conan and letterman with beards

Tonight David Letterman and Conan O’Brien returned to the air for the first time since the WGA strike began in early November, and though only one of them was “written,” both were excellent in very different ways.

The hosts returned in their normal time slots, and both sported thick beards.  Letterman gave no explanation for his, and Conan said that his was grown in solidarity of the WGA.  Both men voiced their support for the striking writers’ cause early in their shows, and Letterman boasted every chance he got that his show was the only late-night talk show currently employing WGA members after his privately owned program signed a temporary contract with the union just days earlier.

Letterman featured a WGA-themed extravaganza, with picket sign-holding dancers, a Q&A session about the strike, a brilliantly angry monologue by head writer Bill Scheft, and capped it off with a Top Ten list read by striking writers from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, among others.

His scripted jokes were the usual Letterman fare, self-deprecating and self-referential, often falling flat.  But they hit more than they missed, and it was good to have late night jokes back. As far as guests go, he had Robin Williams on so I’ll just give that a “pass” and move along.

Conan O’Brien hosts arguably the funniest late night talk show of all time, and more than any other host his comedy often appears to arise out of improvised moments.  But I was very intrigued by how he would fill an hour without his writing staff.

The final product delivered was a bizarre blend of improvisational genius and awkward silences broken by genuine admissions of failure. There was no monologue, just a talk about the strike and a warning of things to come.  Conan then performed an extended dance number and sat down at his desk for a timed ring spin, where he spun his wedding ring on the desk, trying to break the record of 41 seconds.

He also presented a poorly-produced video of some backstage hijinx, which started off painfully slow and badly mic’ed but delivered laughs when Conan strapped on a portable amp and interrupted Late Night staffers playing Rock Band.

The interview with Bob Saget was miserable, since every time Saget led into a dirty joke that he’s so famous for the audience began to turn on him.  The Elvis cover band on Conan also paled in comparison to the great rendition of “Superstar” Lupe Fiasco performed on Letterman earlier.

At its best, Conan had me laughing out loud tonight with the unscripted ad-libs that he is so famous for.  There truly wasn’t a single written joke in the whole hour of television, and that it remained so strong is a credit to his brilliance.

Perhaps the most important part of both shows being back is that they each addressed network greed on the air in front of millions of people (Letterman through the Bill Scheft rant, Conan through a weird but funny moment where he pretended to stroke a cat in his arms and channeled a network exec). Watching both shows really made you appreciate how much smoother things go when you’ve got writers working for you.