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Happy New Year, Especially for Late-Night Fans
January 1, 2008  | By David Bianculli
Just before the close of business yesterday, when everyone was gone or desperate to go to celebrate New Year's Eve, CBS sent out an email announcing David Letterman's Late Showguests for January 2, his return show with writing staff intact. Happy days are here again.

robin_williams_1_license_to_wed.jpgThe scheduled guests for tomorrow's Late Show with David Letterman (11:35 p.m. ET), the first non-repeat program since the Writers Guild of America strike began two months ago, are Robin Williams and country artist Shooter Jennings. Bill Maher, actress Ellen Page and the cast of Broadway's Young Frankenstein are scheduled for Thursday, and Donald Trump and hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco for Friday.

Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, which follows Letterman's program on CBS, also returns tomorrow with an original show, and also benefits from the special interim agreement Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company reached with the WGA. Both series are returning with writing staffs intact, while other late-night talk shows returning tomorrow, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live and NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, are resuming production without their writers.

Some writers on the picket lines, especially from the movie side of things, are upset that Letterman got to negotiate a separate deal and give his writers paychecks while others continue to sacrifice. Other writers are angry that the NBC and ABC shows are returning to TV without writers.

In this particular corner of the writers' strike, I'm not angry at all. All movies, and most TV shows, can be made later, whenever the strike ends, without much of a dfference in the final product. But topical programs, and late-night talk shows are chief among them, lose golden opportunities for comedy and commentary every single day - opportunities that will never come again. With or without writers, under whatever terms they can negotiate, Leno, Letterman and the rest need to be back on the air. With the Iowa Caucus in two days, it's almost a form of public service.

(That's even more true of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, by the way, and their Comedy Central shows are due to return Monday, sans writers.)

What's going to be interesting to watch, of course, is not only the content of these shows, but the guests booked for each. For two months, ABC's Nightline, the only network show in its time slot not showing reruns, has enjoyed a double-digit increase in audience sampling. Where will viewers go starting tomorrow? And what will they see when they get there?

Letterman and Ferguson should look and feel pretty much the same, with the same caliber and mix of guests and comedy as before. Leno, O'Brien and Kimmel all should do just fine thinking on their feet and joking around, but interviews may not be as focused, comedy skits will be shelved or minimal, and guest rosters may not be as dynamic.

Many actors and directors, whose guilds are in solidarity with the writers and may strike themselves if no settlements are reached by June, refuse to cross WGA picket lines. This gives the shows on CBS a huge advantage.

And where some people have suggested that a solution to that problem is for NBC and ABC to book more authors and Hollywood's few but prominent politically conservative celebrities (Tom Selleck and Patricia Heaton, for example), one late-night producer told me weeks ago that wasn't necessarily the answer. Many authors, apparently, feel strong solidarity with fellow writers, and even Republican celebrities have strong feelings about crossing picket lines.

But the return of all these shows, under whatever constraints, is a good thing - and a good way to start 2008.

Happy New Year.

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