Well now, this is interesting. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the two late night talk show hosts arguably the most reliant on writers–including their most important WGA-affiliated staffers, themselves–returned to the air tonight, in order to get their crews paid again, and in order to make the most of a crazy political season. But as two vocal leftists (or whatever the "real" Colbert is), returning to TV is in some ways a no-win situation for them. On the one hand, they have to come back, because they don't have the financial resources to keep paying their non-writing staffs through the strike the way Letterman or Leno could; and meanwhile, so much juicy stuff is going on in the world, and both of them are quick-witted enough to comment on them fairly extemporaneously.
But is that allowable under WGA guidelines? Right now Jay Leno's in trouble for writing his own monologue. If Jon Stewart's staff picks clips for him to comment on, and Jon pre-rehearses some comments–as he clearly did tonight–does that count as "writing?" And will that work against his image as a labor-supporting, writer-supporting populist?
No wonder Stewart looked so squirmy tonight. And so cranky to boot. During this episode's interview–a sexy two-segment chat with a Cornell labor relations professor–Stewart dropped the not-widely-reported news that he'd convinced Viacom to let him sign an individual deal with the WGA, just like David Letterman's Worldwide Pants. But the WGA turned him down. Here's a guy who wants to get his writers back to work, with the deal the WGA wants–and that they've already approved for other production companies–but for reasons related to some arcane union strategy, he can't get anything going. The world is clearly askew for our Jon.
Still, this was an entertaining if incomplete installment of The Daily Show, with no field reports and not enough material about the presidential campaigns, but some inherent drama in watching the host struggle with his frustration, confusion and hurt–all of which spilled over in the second half of the interview segment, to amusing effect. It's hard to say what The Daily Show will be like the rest of the week, but now that Stewart has made his case for going back on the air, and proved again that he has the chops to make jokes without a script, the episodes to come should be a smoother ride.
Stephen Colbert's complication in returning to work is a little different. As a performer, he's even better equipped than Stewart to fly by the seat of his pants, because he's improv-trained, and used to doing his "Stephen Colbert" character in interviews–from both sides of the desk. The problem is that his character is an anti-union right-winger, which meant he couldn't really come out in support of his striking writers on tonight's The Colbert Report. The best he could do was make a few jokes up top about how he didn't have anything to say, which was demonstrably untrue throughout the rest of the show. If anything, The Colbert Report was closer to its pre-strike incarnation than anything else on the air–Letterman included.
If I were the WGA, I'd call Viacom back pronto. Because the longer these two shows stay on the air without writers, the more polished the hosts are going to become, which can't be a boon to the union. In fact, if Stewart and Colbert want to help their writers, they'll put on the best shows they can, and apply some pressure on the WGA to strike one of those individual deals they're suddenly trumpeting.
Grade: Stewart: B; Colbert: A-
-Jon grew a "strike unibrow," which was a visual gag that didn't really work. Much funnier? Colbert's ersatz ZZ Top beard, which was shorn in a paper-shredding accent. (Question: Does that bit count as "written?")
-According to Jon's math, given the relative amount of time of his absence from the air, the writer's strike is "nine times worse than 9/11."
-Colbert's concession to the writers was to change the pronunciation of his name to Col-"bert" instead of Col-"bear." Stewart's was to change the name of the whole show, from The Daily Show to A Daily Show.
-A Daily Show's "moment of zen:" the outside of the theater, picketed by the WGA. How can Stewart not feel a little pissed about that?