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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 January 2008, 09:57 GMT
US TV's talk show titans return

By Peter Bowes
BBC News, Los Angeles

David Letterman
David Letterman returned sporting a Biblical beard

The titans of late night comedy have returned to US TV with - and without - their usual teams of writers.

David Letterman and Jay Leno were forced off the air when the screenwriters strike started two months ago.

Letterman, whose company Worldwide Pants reached a local agreement with the writers' union, marked his return with plenty of razzmatazz and fanfare.

He opened the show with high-kicking dancing girls waving Writers Guild of America picket signs.

The veteran comedian launched into the show with his traditional monologue and a quick-fire sequence of one-liners.

"I know what you're thinking," he quipped.

"Dave looks like a cattle-drive cook," referring to full a grey beard he had grown while away from the cameras.

"Ladies and gentlemen, two long months, but by God, I'm finally out of rehab."

"You're watching the only show on the air that has jokes written by union writers," Letterman said.

"I hear you at home thinking to yourself, 'This crap is written?'"

Serious tone

Leno did not have the luxury of working alongside a team of writers but the NBC host made light of the situation.

"Folks lets get right to it. A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim walk into a bar. The Jew says to the Muslim... see I have no idea what they say because there's a writers' strike."

Leno told his audience the strike had already cost Hollywood over half a billion dollars.

Robin Williams leaving studios after David Letterman's show
Actor Robin Williams graced The David Letterman Show

"Or as Paul McCartney calls that, a divorce."

Leno joked that the strike had hit NBC hard.

"Do you realise there are more people picketing NBC now than watching NBC right now?"

Adopting a more serious tone, the comic explained that he still supported the writers. He said he had decided to return to work when it was clear that the negotiations had broken off with no further talks scheduled.

"We had to come back because we have essentially 19 people putting 160 people out of work. We continue to support the guild."

'My wife's fault'

Leno also explained how he was managing to continue the show without his team of writers.

"I'm doing what I did the day I started. I write jokes and I wake up my wife and go, 'Honey, is this funny?'

"So if this monologue doesn't work, it's my wife's fault. We're not using outside guys."

It is unclear whether Leno, a Writers Guild member, broke union rules by penning his own material.

Leno also made a rare reference to his CBS rival.

"Dave was able to get a deal, because Dave has his own company. I don't blame him for getting a deal, God bless him. But we have to go by ourselves up against the CBS machine."

Leno's main guest was the Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, who did not talk about the writers' strike. The show also featured a cooking segment and a performance by rapper Chingy.

Jay Leno with presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee
Jay Leno's main guest was Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee

Letterman had the bigger-name guests, featuring Robin Williams and a pre-recorded cameo appearance by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Leno's performance, while more subdued than Letterman's, was not markedly different than usual. But a lack of scripted material was evident, especially during a somewhat lame question and answer session with the audience.

By contrast, Letterman's show served as what one union leader described as a "bully pulpit" for striking writers and their issues.

The comedian's legendary Top 10 list featured a satirical "demands of the striking writers" list.

In the coming weeks, a key test for Leno and the other late night comedians, who intend to plough on without their writers, will be how many A-list celebrities they can persuade to cross picket lines.

With talk show appearances playing a key role in awards season campaigns, some stars are likely to find themselves torn between loyalty to the writers and pressure from the studios to promote their Oscar-worthy performances.

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