The return of the three later-night programs reveals the rough shape that TV will likely assume in the weeks ahead, as a writerless Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel at times awkwardly vamped their way through the proceedings — relying on comics and affiliated network talent more than usual — while Craig Ferguson reveled in his interim Writers Guild deal with an all-sketch hour and none of the guilt. Ultimately, one suspects the glut of strike-related references will diminish — O’Brien’s expressions of support certainly rang hollow — and even Kimmel wondered if there were places where “no one cares about the writers strike.”
As a writer by training, O’Brien sounded the most conflicted, and unlike his lead-in Jay Leno — who, so reliant on the monologue, cobbled together his own — spent what’s normally the show’s front-loaded first half joking about killing time, from spinning his wedding ring to dancing on his desk.
Demonstrating how he has matured as a performer over the years, O’Brien managed to ad-lib amusing moments — playing studio honchos as Bond villain Blofeld, pretending to stroke a cat — but his banter with usually reliable guest Bob Saget was stilted at best, and the arrival of standup Dwayne Perkins and a musical guest almost came as a relief.
Kimmel also eschewed opening remarks, quickly segueing to his desk, where he expressed frustration at the Screen Actors Guild’s attempt to keep actors from appearing on his ABC show. Yet while the host’s breezy, off-the-cuff style played reasonably well when he was alone, his segments with the inexplicable Andy Dick — irritating in the best of times — and “Dancing With the Stars” winner Helio Castroneves lacked the same level of comfort, as if Kimmel could think of nothing else but to repeatedly verbally leer at Castroneves’ dance partner.
Ferguson clearly had the best time of it, but then, that’s a regular part of his show’s charm: Even when gags fall flat, the Scottish host sloughs them off, as if he’s having the time of his life riffing on things.
In that respect, he may be the best suited to getting by without writers, though he accentuated the positive in his comeback with an all-sketch lineup that proved uneven, though a late-in-the-show bit in which he played Prince Charles as a talkshow host — fronting “The Rather Late Programme,” with a bad comb-over and hideous teeth — was laugh-out-loud funny.
In a reference sure to be lost on almost everyone, Ferguson also began by paraphrasing Jack Paar, referring to his time away (Paar once walked off “The Tonight Show” for several weeks because the network censored him) by quipping, “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted….”
The line was oddly appropriate if a bit misplaced, since it’s his rivals that will almost surely need to be more like Paar for however long the strike lingers — a trifle looser, drawing from a more eclectic roster of guests and manufacturing much of the best comedy at the desk, as Johnny Carson once did and David Letterman always has.
In terms of an opening volley, nobody completely embarrassed himself, as some might have hoped for the sheer theater of it; still, it’s a good bet that the Paley Center won’t be reserving a place in the archives for any of these episodes, other than as a footnote to an interval in TV history that is, at its core, not very funny.