Leno and Conan Unplugged

How did they do without their writers?

David Letterman

Last night, two months into the WGA strike, both The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Late Night With Conan O’Brien squirmed back onto NBC, absent the services of their writers’ rooms. The hosts had crafted all of their material by themselves. Well, crafted is a bit strong a word to use in Leno’s case, so let’s instead say slapped together or sweated out or gently extruded. There was a certain charm to this. On stage, the man glowed with a hustler’s verve, and his inherent shtickiness seemed more honest and less smarmy than usual. The opening monologue was as sorry as usual, with Leno noting, on the eve of the Iowa caucus, that the place is nicknamed the Tall Corn State: “You see, that’s why Dennis Kucinich has problems being seen there.” Over at the bandstand, his drummer’s rimshots sizzled forth with palpable anxiety, which somehow made everything tolerable.

Leno’s monologue involved some flaccid attempts to wring humor from the strike, with the control room cueing up old footage of a brawl in South Korea’s parliament to illustrate the negotiations between writers and producers and running a video of a shantytown—a shantytown digitally festooned with the logos of Desperate Housewives and The Office—to dramatize the living conditions of WGA members. We returned from the first break—flipping resignedly back over from David Letterman, who’s also returned, but with his staff and a beard that split the difference between Appalachian yokel and Old West prospector—to discover Leno soliciting questions from members of his audience. They wanted to know if he might tape an episode in Branson, Mo.; if he had considered retiring to Daytona Beach, Fla.; if he’d made any New Year’s resolutions. The host ad-libbed gamely enough and managed to limit himself to only one Monica Lewinski joke.

His first guest was Mike Huckabee, who gained the stage as the band blared out “Everyday People,” because there’s nothing more populist than crossing a picket line. He had just flown in from Iowa, and the tone of the interview was such that it went without saying that, boy, were his arms tired. Huckabee proved entirely witty, which worked out for no one; he was quick enough to spotlight the host’s flat-footedness and so smooth as to glory in his own glibness. That’s entertainment. The governor then made way for celebrity chef Emeril Legasse, who instructed Leno in a special technique for desecrating a perfectly good cut of meat with mustard, shallots, brandy, cream, and demi-glace, among other bludgeons. Was any of this good TV? Not really, but it was decent spectacle. There’s something piquant and a little lurid and maybe even touching about seeing the top-rated personality in late-night TV fling himself into the queries of a flushed audience and the skillet of an excitable cook in only his first day back on the job. In the absence of writers, Leno was reduced to his essence—a scrapping stand-up whose every gesture is an ingratiating shrug.

Meanwhile, Conan, reduced to his essence, is, of course, absurd, and his return played loose and odd and literally hairy. He, too, had grown his beard out, a swashbuckling number more eccentric than Letterman’s. In combination with his Tintin swoop of hair and frequent full-body wiggling, it gave him the aspect of a dashing shut-in. In bits that seemed to go on forever and yet were still too short, he addressed his predicament directly—twice seeing how long he could set his wedding ring spinning on his desk and doing a masterfully self-indulgent taped bit about how he’d spent his days during the strike. (In the main, his pursuits were musical. He crunched out “Sunshine of Your Love” on guitar and, playing Guitar Hero with his colleagues, sang the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” in the voice of Edith Bunker, but he also played with dolls.) The performance had a steady dorm-room air and an occasionally dangerous vibe, the uneasiness of the situation perfectly suiting his strain of Harvard-boy nonsense. He just killed time. He just killed.