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NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert returned to the airwaves without their striking writers Monday with similarly in-depth but divergent explorations of the walkout that had silenced the comics for more than two months.
On "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," the host dissected the various positions, mocking both sides though saving a little more acidity for the studios.
Stewart joked that the last time late night shows went off the air was for a week after 9/11. "So if my math is correct the writers strike is nine times worse than September 11."
Colbert, on the other hand, stayed mostly in character, knocking the idea of unions and strikes in general.
In a discussion with guest Richard Freeman, author of a book about unions, Colbert satirically took up the studios' side when he said that without companies "The workers would not be workers; they'd just be people unless the capitalists said here's a place to work.
Comedy Central ordered Stewart and Colbert back to the air after late night hosts from the broadcast networks were similarly instructed to return. Earlier in the day, about 30 striking writers picketed the studios where the hosts tape their shows. Late night writers were not asked to picket.
Some of Stewart's early bits appeared polished -- Colbert noted in the handoff that he was alarmed because "you seem way too prepared" and threatened to call the Writers Guild of America, which has banned members from any form of writing.
Stewart supported the writers' cause when he jabbed at the studios' position that new media revenue was not yet sufficiently established (the $1.99 charge for "The Daily Show" on iTunes was "not a content charge; it's a shipping and handling charge.")
But he also riffed on how David Letterman got a WGA waiver to use writers while he did not.
Stewart also took a poke at Screen Actors Guild solidarity. Writers were gaining public support "by getting actors to speak out on their behalf. 'Oh my God! You guys got Sean Penn to advocate your cause. You must have -- a cause."'
The use of the airwaves to give time to the writers strike -- as well as how they position the stoppage -- could be a key determinant of shaping the public perception of the strike especially among both shows' young, tastemaking demo.
Both hosts used the lack of writers as a source of material in its own right -- Stewart had the line "Space Reserved for Clever Pun" in the box normally devoted to the same, while Colbert riffed about an empty teleprompter.
"My understanding is that this little magic box, it reads my thoughts and it lays them on the screen right there," he said, and then quipped when told the jokes were usually written by scribes. "The writers? The guys on the 4th floor with the opium bong playing "Guitar Hero" all day?"