In hopes of learning the true -- and possibly mystical -- value of writers, I did something Wednesday I hadn't done in years. I watched the "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" all the way through (thanks to DVR technology). The occasion, of course, was the programs' return to the air after two months off because of the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike.
For those who, like Leno's guest that night, Mike Huckabee, are confused about how this was negotiated, let me be the umpteenth person to remind everyone that Letterman, whose production company owns his show and made an independent deal with the WGA, got his writers back. Leno, who quipped that he was "one man against the monolith," was on his own.
So imagine my surprise and disenchantment when Leno, whose writers' room is now ostensibly being used for storing untapped Arrowhead water jugs, was considerably funnier than a fully staffed Letterman. Of course, that's a matter of opinion (and, in mine, Letterman's reliance on sounding ironic rather than being ironic got old about the time Spam T-shirts -- the Hormel product, not the e-mail -- went mainstream) but the ratings concurred. Nielsen Media Research reported Thursday that Leno drew 5.8 million viewers versus Letterman's 4.7 million.
Although Leno joked that there were "more people picketing NBC now than watching NBC," Letterman's line, "I hear you at home thinking to yourself, 'This crap is written?' " was more than just self-defense in the form of self-effacement. It was a discomfiting indication of the way lots of people feel about writers, especially the well-paid kind.
Unlike brain surgery or glass blowing, writing, at least the physical act of it, is something pretty much everyone can do. As a result, those who write professionally, particularly those whose lines are delivered by famous personalities under the guise of ad-libbing, can sometimes be seen as expendable. And even though many of us like to think we know better, the fact that Leno's army of one managed to out-muscle Letterman's well-supported troops wasn't, at least at first glance, the best advertisement for the writing industry.
But by Thursday, news had broken of a dispute over Leno's monologue. The guild claims that Leno, as a WGA member, wasn't supposed to be writing any material, even for himself (the presumption being that the monologue would be largely ad-libbed). Leno, who is making no pretense of having improvised anything, is saying the guild rules allow it. "We are following the guild thing -- we can write for ourselves," he said on the air Wednesday, adding that the experience was reminiscent of his early stand-up days when he'd wake his wife at night to ask if a joke was funny. On Thursday night, Leno made no mention of the controversy.
It should be said that two of the three other late-night hosts who also reappeared that night -- Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel -- are presumed to be improvising their monologues. The third, Craig Ferguson, whose "Late Late Show" is produced by Letterman's company, brought back his writers. (Carson Daly has been back, sans scribes, for the last month.)
Lest anyone accuse him of cheating, O'Brien passed the time by seeing how long he could spin his wedding ring on his desk. Kimmel, for his part, admitted that he wasn't allowed to write but tossed out a bit of drollery about being the father of Jamie Lynn Spears' child -- no pen or paper required, one would hope.
Leno's ignorance -- or willful misunderstanding -- of the rules may seem on the surface like an insult to the guild and its writers, but in some ways it might actually have constituted the ultimate form of respect. By refusing to get on stage and simply wing it, Leno honored writers by honoring not just the business of writing, but the craft of it. Moreover, by making it clear that he had written the jokes ahead of time (are we really supposed to believe that detail accidentally slipped out?), he appeared also to be saying something about the true nature of "unscripted" television: There's no such thing.
In doing so, Leno reminded us that writers are as important as ER doctors. After all, being on stage with nothing to say qualifies as an emergency.