Josh Wolk
January 11, 2008 AT 05:00 AM EST

On Jan. 8, Conan O’Brien dashed back and forth from his Late Night desk to his audience, handing out such NBC Store gewgaws as a Friends Christmas ornament while panting, ”I have never worked so hard in my life.” He probably wasn’t just talking about that silly bit, either: Over the past two weeks, O’Brien and his fellow late-night hosts returned to the air, most without their striking writers; judging from their strained expressions, vamping through a show alone makes Pilates look like a long nap. And yet, the more the hosts tried to compensate for their missing colleagues, the more we realized they shouldn’t be trying so hard.

Upon returning, nearly every guy acknowledged just how much he needed and supported his scribes, right before attempting to go about show business as usual without them. On their first nights back, The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart plowed through a strident faux-defense of the AMPTP (the $1.99 iTunes charge for Daily episodes isn’t profit, it’s ”shipping and handling”), while Stephen Colbert stayed in character, mocking Barack Obama for saying that he’d talk to Iran and Syria, but not the struck Colbert Report. Jimmy Kimmel has been re-airing old clips so his writers can get residuals. Jay Leno has been writing his own Tonight Show monologue (a no-no, according to the WGA). And O’Brien has been dancing, singing, and blasting a laser light show.

Amidst all this ”We’re doing the best show we can!” arm-flailing, the hosts occasionally remembered to stop and just talk — and that’s when the shows came alive. Kimmel related a funny story about women at a Playboy party debating whether a nearby David Cassidy was Siegfried or Roy, while the sunnily impenetrable Leno — who often seems to have traded his inner life for his hosting chair — told a witty story about reuniting with the girlfriend who broke up with him when he first moved to California to pursue comedy. He’d never been more interesting.

David Letterman and Craig Ferguson didn’t have to try so hard: They returned with their full writing staffs on Jan. 2 due to a deal that Letterman made with the Writers Guild. (He owns both shows outright.) But Letterman squandered his advantage with monologues that were walking tours of the same punchlines he’s been hitting for years: Bush is dumb, New York City rats are big, and man, it’s cold outside, isn’t it? When he finally paused for an anecdote about hiding under a blanket with his 4-year-old son to escape his family on Christmas, it was beguiling. (Paired with the fact that he was currently hiding under a giant, hermit-like beard that he only begrudgingly shaved off later, it was also a Psych 101 analysis in the making.)

These personal moments brought to mind old-school talk-show hosts like Jack Paar and Tom Snyder, storytellers who entertained audiences with small, personal tales. Now hosts are as overprogrammed as yuppie toddlers, hustling from bit to interview and back, with one exception: The Late Late Show’s Ferguson. He’s a throwback, who captivates with cheeky, free-associative ramblings, whether he’s answering viewer e-mail, or recalling a recent trip to Texas, when he visited a hot-sauce-only store with brands like ”Satan’s Messenger, Death Sauce…and It Burns When I Pee.” Yes, he dons silly wigs for sketches, but he never forgets to personally reconnect with his audience. His fellow hosts shouldn’t be afraid to do the same, even when they get back the writers who won’t make it necessary.

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