Latenight television, especially the hosts, loves its writers, regardless of whether they are back to work or not. The returns of Jay Leno sans scribes and David Letterman with his writing team intact were dramatically — and comically — distinct: “Tonight” felt like it was held together by duct tape and paper clips; “Late Show,” at the least, felt like an out-of-town tryout just about ready for hitting Broadway.
Leno had his moments despite never finding the even-keeled pace that’s “The Tonight Show’s” signature. Letterman had the benefit of dancers, sidekicks and goofiness — and when he interviewed a member of the show’s staff, he appeared informed and interested, traits we might not have seen six months ago.
Both played it safe in their returns, booking guests who would require little more than gentle prompts. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee took Leno’s softballs and proffered audience-friendly platform speeches. Robin Williams, who took his seat next to Letterman riffing on the host’s “strike beard,” was let loose to get scatological, channel voices (Walter Brennan, a rabbi, rednecks and so on) and take a shot at poignancy reflecting on his performing overseas for the troops.
After delivering monologues heavy on writer strike material, the two hosts turned to audience questions to fill time — a move that was trademark Letterman and, due to the lack of a script, discomforting on “Tonight.” Leno had to actually answer benign queries, Letterman had the benefit of prepared answers and jokes; The only thing missing on Letterman were the gift certificates to Manhattan eateries.
With Leno, the Q&A represented a shift in tone from the monologue: This was no longer kind-and-gentle Jay, this was a host trying to hold back and not thoroughly insult the hayseeds who had been handed the mic. (“Tonight’s” audience, based on cheers for Republicans and boos for the USC Trojans, seemed, packed with out-of-towners.)
Letterman, obviously, was able to reach into his entire bag of tricks, from a Top 10 list featuring prominent writers such as Nora Ephron and Warren Leight, to a fake advertisement to a revival of a segment from the 1988 strike, “Hal Gurnee’s Network Time Killers.” Leno was stuck cooking a steak with Emeril Lagasse.
“Without writers and caffeine, I have no personality whatsoever,” Letterman quipped early in his show, and for all we know he’s not lying. While both shows noted how they support the WGA and their demands, “Late Show” drove home the point a bit more forcefully.
Leno noted dryly that they had 19 people (the writers) putting 160 people out of work — the reason for returning to air — and explained the difference between Letterman having his own company and how NBC Universal owns “The Tonight Show.”
Yet even without a writing staff, one had to wonder why Lagasse would be introduced as a Food Network personality when their divorce has been widely publicized. (On a more minor note, why would Leno talk to Huckabee about playing the guitar when he plays the bass? He even jammed with Kevin Eubanks’ band, not quite eliciting the excitement Bill Clinton generated playing sax with Arsenio Hall’s band more than 15 years ago.)
The two shows concluded with performances by rappers, Chingy on “Tonight” and Lupe Fiasco on “Late Show.” Without debating the merits of the performers, it was clear, however, that Chingy and his guest singer Amerie were relying heavily on prerecorded elements in their performance despite the presence of a band. Lupe Fiasco, conversely, delivered an exciting perf with a band that was clearly playing live.
In a way the musical performances were microcosms of what attracts auds to these two shows — Leno’s taped bits and Letterman flying by the seat of the pants. Without the benefit of his characters, newspaper headlines and man-on-the-street interviews, “Tonight” will continue to resemble a shell of its true self. Letterman, provided guests can be booked, should be back to form in no time.