NEW YORK - Earlier this week, David Letterman asked a timely question: How many striking writers could fit into a Jamba Juice store across the street from his studio?
The answer was 23 picketers, complete with their Writers Guild of America signs. There was also room for Spider-Man, the prophet Moses and someone in a bear suit.
Since late-night TV roared back to life last week, its returning hosts have done lots to keep the writers strike in front of the audience. And not just out of loyalty to the writers - the strike, now more than two months old with no end in sight, is a gold mine for humor.
After all, late night thrives on taking potshots at the ruling class. And this particular dispute pits guild writers against an aristocracy of networks and studios owned by media behemoths like Viacom, Disney, CBS and General Electric (parent company of NBC Universal).
In that spirit, 'Tonight Show' host Jay Leno shared a video clip of the palatial estate he jokingly identified as the home of his boss, NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker. Then the next clip was supposed to illustrate where the TV writers live: a third-world shantytown whose hovels bore the names of prime-time series like 'Lost' and 'Desperate Housewives.' (OK, so the bit wasn't all that funny - it was Leno.)
But what are the two sides feuding over, anyway?
'Here's what the writers want,' Letterman summed up during one of his monologues, 'and you tell me if you don't think this is fair: They want a share of Internet revenues and four more years of President Bush.'
Well, he was playing it partly straight.
Of course, Letterman could crack wise from an advantageous spot: with a special deal from the guild, his writing staff is back with him at 'Late Show.'
Not so fortunate is Jon Stewart, whose 'Daily Show' resumed Monday on Comedy Central along with the likewise writer-less 'Colbert Report" with Stephen Colbert.
Stewart took his own stab at explaining the Internet strike issue, pretending to argue the opposition's side: That TV content on the Web yields no revenue thus far, so there's nothing for writers to share in.
Sure, he acknowledged, an episode of 'The Daily Show' costs $1.99 to download from iTunes.
'But that's not a content charge,' he said. 'That's a shipping-and-handling charge. Should the writers be paid for shipping and handling? That $1.99 goes for fuel for tiny trucks!'
It was just one of a barrage of clever jabs he delivered in favor of the writers. But maybe they were TOO clever, raising suspicions they were, um, already written. And if they had been written, that would violate strike rules.
Leno, by his own admission, writes for his show every night: his 10-minute monologue, some two-dozen jokes. He insists he got permission from the guild; the union disputes that and was vowing to take action against him.
That's been the conundrum in late night, where only CBS' 'Late Show' and 'Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson' now have writers on board - while all the shows must somehow fill their airtime, even as they maintain support for the strike (every late-night host except for Carson Daly on NBC's 'Last Call' is a guild member).
But on one show, at least, there's no hint of a script. Just absurd, make-the-best-of-it tomfoolery, with Conan O'Brien presiding. He has gotten traffic updates from a TV station's news chopper flying over Manhattan, barged in on an NBC tour group visiting his studio and installed flashing disco lights and played crazy music.
O'Brien, host of NBC's 'Late Night,' assured his audience that 'writers are very important to a show like mine. But without them, we do have a rare opportunity to create a new kind of show ... bold, daring and borderline illiterate.'
Having said that, he doffed his suit jacket and clambered up a rope ladder to the catwalk hung along the lighting grid, high above the studio floor.
'You can't write a moment like this,' he cackled. 'Obviously!'
How's that for strike-inspired humor? In its abundance since the hosts returned, it has served not only the writers' cause, but also, arguably, the public interest as a wakeup call to Big Media's excesses.
But already there's a steep falloff in even mentioning the strike on the air. Too bad. Late-night jest has always been anti-authoritarian and self-referential, and the longer the strike goes, the richer the satire dealing with it could become.
And the richer the irony: In using network airtime to plead the union's case - however comically - late-night TV is leveraging the media barons' might against them. When, in labor-movement annals, has such a thing happened? Just savoring that notion could make a viewer laugh.
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