Carson looms as latenight returns

THE LATENIGHT TALKSHOWS sign on again this week and, as is so often the case, Johnny Carson's shadow looms large over them.

Carson reluctantly returned to "The Tonight Show" in 1988 — after staying away a few months because of that year's writers strike — saying he could no longer in good conscience let his crew languish. Using the same rationale, Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel are back as of Jan. 2. Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will follow. David Letterman, meanwhile, has used his company's independent status to negotiate separately and reach an interim deal with the writers for his program and that of Craig Ferguson.

Unlike most of those mentioned, Carson wasn't a guild member and thus could assemble his own monologue. Whether he had surreptitious help has been the subject of speculation through the years, but at the time viewers marveled at how seamlessly the opening continued — a testament to the host having so mastered his craft as to be able to approximate the work of his staff.

Perhaps it's appropriate that this week also introduces a PBS documentary, "The Pioneers of Television," which will devote one of its four hours to latenight. In it, Leno reverently describes Carson (actually, everybody is discussed reverently in this project) as the "classiest" of performers, even as he prepares — grudgingly, by most accounts — to hand over the "Tonight" throne to O'Brien in 2009.

Rick Ludwin, NBC's Exec VP of latenight & primetime Series, cited the Carson precedent — coming back in '88 after roughly the same interval that Leno and O'Brien have been off — as public-relations cover for the current NBC hosts. The underlying principle guiding the back-to-work movement is that it puts the non-writing staff back to work, and besides, Johnny did it, too.

THIS STRIKE ISN'T 1988, HOWEVER, and invoking Carson's example is an apples-and-oranges comparison. For starters, the present crop of hosts faces a juggling act that might have flummoxed even Carson — beginning with a logistical hurdle that prohibits those belonging to the guild from performing "material (that) is customarily written by striking writers."

Based on that proscription, one suspects the shows won't be as smooth as in Carson's day, since any monologues will have to be ad-libbed. While ignoring the strike entirely will be difficult, dwelling upon it risks awkwardly burdening viewers with details of a not-very-funny internecine skirmish. Moreover, anybody expressing solidarity with his writers except those in the Letterman camp risks sounding hypocritical — namely, if you really support them that much, why are you here?

Among committed guild members, O'Brien's return probably rankles most of all — inasmuch as he started out as one of them, writing for such shows as "The Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live," though the lure of the "Tonight" prize surely factored in how long he was willing to keep management at bay. Stewart and Colbert's concession is equally disappointing given that they regularly thumb their noses at authority and are perceived as having thrown in with Goliath.

In short, these modern hosts find themselves in a position where the sainted Johnny provides little comfort. Because while the image of Carson's smooth golf swing remains etched in our minds, odds are the coming weeks will leave the heirs to his latenight legacy chipping their way out of the rough.