NY Times: Strike “Enhanced” By Picket-Crossers

Without a Writer, Is a Joke Still Funny?


December 5, 2007

The problem is not that Carson Daly defied the writers' strike and resumed taping his late-night show on NBC. It's that Monday night's show might as well have been a rerun.

Except for a sober preamble in which Mr. Daly explained his decision ("If I had not been back on air tonight," he said, "75 members of my loyal staff and crew were going to get laid off"), the writer-free return of "Last Call With Carson Daly" was hardly noteworthy – a bland interview with the underwear model Karolina Kurkova and pop music by the Plain White T's.

So while technically Mr. Daly is the first host of a late-night talk show to cross the picket line, the writers' strike has barely been scratched.

And that's because the only thing that is really missing from television since the strike began a month ago, and late-night shows, as well as some sitcoms and dramas, began running repeats, is topical humor: tart commentary on candidates' latest foibles by David Letterman or Jay Leno, and the parodies and video satire perfected by "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "Saturday Night Live." Mr. Daly doesn't really do monologues or stand-up comedy; he's a talent spotter and celebrity interviewer whose show happens to be seen at 1:30 a.m.

The timing of this black-humor blackout couldn't be worse: If Rudolph W. Giuliani's campaign falls in a forest of bizarre mayoral accounting practices, but nobody hears about it on late-night television, does it make a sound bite?

Ellen DeGeneres also defied the writers guild to resume her talk show almost immediately, saying that as the producer of a syndicated show, she had contractual obligations to local stations to provide content. While that decision enraged her peers ("We find it sad that Ellen spent an entire week crying and fighting for a dog that she gave away," a statement by the Writers Guild East said, "yet she couldn't even stand by writers for more than one day"), it didn't change the balance, either. Ms. DeGeneres finds humor in everyday quirks – lint-in-the-dryer jokes and funny phone calls to elderly ladies in the Midwest – not in election campaigns or social policy. Monday's show, which she opened with a riff about Christmas tree shopping, could have been taped a year ago, or 10.

Web sites like 23/6, TheOnion.com and YouTube are trying to bridge the gap, and many pieces are contributed by striking writers. Some of the material is apt and amusing: 23/6 (236.com) has a feature called "SwiftKids," a parody of the Swiftboat ads that rattled Senator John Kerry's campaign in 2004. ("Does baking cookies for me make my mom a bad person?" a little boy says sorrowfully. "Hillary Clinton thinks so.") But that kind of humor, when spread across the Internet, seems sparse and small-cylinder. Even the best sites read more like blogs than like big network productions.

Don Imus returned to radio on Monday at what could have been an opportune time to fill some of the silence left by Conan O'Brien or Stephen Colbert. But while Mr. Imus used to be a heeded voice on politics, now he seems consumed by the politics of being Don Imus.

Mr. Imus, who was fired by CBS and MSNBC after his infamous slur about the Rutgers women's basketball team, made his redemptive debut this week on WABC-AM. His tone on his first day was perforce somber and chastened, but even on the second, Mr. Imus seemed constricted, deferring to his new African-American cast members, Karith Foster and Tony Powell, to discuss Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Barack Obama.

Oddly enough, the closest thing to bold topical humor on network television is on "30 Rock," which still has a few episodes filmed before the strike, and which has taken a marked turn toward impish send-ups of the Bush administration.

On one recent episode, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) turns in a foreign neighbor whom she suspects of being a Muslim terrorist but is actually in training to be a contestant on "The Amazing Race." On another, Jack (Alec Baldwin) intervenes to impose American values on an urban Little League team. The team pulls down a statue in the style of Iraqis toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein; in the background its field is draped with a red, white and blue banner that reads, "Fun Times Accomplished." And, when things fall apart, Jack orders a "surge."

Those episodes were filmed a while ago, and soon even "30 Rock" will go dark. Mr. Daly and Ms. DeGeneres crossed the picket line, but their return to live television doesn't undermine the strike so much as enhance it.

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