Late Night Hosts Brush Up on Improv Skills

Posted on December 31, 2007

The New York Times wonders how Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel will fare without their comedy writers when they all return to the airwaves this week. The answer lies in each host's ability to do improv.

Every host who doesn't work for CBS - like Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - will now face the prospect of doing improv while Mr. Letterman is doing a nightly monologue and Top 10 list composed by his usual complement of writers. Beyond those advantages, the two CBS shows are expected to be able to line up far more impressive lists of guests. That's because the Screen Actors Guild, which is supporting the writers, is explicitly directing its members - including every A-list movie and television star - to appear on the CBS shows. Alan Rosenberg, president of the actors' union, issued a statement saying that his members "will be happy" to appear on the Letterman and Ferguson shows "with union writers at work and without crossing WGA picket lines."

The Writers Guild had previously sent a message to its members that its "strike pressure" - including organized picketing - aimed at the other late-night shows would be "intense and essential in directing political and SAG-member guests to Letterman and Ferguson rather than to struck talk shows."

Of all the hosts, Stephen Colbert is the best at improv. But his show is very heavily scripted because of its intellectual bent -- a lot of his jokes can't be done "off the cuff." Jay Leno is going back to Jaywalking segments and he has Mike Huckabee as his first guest. But it's going to be a rough week for the hosts, no question.

David Letterman and Craig Ferguson don't have this problem because they cut a side deal with the WGA. So Letterman has a full slate of rested, energized comedy writers to fire out skits, monologues and Top 10 Lists this week. He also has big stars ready to sit in the guest chair. We'll be tuning into Letterman as head writer Eric Stangel has promised lots of discussion and jokes about the AMPTP.

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