Jay, Dave, Conan deliver pro-WGA message

Latenight’s leading lights took up the WGA’s cause in their return to the airwaves on Wednesday, balancing pro-WGA messages with their first jokes in two months — some scripted, some not.

Jay Leno delivered an entirely self-written monologue (with input from his wife), while Conan O’Brien said he “desperately” needed his scribes back. Letterman delivered some of the most overt statements of support to mainstream viewers since the strike began — helped by his own writers, who were able to return thanks to a WGA deal hammered out last week by Worldwide Pants.

Also returning: L.A.-based gabbers Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Kimmel.

Letterman took the stage of “The Late Show With David Letterman” amid a chorus line of high-kicking showgirls who wielded WGA picket signs. His show bowed with a cold open featuring Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton intoning: “Dave’s been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers strike. Tonight he’s back. Oh well — all good things must come to an end.”

Across the country, Leno’s show looked remarkably the same, with Leno peppering his monologue with writers strike references, including a jab at NBC: “Do you know there are actually more people picketing NBC now than watching NBC, right now.”

Letterman, of course, returns to original production under very different circumstances than O’Brien, as Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production banner cut an interim deal with the WGA that allowed “Late Show” and its “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” companion to return with their writing staffs.

Leno and O’Brien, on the other hand, returned to work without writers and with WGA pickets stationed outside the network’s Rockefeller Plaza and Burbank HQs, despite both hosts’ public support of the guild.

“Let’s talk for a minute about the situation we find ourselves in,” O’Brien said at the top of his show. “As you know, two months ago, the Writers Guild of America went out on strike and we took our show ‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’ off the air in support of the writers. This has been a tough time not only for our show, but for a lot of people in the entertainment industry. Good people right now are out of work. And possibly worse, with all the latenight shows off the air, Americans have been forced to read books and occasionally even speak to one another, which has been horrifying.”

O’Brien poked fun at his predicament — at one point showing off his skill at spinning his wedding ring on his desk —  but left no doubt as to his personal view of the situation.

“I want to make this clear, I support (WGA’s) cause — these are very talented, very creative people who work extremely hard, and I believe what they’re asking for is fair. My biggest wish is that they get a great deal very quickly and get back here, because we desperately need them on the show.”

Whether or not Leno’s gag-filled monologue — it played like almost any other Leno opening, complete with well-polished jokes and asides — passes muster with the WGA remains to be seen. The guild has said that any jokes written by members are verboten; for his part, Leno said that he has reverted back to writing jokes the way he did when he started out as a comedian.

“I write jokes and wake my wife up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Honey, is this funny?’ So if this monologue doesn’t work it’s my wife’s fault,” he said. “We are not using outside guys. We are following the Guild thing. We can write for ourselves.”

Leno said he understood Letterman’s decision to go ahead and seal a separate deal with the WGA.

“I don’t blame him for getting a deal, God bless him,” Leno said. “We have to go by ourselves up against the CBS machine. One man against a monologue.”

Leno filled two full segments with GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee — who also played guitar with the “Tonight Show” band after one commercial break. With less comedy bits and more time for interview, Leno conducted a lengthier and more political conversation with Huckabee than he normally does with guests.

Both Letterman and O’Brien showed off their “strike beards,” which idled latenight hosts and scribes began growing during the downtime forced by the strike.

“I know this looks fake. It looks like it ties on in the back, but believe it or not, I actually grew a beard,” O’Brien quipped. “Two birds, one stone. I never grew a beard in my entire life. I grew it out of solidarity for my writers, and to prove that I have some testosterone.”

Letterman compared himself to a “cattle drive cook” and a “missing hiker.”

“Late Show” didn’t lack for barbs aimed at Hollywood’s majors, who are the prime targets of the WGA’s strike, but Letterman also clearly made an effort to keep the tone fairly light.

During the latter half of the opening monologue, Letterman noted: “We’re the only show on the air with jokes by union writers! And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, This crap is written?”

The show’s famed Top 10 list was devoted to “Demands of Striking Writers,” and each entry was read by a striking WGA member, including one presented by Chris Albers of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”

Among the highlights:

No. 9, delivered by “Colbert Report” scribe Laura Krafft: “No rollbacks in health benefits, so I can treat the hypothermia I caught on the picket lines.”

No. 4, read by Nora Ephron: “Hazard pay for breaking up fights on ‘The View.’ “

No. 1, read by Alan Zwiebel:  Producers must immediately remove their heads from their asses.”

Letterman’s guests included Robin Williams. O’Brien chatted up comics Bob Saget and Dwayne Perkins and featured musical duo Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding.

Now that latenight shows are resuming, there’s much speculation in latenight circles about whether A-list celebs will be willing to cross picket lines to appear on the NBC shows and whether the lack of pickets —  plus the luxury of scripts — will give Letterman’s and Ferguson’s shows a significant competitive advantage.

After a two-week holiday break, WGA pickets returned in force Wednesday — both in Gotham for O’Brien’s show and outside NBC Studios in Burbank, where “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” was being taped with Huckabee, as well as chef (and one-time sitcom star) Emeril Lagasse.

The guild originally planned to wait until next Monday to resume picketing, but WGA leaders decided earlier this week to show their  displeasure with the Peacock in the wake of the deals for the Letterman and Ferguson shows.

“Please come out to the lines and show NBC that they might be able to put a show on the air, but it won’t be a good show until the writers return, and talent can appear without having to cross a picket line,” the WGA told members.

Several picket signs tweaked Huckabee, including “Hey Huckabee, Don’t Scab Me” and “Huckabee, Jesus Would Not Cross.” Prior to the taping, Huckabee said he supported the WGA “unequivocally.”

The guild issued a subsequent statement saying it was  “disappointed” that Huckabee crossed the picket line.   “We welcome the statements of support he has made for striking writers, but we ask him to respect our picket lines in the future and urge the media conglomerates to return to the bargaining table to make a fair deal that will put writers and the entertainment industry back to work,” it added.

Notables participating in the Burbank picketing included scribes Ron Moore (“Battlestar Galactica”) and Seth McFarlane (“Family Guy”) and thesp Jon Cryer (“Two and a Half Men,” which closed down production on the first day of the strike).

Cryer, who’s scheduled to appear on Ferguson’s show next week, said that the picketing’s not aimed at Leno. “None of us have anything against Jay, but we do have something against the network not being willing to make a fair deal,” he added.

Talks collapsed Dec. 7 between the WGA and the AMPTP and no new bargaining is scheduled. At the time, the terms of guild’s streaming media proposal — included in Letterman’s deal — called for scribes to get paid 3% of the applicable minimum for up to one year from date of initial exhibition, writer gets paid 3% of applicable minimum for each calendar quarter in which the program is available for viewing in the U.S. and Canada; in addition, for streams in excess of 100,000, they get an additional 3% of the applicable minimum for each successive 100,000 streams; thereafter, the writer gets 2.5% of  company’s “accountable receipts”

For the Letterman and Ferguson shows, the applicable minimum is about $12,600, so 3% is about $378. If this is correct, for the first year a show was streamed, writers would get $378 per quarter (assuming the show is made available for longer than one quarter, which is not always the case), plus an additional 3% fee every time the number of downloads increased by 100,000.

This compares to the AMPTP’s last offer of about $250 flat fee for one year’s use (for an hourlong show; or about $135 for half-hour) and then 1.2% of the producer’s license fee after that.

As for paid digital downloads, the Worldwide Pants deal is 2.5% of companys’ “accountable receipts” — i.e. distributor’s gross.

(Cynthia Littleton and Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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