Imagine there’s no late-show writers…

It’s 1988. After keeping his show dark for several months to honor the WGA strike, Johnny Carson went back on the air. David Letterman soon followed suit, taping new episodes of “Late Night” without any assistance from his writing staff.

The show came back with a brand-new recurring feature: “Hal Gurnee’s Network Time-Killers,” a series of weeklong stunts whose sole purpose was to fill the time between the monologue and the first guest, space that ordinarily would have been taken up by scripted material.

One night, Dave was standing on a low platform while a slight man pinned pieces of irregular cloth around him and made fussy little chalk marks. He was measuring and fitting Dave for a custom-tailored suit. The process would be conducted in installments over the course of the entire week.

Dave filled the time by making small talk with the tailor. Meanwhile, Paul served his usual function during such things: he played quiet background music as the fitting continued.

Suddenly, Dave interrupted the tailor in mid-sentence and turned towards the bandstand.

“Paul?” he said. “Why exactly are you playing ‘House Of The Rising Sun’?”

Paul stopped playing and and stepped up to his microphone stand. “My father was a tailor/He sewed my new bluejeans!” he explained. The tone of his voice was friendly but it nonetheless carried an undertone of “Like, duh!

Men from the government armed with beeping aluminum boxes instantly swarmed the set and waved large paddle-like sensors over the entire scene and all of its players. It took them three weeks to crunch the numbers, but it confirmed what the home audience already knew: it was one of the most awesome moments in Letterman history.

So NBC has announced that Conan and Leno will be back on the air right after New Year’s, sans writers. Letterman is the only one of the three who owns his own show, so he’s looking to cut a separate deal with the Writers’ Guild that will allow “Late Show” to return with its full creative staff while the strike continues.

I’m kind of disappointed, and for purely selfish reasons: I’d really like to see Dave stall for time on a regular basis again.

It’s exciting to see huge blocks of expensive network TV being made up on the spot. A lack of spontaneity has really drained the color from most of television. Crimeny, everything has to be laid out and accounted for, down to the very second. That’s true of every show (including Dave’s) but it’s also one of the main reasons why I don’t watch Leno. It seems like there’s producer always standing just off-camera, angrily tapping a clipboard and muttering “We don’t have TIME to be funny…we have to get through all of these JOKES!!!”

Conan without writers will probably be pretty interesting, in the same way that Letterman was in 1988. He isn’t as talented as Dave, and I don’t think he has the same sort of bench strength behind him as Dave has in Paul, the band, and the rest of the production staff. But he can think on his feet. He’ll do fine.

Leno without writers will be two or three really, really awkward shows that will cause 7 out of 9 TV critics to mention The Chevy Chase show in their reviews. These shows will be immediately followed by a new policy in which Jay brings his first guest on immediately after his (greatly truncated) monologue.

6 thoughts on “Imagine there’s no late-show writers…”

  1. Interesting. You’re the number one hit for a Google search for “letterman house of the rising sun 1988 tailor” within an hour of posting. You technology pundits truly live by a different set of rules than the rest of us mere mortals.

  2. Then there’s the alternate reality of “Last Call with Carson Daly,” which cut the writing staff altogether permanently, and dropped the monologue and scripted comedy from the show. Reportedly, it will improve the show from “an embarrassment,” to merely dull.

    Feh, someone convince Costas to bring back “Later”, and send Mr. Daly back to MTV. In the age of the DVR, Costas’ Later would do better now, especially with new ratings systems that include DVR viewers, so long as they watch within a few days.

  3. Sure, Costas did great stuff with “Later,” but I truly miss “Tomorrow” with Tom Snyder. Now there was a guy who understood his tv history, how to gossip about the industry, and how to make a tv interview seem intimate.

  4. Letterman has, unfortunately, become a caricature of all the things he has made fun of over the years. Live on the edge a bit Dave!

  5. Costas is still one of the greatest interviewers on TV. His ability to tease wonderful and unheard stories from even the most familiar talk show guests is incredible. Snyder wasn’t as good an interviewer, but he was Tom Snyder, which was plenty.

    (“Back in 1966 I was working at a 2,000-watt radio station in Omaha, Nebraska. I’ll never forget an engineer who used to work the 2 AM shift…his name was Lawrence but everyone called him ‘Bunny’. Well, one night, Bunny comes in to the studio with a big box of peaches…”)

    Both shows had the serious advantage of having no studio audience and no band…with nobody to play to, even a comedian settles down and just has a nice conversation.

    Carson Daly is sort of an interesting specimen. I still watch him as frequently as I ever did (IE, never) but I’m curious enough to check out how he does without any prepared comedy. His sketches and monologues just don’t work (he flat-out doesn’t fit as a conventional late-night host) and I wonder if he could be funny if he didn’t have to do so much comedy.

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