Huckabee on Leno and Clinton on Letterman as late-night funnymen return

By David Bauder

NEW YORK – The return of TV’s late-night funnymen after a two-month strike hiatus turned into a bizarre mix of picketing and presidential politics Wednesday as Mike Huckabee headed for Jay Leno’s show and Hillary Clinton turned to David Letterman.

Clinton was to join comic Robin Williams as Letterman’s first guests, according to a CBS executive close to the show who spoke on condition of anonymity. Clinton taped her appearance on Letterman from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, earlier Wednesday.

Meanwhile, GOP hopeful Huckabee appeared confused over which of the two late-night hosts had reached a separate deal with the union representing striking TV and movie writers.

Huckabee said he supports the writers and did not think he would be crossing a picket line, because he believed the writers had made an agreement to allow late-night shows on the air. That’s not the case with Leno, and pickets outside Leno’s Burbank, Calif., studio targeted Huckabee.

“Huckabee is a scab,” read one picket sign.

A “Tonight” show spokeswoman said Huckabee was still booked for the appearance on the eve of the Iowa caucus.

Letterman and fellow CBS host Craig Ferguson struck deals to allow writers to come back to work on Wednesday. NBC’s Leno and Conan O’Brien and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel were back at work Wednesday without writers.

Writers also picketed outside of the Rockefeller Center studio where O’Brien tapes his show each night. Comics Bob Saget and Dwayne Perkins and musicians Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding were O’Brien’s first-night guests.

The picketing writers said they were hoping to encourage people not to appear on the shows where writers weren’t working. Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America East, said he expected Letterman’s “Late Show” to be a “bully pulpit” for striking writers and their issues.

Leno’s staff writers, who regularly picket at one of the gates to NBC studios, did not show up on Wednesday. Writers insist they’re demonstrating against NBC, not against Leno, who was supportive of his writers in the early days of the strike.

“It must be difficult for them to picket their own boss,” said Allan Katz, a veteran sitcom writer. “Probably Jay Leno understands.”

Besides depriving the nation of punch lines, the two months of reruns have been devastating for the networks – particularly NBC.

Late-night leader Leno is averaging 4.4 million viewers this season, losing a quarter of his audience from last season. Before the strike, his audience was off 10 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Letterman’s average of 3.6 million viewers is 15 percent off last season. Before the strike, his viewership was down 9 percent. Leno’s audience was obviously far less interested in reruns or – even worse for NBC – decided to sample Letterman instead.

Kimmel’s audience of 1.8 million viewers is slightly up from last season, because it follows “Nightline,” which has been making fresh shows.

O’Brien’s audience is down 29 percent from last season and he’s been running virtually neck and neck with Ferguson: O’Brien has 1.8 million viewers, Ferguson 1.7 million. Now Ferguson returns with writers and O’Brien without.

How big the advantage might be for CBS likely depends on how long the strike lasts. At least at the beginning, the writer-less shows may draw viewers curious to see how the hosts respond.

The CBS programs will also probably have bigger-name guests. The Screen Actors Guild has urged its members to appear with Letterman and Ferguson. It’s unclear whether Hollywood’s glitterati will be willing to cross picket lines for face time on national television.

Besides being without writers, Leno, O’Brien and Kimmel will be unable to perform many familiar comic bits, including traditional monologues, because of strike rules.

Comedy Central’s topical nightly comedies, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” will return Monday without striking writers.

Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela and Libby Quaid, and Raquel Maria Dillon, contributed to this report.