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Late Night Shows Ask, "Can We Talk?" - And Some Will, Very Soon
December 18, 2007  | By David Bianculli
David Letterman

Under different circumstances, and with different restrictions, broadcast TV's late-night shows are poised to return. NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, will be back Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008, but without their writers. And at CBS, David Letterman's Worldwide Pants productions, his own Late Show and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, have negotiated a separate deal with the Writers Guild of America to return with their writing staffs.

(In the interim, Letterman has grown a handsome, Santa-ish strike beard, as this New York Post photo shows.)

It's a start, and a good one. Current events are too volatile to have a long strike deny us the perspectives, and punch lines, of our national comics. But at NBC (and most likely at ABC, if a waiver is negotiated for Jimmy Kimmel), that long national nightmare of denial will continue.

When Leno and O'Brien return, it'll be not only without writing staffs, but without monologues. That's part of the deal. Letterman and Ferguson, on the other hand, have a different type of waiver, and will be able to dive right in. That's a palpable advantage, and one that may end up altering the balance, and the status quo, of the late-night landscape.

Had Letterman and Ferguson been forced to come back and play with the same handicap as NBC's late-night tag team, the CBS duo might have fared better anyway. Like Jack Paar, they'd shine in a straight conversational format, so extended interviews wouldn't be a minus.

But if the CBS late-night shows profit from their more favorable Writers Guild of America agreements, so will CBS - whose CEO, Leslie Moonves, is one of the tough negotiators against whom the WGA is striking.

There's no doubt whatsoever that, when Letterman returns, he will do so with both guns blazing, poking fun at Moonves mercilessly and constantly. But he's been doing that already, for more than a decade, and Moonves is a smart enough executive to play along, even to take Letterman's calls on air.

Don't expect any such calls soon - but so long as Letterman has a competitive advantage over NBC, and especially if that's reflected in the ratings, don't expect Moonves to protest too much, either.

For viewers, this impending return is a good development, as is anything that moves the strike negotiations forward. Yesterday was the last day of WGA picketing for 2007, and while the two sides aren't talking, at least, once again, they're talking about talking.

But we now know that if Letterman is going to present his annual Christmas Late Show special before Christmas, it'll have to be Monday, on Christmas Eve - perhaps, sadly, as a rerun. There's talk, though, that Darlene Love and company may return for a new holiday show anyway, even if it's after the New Year.

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