NEW YORK (Reuters) - Late-night TV comedian David Letterman on Wednesday kicked off the return of his show from a two-month hiatus in support of striking screenwriters, boasting his was the "only show on the air" with union-backed jokes.
Letterman walked onstage in the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City through a chorus line of dancers holding signs that read, "Writers Guild of America on Strike," and sporting a full beard he grew during his eight-week break.
"Ladies and gentlemen, two long months, but by God, I'm finally out of rehab," he told the audience, joking that he had become introspective in the process. "Here's what I learned about myself -- show or no show I really enjoy drinking in the morning."
Portions of the show were screened for reporters several hours before it was due to be broadcast on CBS.
Letterman's arch rival, Jay Leno of NBC, and other late-night stars also resumed production of fresh broadcasts for the first time since film and TV writers launched their strike against major studios on November 5.
But Letterman, who has lagged behind Leno in the ratings since 1995, has a chance to gain the upper hand as he ventures back with his writing team, and the blessing of the WGA, under a special deal between the union and his production company.
That agreement, announced last week, enabled Letterman to return with a full complement of monologue jokes and comedy bits, including his famed Top 10 List, a nightly gag that presents multiple punch lines to a single joke topic.
"Ladies and gentlemen the only show on the air now that has jokes written by union writers," Letterman declared. "I know you're thinking to yourselves at home -- 'This crap is written?"'
Letterman's deal with the WGA also makes it easier for him to book guests who otherwise might balk at crossing picket lines.
Actor and comedian Robin Williams came on and made fun of Letterman's beard. Letterman showed a photograph of Williams on a WGA picket line earlier in the strike.
By contrast, NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" booked Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee as its first new guest and taping of the show was closed to the press.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also jumped into the late-night game, appearing via satellite from Iowa to introduce Letterman's "Late Show" in a "cold opening" presented before the initial credits and Letterman's monologue.
"Dave has been off the air for eight long weeks because of the writers strike," Clinton said, standing in front of campaign posters. "Tonight he's back. Oh well, all good things must come to an end."
Letterman was able to cut a deal with the WGA for his show and "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," which airs on CBS immediately following his, because both programs are independently produced by his company, WorldWide Pants Inc.
The WGA has said the deal even includes provisions to pay writers for work distributed via the Internet, a key sticking point in stalled talks between the union and studios aimed at ending Hollywood's worst labor standoff in 20 years.
The strike by 10,500 WGA members has thrown the U.S. television industry into disarray, postponed production on several major motion pictures and is threatening to spoil Hollywood's annual awards season.
Writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Bob Tourtellotte