s a little unfair to suggest that latenight talkshow hosts can’t come back and talk even though they’re members of the WGA.”

It’s not yet clear if or when ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” will return to the air, nor has Comedy Central said anything about “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” or “The Colbert Report.” In the case of “Kimmel,” however, it seems likely he will return soon.

A Comedy Central insider said “Daily Show” and “Colbert” would continue in repeats for now but that the return of O’Brien and Leno to the airwaves could change that. The source contended that field reports on “The Daily Show” do not necessarily have to be written by scribes.

Meanwhile, unlike the broadcast webs — which cut payrolls on their latenight talkers several weeks ago — Comedy Central continues to pay the staffers on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”

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