Ken Tucker
January 03, 2008 AT 07:32 PM EST

Which of the late-night shows did you watch last night? Me, I watched all of ’em. And when I offered to PopWatch-blog them, I do believe this was the first assignment about which an editor said to me, “Oh, I think that’s too much work!” (You’re a kind one, Mr. Slezak — the very opposite of a grinch.) But, hell, I had planned to DVR and watch them all anyway, so why not toss out some opinions and then see what you thought? As once-regular David Letterman guest Marv Albert used to say, let’s go to the videotape. (Speaking of, there’s a video compiling highlights of all five of last night’s shows over at Huffington Post.)

Late Show With David Letterman: Yes, Dave (pictured, left) and his Worldwide Pants production-company employee Craig Ferguson are the guys who struck agreements with the Writers Guild to use their writing staffs, thus supposedly giving them an advantage over the competition. But when it comes to live-on-tape TV and public opinion, is that really an advantage? I fully expect a little backlashing along the lines of, “Oh, sure, Dave was funny, but he had all his writers doing the work. Poor Leno!” Well, phooey on that theory. Letterman commenced Letterman-less: instead, a taped bit popped up starring Hillary Clinton who intro’d the host (with Clinton’s camp undoubtedly collaborating with Letterman’s writers) by saying, “All good things must come to an end.”
• Monologue: Dave strode out sporting the unemployed-guy beard he’d grown — he said quite accurately that he looked like “a missing hiker” and “a cattle-drive cook.” And he instantly made me feel the way my parents used to say Johnny Carson made them feel — relaxed and in a state of anticipatory good humor, knowing you’re in the hands of a pro.
• Spontaneous banter: When he went to his desk, he told a nice little story about feeling overwhelmed by the holidays just past and feeling most comfortable hiding under a blanket with his four-year-old son, Harry. Non-spontaneous highlights included staff writer Bill Scheff “interrupting” Dave to excoriate “producers’ greed” and urging them to stop spending their money on “cufflinks, cocktails, and whores” and start earnest bargaining with the Writers Guild. Speaking of labor leaders, my favorite joke of the evening was one few in the audience laughed at: At the start of the show, leggy female chorus dancers came out carrying picket signs, and Dave asked for applause for “the Eugene V. Debs.” Loved that. The Top 10 List was read by ten striking writers, including comic essayist-director Nora Ephron, and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show writer and former EW staffer Tim Carvell — hi, Tim!
• Guests: Robin Williams was his usual self, which is to say, alternately funny — rapid impersonations of everyone from a rabbi to character-actor Walter Brennan — and rapid-fire unfunny. He’s still doing Brokeback Mountain jokes??
• Bottom line: Letterman was rock-solid, with a deep bench of pros to turn to, including veteran Letterman show director Hal Gurnee, who introduced a silly novelty act straight out of the circus for a segment of the revived “Hal Gurnee’s Network Time-Killers.”

Tonight Show With Jay Leno:
• Monologue: There was the usual glad-handing and audience-goosing going on here, with Leno’s band punctuating nearly every joke with some vehement noise, and the studio audience members sounded as though the applause-sign was being beamed into their cortexes. How else to explain the raucous reaction to Leno’s mild jabs at his boss Jeff Zucker regarding the power-players in the writers strike? Leno also played a groaningly unfunny video from the JibJab Internet folks reviewing the previous year in news and pop culture. Sanjaya jokes, anyone?
• Spontaneous banter: Leno took questions from the audience, and while his interrogators looked like real people, not plants, it also looked as though Jay more or less knew what they were going to ask. I could be wrong — his responses were feeble and interrupted by a mildly charming but not funny reminiscence of wooing a girl when he was young, prompted by a mention of Dan Fogelberg’s death.
• Guests: Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was permitted to give out probably a bit more of his stump speech than he might have been allowed had Leno been doing a tightly-written show with more sketch material. Jay did a decent job of getting him to explain his recent pulling of an attack ad Huckabee had made regarding rival Mitt Romney. The “Bam!” cook Emeril came on for a cooking segment during which he and Jay slathered nice looking pieces of steak with hideous amounts of mustard before frying them. Yuck. Emeril explained why he first started shouting, “Bam!” Too boring to repeat here.
• Bottom line: As tedious as the commercial “button” on the lower left corner of the screen plugging NBC’s Sunday premiere of American Gladiators for what seemed like most of the hour. Welcome back, Jay.

addCredit(“David Letterman: John Paul Filo; Conan O’Brien: Dana Edelson”)

Late Night With Conan O’Brien:
• Monologue: Conan (pictured, right) had grown himself a wee beard,too. But typical of O’Brien, he had Max Weinberg and his band play asemi-mournful “Strike-Beard Song” and compared his appearance to “youngKris Kringle” on the 1970 Rankin-Bass animated special Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, thus aiming straight for his Gen X base.
• Spontaneous banter: Better rubric: Spontaneous Dancing. Conanspeculated that if the strike wore on, he might have Weinberg’s crewplay a funky riff for an hour while he “busted out” some moves. Whichhe proceeded to do, boogalooing at, on, and in front of his desk — thiswas easily the best bit of physical comedy any late-night hostperformed. And he topped himself a little while later, during a tapedbit about what he did during the strike, by performing a bit of theBeastie Boys’ “Sabotage” using the voice of Edith Bunker — this wasfantastic! As another late-night host used to say, I kid you not.
• Guests: Bob Saget was pretty lame; made a number of mildly risquéjokes about an old job he had cutting meat. Stand-up comic DwaynePerkins seemed like a nice guy. Musical guests were singer RobertGordon and guitarist Chris Spedding. Many years ago, in the waning daysof punk, I wrote a review of the rumbly Gordon describing his face asresembling “a canoe with ears”; these days, the canoe more resembles arowboat, but he was otherwise in fine form, warbling a solid cover ofElvis’ “Devil in Disguise.”
• Bottom line: Conan’s high points — his dancing and the first time hespun his wedding ring on his desk and timed it before it stopped — werethe funniest, most delightfully absurd moments of the entire night. Hemay not have the consistency of Dave, but he knows how to improvisewith flashes of brilliance.

Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson:
• Monologue: The man I prefer to think of as “the real Fergie” didyeoman’s work, loosing a cascade of jokes and sketch comedy. Vowingthat his show would be “the same lame crap as always,” the Scottishhost commenced his hour showing himself sheep-herding in the hills ofhis native country and ended the show with a fine impersonation of U2’sBono, with his uncanny Michael Caine and Sean Connery transformationsin between.
• Spontaneous banter: The spontaneity occurred mostly during sketches,especially during a gleaming version of one of his best semi-regularcharacters, in a bit called “The Rather Late Show With Prince Charles,”in which a cretinous-looking Prince made lame jokes that occasionallycracked the host — and us — up.
• Guests: What guests? Craig really used his staff, going for wall-to-wall Craig-comedy for the full 60.
• Bottom line: Fitfully hilarious; we’ll see what happens when he has to fold guests into the mix.

Jimmy Kimmel Live
• Monologue: I admit it: I haven’t watched Kimmel since he firststarted his talk show, but it seemed as though nothing had changed. Hisno-writing-staff show commenced with him saying that his “fiancée”Jamie Lynn Spears is pregnant, and a “joke” announcing, “I’m ahomosexual.”
• Spontaneous banter: He brought out his Uncle Frank for the usualunfunny joshing (a few lousy regular routines I do remember). Some bilespewed at the Screen Actors Guild for suggesting that actors not appearon non-agreement shows like his. “I’m pissed,” was Kimmel’s astuteanalysis.
• Guests: Two segments with Andy Dick were almost unbearable. “I lovesober Andy,” said Jimmy, and yes indeed, I’m glad Dick isn’t doinganything unhealthy. But, boy, is he one unfunny sober man. Also, I wasgetting very sleepy, but did Kimmel just play a days’-old segment ofKid Rock performing in Times Square on New Year’s Eve?
• Bottom line: I doubt I’ll tune in again to see if there’s any improvement.

So, what did you think? Who made the best return?

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