Union-label jokes fall flat

Late-night TV comedian David Letterman on Wednesday kicked off the return of his show from a two-month hiatus in support of striking screenwriters, boasting his was the "only show on the air" with union-backed jokes.

Letterman walked onstage in the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City through a chorus line of dancers holding signs that read, "Writers Guild of America on Strike," and sporting a full beard he grew during his eight-week break.

Letterman, who has lagged behind Leno in the ratings war since 1995, has a chance to regain the upper hand as he ventures back with his writing team, and the blessing of the Writers Guild, under a special deal between the union and his production company.

"Ladies and gentlemen, two long months, but by God, I'm finally out of rehab," he told the audience, adding that during the time off he had been very introspective.

"Here's what I learned about myself -- show or no show I really enjoy drinking in the morning," he said to laughter.

Portions of the show were screened for reporters in New York several hours before it was due to be broadcast on CBS.

Letterman's arch rival, Jay Leno of NBC, and other late-night stars resumed production on Wednesday of fresh broadcasts for the first time since the writers' strike began on November 5 in a bitter contract dispute with major film and TV studios.

That agreement, announced last week, enabled Letterman to return with a full complement of monologue jokes and comedy bits, including his nightly Top 10 List, which provides multiple jokes on a single topic.

"Ladies and gentlemen the only show on the air now that has jokes written by union writers," Letterman declared. "I know you're thinking to yourselves at home -- 'This crap is written?"'


Letterman's deal with the WGA also makes it easier for him to book guests who otherwise might balk at crossing picket lines.

Actor and comedian Robin Williams came on and made fun of Letterman's beard. Letterman showed a photograph of Williams on a WGA picket line earlier in the strike.

By contrast, NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" booked Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee as that program's first new guest. Taping of "The Tonight Show" was closed to the press.

Letterman was able to cut a deal with the WGA for his show and "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," which airs on CBS immediately following his, because both programs are independently produced by his company, WorldWide Pants Inc.

The WGA has said the deal even includes provisions to pay writers for work distributed via the Internet, a key sticking point in stalled talks between the union and studios aimed at ending Hollywood's worst labor standoff in 20 years.

The strike by 10,500 WGA members has thrown the U.S. television industry into disarray, postponed production on several major motion pictures and is threatening to spoil Hollywood's annual awards season.


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