Leno, Letterman Return to the Air

The two late-night hosts come back swinging after their two-month absences

Video courtesy CBS

It took two presidential candidates to help the two late-night kings of television return to the air Tuesday: Republican hopeful Mike Huckabee, with Jay Leno, and Democratic contender Hillary Clinton, with David Letterman.

“Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks,” Senator Clinton, appearing via satellite from the campaign in Iowa, said at the outset of CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman. “Tonight, he’s back. Oh, well. All good things come to an end.”

Admitting he resembled “a cattle-drive cook,” a bewhiskered Letterman returned to the Ed Sullivan stage, surrounded by placard-bearing pickets who looked – and kicked – remarkably like Rockettes, and said, “Two long months but, by god, I’m finally out of rehab.

On the Tonight Show, Leno, clean-shaven, welcomed former Arkansas Governor Huckabee, who addressed why he should be in the White House.

Asked to explain his appeal, Huckabee said, “People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy who laid them off.”

The reason for the shows’ long absences, of course, was the strike by the Writers Guild of America, which put the show’s scribes into cold storage – or, at least, on the picket lines. Letterman struck a deal with the Guild so his show could return and proceed in a scripted fashion, while Leno, as well as his NBC colleague Conan O’Brien – also sporting a beard – and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, returned without theirs and were forced to ad lib their programs.

“A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim walk into a bar,” said Leno, dredging up one of the oldest jokes on earth. “The Jew says to the Muslim – see, I have no idea what they say, because there’s a writers’ strike.”

Writers’ Strike Continues

The jury remains out on whether Leno, himself a member of the guild, was violating any rules of his union by returning to the air. The guild told the Associated Press on Wednesday that it was withholding comment until it had discussed the situation with the talk host.

On the air, Leno said that his guild permits him to pen jokes for himself. “I … wake my wife up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Honey, is this funny?’ ” he said. He also did a routine in which he showed the butler’s greeting him at the Bel Air mansion of NBC president Jeff Zucker, juxtaposed with his visit to “Writers’ Town” – a shanty village in India.

Leno also made reference to his rival across the dial. “Dave was able to get a deal,” said Leno, “because he has his own company.”

Later on NBC, O’Brien got his hour to pass by what is called vamping – seeking any means to stretch out the time. He threatened to dance naked, which got applause from his studio audience, and he spun his wedding ring around his finger for 36 seconds. He also drank from his mug.

“That’s good water,” said O’Brien. “Killed some time.”

Dave to Shave It Off

As for Letterman’s beard, guest Robin Williams said it made him look like Robert E. Lee, or else a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, or even one of the Smith Brothers. “My god,” said Williams, “You should have your own cough drop.”

Letterman declared he would shave off the beard – on the show.

“On this show?” asked bandleader Paul Shaffer.

“No,” replied Letterman. “Conan’s.”

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