UPDATED: See comments about Jimmy Kimmel, below.
After all the fuss about the return to the late shift last night, I have to admit the whole deal was pretty anti climactic for me last night. When David Letterman's ratty beard gets all the hype and attention the next day, you start to wonder exactly what impact the writers actually have.
Sure, there were moments. The Hilary Clinton cold opening (sounds redundant just typing it), the leggy dancers carrying Writers Guild picket signs, the Top 10 List featuring striking writers from other shows, including Conan O'Brien, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and even Nora Ephron.
Robin Williams brought his high energy A game, goofing mercilessly on Letterman's beard, calling him "rabbi" and suggesting he should have his own cough drop.
Still, there were some ragged moments last night. Letterman, as he pointed out himself once or twice, seemed not quite ready to return, fluffing lines and losing focus. A desk interview with one of his producers offered cute baby pictures but seemed like something you'd resort to if you didn't have writers to kill five or six minutes.
Jay Leno, on the other hand, clearly defied the WGA by delivering a full monologue. He even drew attention to this, telling his bandleader that he was doing what he always did, telling jokes he had run past his wife. If the audience didn't like them, it was her fault.
The reference got a big hand from Leno's studio audience but will likely make things even more disruptive outside his NBC studios on the picket line.
More interesting was watching Conan O'Brien squirm following Leno. As I've been suggesting, O'Brien the career Guild member seemed the most conflicted about returning without his writers. He did not tell one monologue joke and drew attention to how lame his show was without his writing staff, at one point actually getting up and dancing like a desperate fool on his desk. To drive the point home, his first guest was Bob Saget. It was like watching one of those episodes of The Larry Sanders Show where Larry takes a week off and poor Jon Stewart is saddled with C-list couch fodder (including, in a brilliant cameo, the late Charles Nelson Reilly).
Give credit to O'Brien for staying true to his writer colleagues. He kept the lights on for NBC, but didn't let them shine.
As for that beard, hey, what was Warren Littlefield doing hosting Conan last night for anyway?
Opposite O'Brien, Craig Ferguson looked like the happiest late night player of them all. He did away with guests altogether, performing a complete hour of all writer written skit material. It was hilarious, with some pointed shots aimed at both sides in the dispute.
UPDATE: Like O'Brien and unlike Leno (who tried to present a more or less normal version of Tonight), Jimmy Kimmel also wisely took the occasion to demonstrate just how different his show was without its writers. He opened by going straight to the desk instead of his usual 10 minute stand up goof on the day's headlines. He took the time to explain the issues and even stuck up for colleages Leno and O'Brien, saying it was ridiculous that there were picketers outside their studios. "At a certain point you back off a bit," he said, suggesting Leno and O'Brien were doing a lot to help the writer's throughout the strike.
During his show, he replayed old bits which he called "Great Moments For Which Residual Payments are made to our Striking Writers." Very savvy. Like O'Brien, he had a less than A-list guest (Andy Dick), but that's not a strike thing--Kimmel's guests are always from the island of misfit toys.
It is worth noting that, while Leno and O'Brien's audience numbers took sharp dips during the strike, Kimmel's were almost unchanged--probably because regular Tonight Show and Late Night viewers were checking out Jimmy for a change.