NBC's late-night returns are dismal

Without writers, `Leno' is too political

CBS' `Letterman' and his scribes set the right tone

TV Review

January 04, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun television critic

It didn't take long for late-night TV and politics to re-establish their symbiotic relationship.

On Wednesday, the first night back since the Hollywood writers' strike started Nov. 5, The Late Show With David Letterman opened with Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton, while Jay Leno's Tonight Show featured Republican candidate Mike Huckabee.

Great face time for the candidates on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. But not such great viewing for fans, especially those of The Tonight Show.

Clinton's appearance, which came at the start of Letterman's program, lasted only a few seconds and did manage to incorporate a bit of the host's trademark sense of irony and sarcasm.

"David has been off the air for eight long weeks," Clinton said. "Oh, well, all good things must come to an end."

On the other hand, Huckabee's visit to Tonight ran an outrageous 16 minutes and will surely be remembered as a low point in the storied history of the NBC show.

The all-important difference between the two hosts is that Letterman returned with writers thanks to an interim agreement between his production company, Worldwide Pants, and the Writers Guild of America. But while Letterman owns his show, Leno's is controlled by NBC Universal, and that media giant has no deal with the writers. As a member of the Guild, Leno is crossing his own union's picket line - as is Conan O'Brien, who also returned to the NBC airwaves without writers.

Those millions of TV fans who were wondering what Leno and O'Brien would do without writers got their answer: not much that was worthy of network television. In Leno's case, in addition to lobbing softball questions to a politician, the lantern-jawed comedian co-hosted a cooking segment (pepper steak) and answered questions from the audience ("When will you be coming to Branson, Mo.?").

Leno's return to the airwaves resembled a local morning talk show in a small TV market like Cedar Rapids, Iowa. All that was missing was a female co-host in a short leather skirt and high boots. It didn't much look like the legendary program once hosted by Johnny Carson and Jack Paar.

Huckabee's segment wasn't just deadly dull as entertainment, it was also deeply troubling in the way Leno and NBC allowed the airwaves to be used on the eve of such an important moment in the presidential race.

In one representative exchange, Leno asked Huckabee why he thinks he went from being in "last place" to being the "frontrunner."

"In looking for a presidential candidate, people want someone who looks more like the guy they work with - than the guy who laid them off," Huckabee answered in a campaign trail sound bite.

Worse yet, Leno gave Huckabee ample room to attack another Republican hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (Huckabee said the thought of running the kind of attack ads that Romney was airing in Iowa made him "want to take a shower.")

The only respite from such blatant politicking came when Huckabee strapped on a bass guitar and joined the house band for a number - trying to imitate Bill Clinton's landmark performance playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show.

"Wow! Nice job," Leno shouted, rising to his feet to applaud what was a routine 12-bar blues shuffle bass line played by Huckabee. If anyone forgot what a hack Leno could be, they were reminded at such moments Wednesday night.

And things only got worse on NBC when O'Brien came on. Instead of a monologue, O'Brien opened with a string of self-serving statements aimed at suggesting that he was in "solidarity" with the writers.

Not two minutes went by without him referencing the strike - or talking about the not very flattering beard he grew during the strike. There was little chance of anyone being entertained by anything O'Brien or his featured guest, comedian and game-show host Bob Saget, said or did.

The place to be Wednesday night was CBS - despite Clinton's brief videotaped appearance to start the show. In addition to a solid monologue and stellar Top 10 List, viewers of Letterman's show enjoyed the high-voltage comedy of Robin Williams, who poked savage fun at Letterman for a shabby-looking beard the host said he grew during the strike. (Think these guys had too much time on their hands, or what?)

Viewers just seemed glad that the late-night hosts were back at all.

Tonight was seen by 7.2 million viewers, or 43 percent more than Leno had been averaging this season before the strike took him off the air Nov. 5, according to national ratings supplied by Nielsen Media Research. Letterman's Late Show had 5.5 million viewers, 45 percent more than his pre-strike average, Nielsen said, and O'Brien's Late Night had 2.8 million viewers, up 37 percent from his pre-strike average.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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