I tuned in to last night's Tonight Show hoping to see a man (well, Jay Leno) on the verge, teetering on the brink of a giant abyss filled with uncomfortable silences, blank stares, and failure in the shape of sharp, sharp knives. Afterall, as I once wondered in this very space, if a comedian like Leno has to stand on an entire staff of writers just to be able to reach mediocrity, where will he be without those writers?
Last night we got our answer: He'll be on stage, telling mediocre (possibly WGA-violating) jokes like always. (My favorite? When Leno, exaggerating the difference between the president of NBC and the writers, showed a video clip of a shanty village that he dubbed "Writertown." ZING! No one was paid for that joke, though the American public should have been paid to sit through it. ZONG! Scabbing for Leno is easy!)
So, in equation form: Leno - Writers = Leno + Writers.
Apart from a pregnant pause here and there, and the inclusion of an audience Q&A; that was at least as entertaining as JayWalking or the Judge Ito dancers, The Tonight Show was the same without writers as it was with. In fact, I might even consider it a little better without writers, because the possibility of Leno tumbling backwards into the failure abyss was always there, which is kind of exciting.
Last night's Late Night With Conan O'Brien in equation form was:
Conan - Writers ? Conan + Writers
I didn't watch Letterman (who had his writing staff back), so I can't provide an equation about that show, but, seriously, Conan was in top form.
You wouldn't know that from reading some of the coverage of the shows today, though.
From The AP:
Filler was immediately evident on the shows without writers. O'Brien, sporting facial growth to match his red hair, showed off Christmas cards, danced on his table as his band played the Clash's "The Magnificent Seven" and tried to see how long he could spin his wedding ring on his desk. Leno took questions from his audience.
Conan's "filler" was at least as good if not better than most of his scripted comedy bits these days (which, lest we forget, are the real filler–however brilliant or inventive–of Late Night talk shows: the interviews with guests are the shows' meat, or at least their reason for being). I like the Masturbating Bear as much as anyone, but the monologue and Conan's desk pieces are my least favorite parts of the show, and without writers they were virtually gone. Conan spinning his wedding ring on his desk and threatening to dance were infinitely more entertaining than another "If They Mated." Last night's show was like Conan O'Brien distilled into a vapor of pure absurd humor. (See some video here, here, and the whole episode on the annointed-by-the-hand-of-the-network NBC.com)
It'll be interesting to see how long he can keep it up, but for right now, here are the late night writers, in equation form:
Writers = probably very, very scared.