Thoughts on Letterman's first show

by Paul William Tenny

letterman-strike.jpgThe Late Show opened with dancing showgirls carrying WGA picket signs, which immediately made me laugh with sinful glee and must have made CBS absolutely cringe. Every night that David Letterman is on the air with his writers, their own show will be taking shots at them for being excessively greedy, driving it home to several million people that probably didn't think about it one way or another.

Now, they're going to get a WGA friendly message with absolutely no rebut from big media. And meanwhile, on NBC, Conan O'Brien opens with a song about his new beard and his first guest was fellow NBC employee, Bob Saget.
The highlight of the show (if you discount guests) was Dave's traditional Top 10 list, which was read by striking writers and featured things that writers want from the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). I don't know what Dave's plans are for these lists going into the new year, but I think it would be pretty striking (no pun intended) to see out-of-work writers read them all, at least for a while.

Before I publish that list, I just finished seeing Conan's first half hour which featured him dancing on his desk, timing how long he could spin his wedding ring on his desk, showing all the Christmas cards he got and a tour of his office, some footage of him playing a guitar around the NBC offices, and other junk that took up his entire first half hour.

Wow, if Leno was anything like Conan, NBC is going to be begging the WGA for a contract by the end of next week.

Demands of the Striking Writers
  • Tim Carvell (The Daily Show)
    "Complimentary tote bag with next insulting contract offer."

  • Laura Krafft (The Colbert Report)
    "No rollbacks in health care benefits, so I can treat the hypothermia I caught on the picket line."

  • Melissa Salmons (As the World Turns, The Guiding Light)
    "Full salary and benefits for my imaginary writing partner, Lester."
    Dave added: "Lester worked here for a while." -- Fantastic shot.

  • Warren Leight (Law & Order: CI)
    "Members of the AMPTP must explain what the hell AMPTP stands for."

  • Jay Katsir (The Colbert Report)
    "No disciplinary action taken against any writer caught having an inappropriate relationship with a copier."

  • Steve Bodow (The Daily Show)
    "I'd like a date with a woman!"

  • Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle)
    "Hazard pay for breaking up fights on 'The View'"

  • Gina Johnfrido (Law & Order)
    "I'm no accountant, but instead of us getting 4 cents four a $20 DVD, how about we get $20 for a 4-cent DVD?"

  • Chris Albers (Conan O'Brien writer)
    "I don't have a joke -- I just want to remind everyone that we're on strike, so none of us are responsible for this lame list." [Pure gold, especially in light of how bad Conan's show was tonight.]

  • Alan Zwiebel (SNL, Garry Shandling, Monk)
    "Producers must immediately remove their heads from their asses."

Most of the list was a hit with the crowd who obviously appreciated having Letterman back on the air, and if they had seen the train wreck that was Conan's show (disclaimer: I actually love Conan's show) they'd have been up on that stage throwing money at the striking writers.

Ironically, throwing just a nickle from your pocket at them would be paying them more than they get from the sale of a single $20 DVD.

I really don't know what most people expected from tonights show, but I thought it likely that you wouldn't see either Dave or anyone else do what amounted to a stand-up rant against the AMPTP, or see a reading of some talking point memos to prove that "we're right, and they're wrong." These writers are far more savvy than that, and they delivered enough shots that CBS execs must be grinding their teeth are the thought of this happening every night until mid-summer.

Additionally, they didn't push it too hard in a way that would alienate the audience or TV viewers.

The only suggestion I would have had would have been for the segment with the Late Show strike captain came out to deliver a message in the middle of a heated-underwear skit. The message was good, but it would have really driven the point home to have the "muscle" from an earlier skit make another appearance to beat up the writer/strike captain.

It's a perfect metaphor for what the AMPTP has done and how they've acted during this strike, which is to say reprehensibly and immature.

Before I go, I saw this in on the wire when Letterman came on the air:

"We are not using outside guys," Leno said in the monologue, according to a transcript provided by NBC. "We are following the guild thing ... we can write for ourselves."

The union said Wednesday it was withholding comment until it spoke to Leno about his show, which, like the other returning programs, was laden with references to the strike.

The Writers Guild of America forbids writers from writing anything for television and films during the strike -- for themselves or their employers -- else it wouldn't really be a strike, would it?

If Leno wrote a few monologues before the strike was called, then all he is really guilty of is covering his own ass, knowing he'd be forced back on the air at some point.

If he wrote tonights monologue and any others after November 5th, then there are certainly grounds to expel him from the guild which would end his TV writing career forever. That would probably never happen, but it really underscores how serious a breach like that is.

To be clear: writers can not write "for themselves" during a strike.

I suppose regardless of how that comes down, Leno couldn't have written enough monologues to cover the entire strike, not when it looks like this thing is going to last into the summer.

Letterman won the night, and I don't care what the ratings show. Some people will have tuned in to Leno and Kimmel just because they are fans of those hosts, and some of those people will continue to tune in no matter how bad the show gets. Tonights ratings won't matter as much as tomorrows, and those for next week, and the week after that.

I repeat, if Leno's show which I didn't see was anywhere near as bad as Conan's, NBC and the rest are in serious, serious trouble.
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