With David Letterman having a deal for his writers and Jay Leno having to go without, I’ve been hopeful that it’ll become clear what writer-less television is like. An obvious gap in quality would do a lot to end the strike.
The first night, I don’t think that gap was there. As Johnny Carson said, talk shows are really about the guy behind the desk. That’s the center of the show. Letterman, though he obviously supports the writers, doesn’t necessarily need them. He has the energy to respond to the unexpected, explosively dropping an equally surprising line immediately after. A little bit like Carson, there some fun in watching him recover from a bit gone awry. The writing for the show naturally matches these gifts of Letterman and is sometimes, a bit looser to allow Dave be Dave.
Leno, on the other hand, is a gag man. He obviously reveres the art of joke writing. If only he had the same respect for joke writers. Much of his monologue was, self-admittedly, written by himself. As a WGA member, Leno is not supposed to be writing. I’ll be charitable though, perhaps the rules from the WGA are a bit unclear. But even so, if you’re in favor of the strike and support your writers and their cause, it seem to me that you would err on the side of no prepared material. The uncharitable parts of me wants to draw Leno’s monologue up to ego and competitiveness; he can’t stand to have Letterman have a leg up on him. The comments about “one man against the CBS machine” - it sounds as if he only thinking of himself here, rather than the writing team who works very hard for him. This is what the Late Night ratings competition does to people.
Leno also mentioned about coming back to support the other staffers, upon which the camera cut to a person who supposedly handles the lighting - a slovenly guy sitting in a chair holding up a flashlight. It’s the sort of joke that a lot of comedy writers have made about the make-up of other unions for a long time. A joke is a joke, but I found it bizarre to stick in an anti-union joke in there when you’re supporting the rest of your staff. Is that just me?
With Letterman’s performing style and Leno’s WGA rules flaunting (or unawareness), I’m not sure that the public will be able to tell the difference between a show with writers and one sans writers. Again, I hope it becomes more apparent. Was there enough of a difference? Will there be one?
Update: The ratings are in and Leno beat Letterman last night with a rating of 5.3 to Letterman’s 4.3. I don’t think the strike-aware population is large enough to credit that to “wanting to see a train wreck.” However, I think maybe - maybe - my question is being answered as, according to some earlier notes on Hollywood Reporter, Leno’s numbers fell off as the show went on in some markets and Letterman’s went up. A good sign for television created by writers?