Letterman and Leno make an exhilarating comeback

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The Independent US

Patience rewards the American night owl. At the end of the pre-election marathon that seems to have lasted an eternity already, they could finally settle down last night to view actual real results from actual real voting in Iowa. The night before they had something even better: Letterman and Leno.

Whether this confluence of broadcast events will do anything for network ratings is an open question. Viewers may be weary with the election before it has even properly started. But there was something exhilarating about the return of David Letterman and Jay Leno to the airwaves late on Wednesday.

Both men, in common with all their peers on the round-midnight comedy host circuit, were back before the cameras after a two-month hiatus forced on them by the still unresolved Hollywood writers' strike.

Letterman, who is on CBS, had at least put the time to important use: he had grown a beard. More importantly, Worldwide Pants, which is Letterman's own production company, had also taken time to reach a deal with the striking union, the Writers Guild of America, under which he was allowed to put his comedy writing team back to work.

Facial hair thrust before him, Letterman strode on to the New York sound stage between high-kicking female dancers clasping picket-line placards. Letterman and Leno both were at pains to insist they have no quarrel with the strikers but are sympathetic with their demands for greater remuneration for content distributed on the internet and other new media.

"I want to make this clear. I support their cause," said Conan O'Brien, who follows Leno on NBC with his own show. (And who had also grown fresh face hair.) "These are very talented, very creative people who work extremely hard. I believe what they're asking for is fair."

Politicians are always fodder for these shows and Wednesday night was no different. Why would it be, with Iowa immediately upon them? For Letterman that meant featuring a taped cameo by Hillary Clinton from amid the caucus circus of Iowa while Jay Leno, who is on rival NBC, welcomed Republican Mike Huckabee who had jetted all the way to Los Angeles for the occasion.

Mrs Clinton made a joke of her own. "Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers' strike," she said. "Tonight, he's back. Oh, well, all good things come to an end." She did not presumably mean that her quest for the White House might one day similarly come to a halt.

Mr Huckabee's decision to appear live on NBC in Los Angeles was more tricky, even if he was not aware of it. Leno has struck no deal with the guild and therefore was forced to write his own material for the show. Among them was the quip that the strike "has already cost the town over half a billion dollars. Five hundred million dollars! Or as Paul McCartney calls that: A divorce."

The former Arkansas governor and conservative Christian expressed surprise when he was obliged to navigate picketers at the Leno studios, some with placards reading "Huckabee is a scab".

His admission that he had thought Leno had done a deal with the guild like Letterman drew scorn, and no amount of good humour on the set such as joining the Leno band on the guitar was going to appease the strikers.

"Huckabee claims he didn't know," said John Bowman, a chief union negotiator. "I don't know what that means in terms of trusting him as a future president." And he got it in the neck from his chief rival in Iowa last night, Mitt Romney. "Frankly my focus is on the caucuses here in Iowa," said Mr Romney before the Iowa voting began. "I think Mike is more concerned about the caucus in Los Angeles."

The resumption of the television shows does not spell a wider erosion of the strike. Still at risk are the Golden Globe Awards, due to be staged on 13 January.

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