Late-Night Talk Returns, Most Without Writers

After a two-month hiatus, late-night talk television shows return to the airwaves. At CBS, David Letterman walks on stage amid dancing girls holding picket signs. His writers are back on the job, but NBC's Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel return without their writers.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you were up a little late last night, you know that late-night talk is back. Jay Leno and David Letterman returned to the airwaves, and they were not shy about the writers' strike, that it kept them in repeats for weeks.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Late Show with David Letterman")

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Host, "Late Show with David Letterman"): Let me just you bring you up to date. There's a writers' strike going on - the Writers Guild of America. And we were out because of the strike for two months. And I know you're thinking to yourselves at home right now, this crap is written? Yes.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show"): A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim walk into a bar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: The Jew says to the Muslim - see, I have no idea what they say, because there's a writers' strike. We don't know what they say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Everywhere we go…

Unidentified Group: Everywhere we go…

Unidentified Man: …people want to know…

Unidentified Group: …people want to know…

Unidentified Man: …who we are.

INSKEEP: David Letterman made a deal with the union to allow his writers to come back to work. Leno's return was tougher.

Unidentified Man: …we are the union…

Unidentified Group: …we are the union…

Unidentified Man: …mighty, mighty union.

Unidentified Group: …mighty, mighty union.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: This is Mandalit del Barco.

Here in Burbank, hundreds of writers picketed outside of Jay Leno's studios before and during the taping of his show.

Ms. SARAH SINGER (Member and Organizer, Writers Guild of America): You know, I don't blame Jay. You can't blame Jay. It's an impossible situation for all the late-night hosts. They're under a tremendous amount of pressure.

DEL BARCO: Sarah Singer is an organizer with the Writers Guild of America.

Ms. SINGER: I blame NBC, Universal and CBS and all the other studios that have refused to come back to the table and bargain.

DEL BARCO: Outside "The Tonight Show" taping, the writers carried signs that read: Not tonight, dear, and Hey, Huckabee, don't scab me - a reference to Jay Leno's guest, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee who appeared, he said, because no replacement writers were being used.

But Singer and the other union members were still disappointed.

Ms. SINGER: I think there's a lot of people that are not going to do what Mike Huckabee did. You know, there's a lot of people that are not comfortable crossing the picket line. So, I think, you know, Letterman will probably get better guests.

DEL BARCO: Still, many of those in the audience came away as excited as Vicky Hughes(ph), who traveled from Daytona Beach to watch Leno in person.

Ms. VICKY HUGHES: I don't mean to say that he doesn't need the writers, because he does. And he acknowledged that he supported them. But he didn't need them tonight. But I think that's part of Jay Leno. Before he became real famous, he used to write his own scripts.

DEL BARCO: Across the country and New York City, David Letterman's audience seemed pleased that his company, Worldwide Pants, was able to strike a deal with the guild to get him back on the air with his writers.

College student Elizabeth Coat(ph) certainly was happy.

Ms. ELIZABETH COAT (College Student): He's hilarious. I'm glad to see him back. He's doing better than ever. I missed it. I'm tired of watching the reruns.

DEL BARCO: The writer's chief negotiator, John Bowman, said the Letterman deal proved the strike doesn't have to go on forever.

Mr. JOHN BOWMAN (Chief Negotiator, Writers Guild of America): Jay, I understand your pain. You're taking a bullet for the team. You love writers, we understand that. And Dave, knock 'em dead. You made a deal with us in three days, proved it can be done, and maybe the big 7 media companies could follow suit shortly.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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