Carson offers history lesson as talk shows return

Sun Dec 23, 2007 8:39pm EST
 
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By Nellie Andreeva

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Late-night TV history will repeat itself January 2 when, two months into the Hollywood writers strike, NBC's "The Tonight Show" will return to the air without its scribes.

It was May 11, 1988. Two months after the beginning of the last writers strike, "The Tonight Show" returned sans writers. It started off just like any other "Tonight Show" hosted by Johnny Carson, with "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" But then, in the midst of a louder and longer than usual standing ovation, an audience member shouted, "Welcome back, Johnny."

"The public was glad he was back, the staff was glad, everybody was happy to get paychecks again," said Carson's nephew Jeff Sotzing, president of Carson Entertainment, who was an associate producer on "Tonight Show" in 1988. "Nobody wanted to cross the picket line, but when they finally did, it was a huge relief."

Carson, who owned the "The Tonight Show," had been paying his nonwriting staff out of his pocket, something his successors, led by David Letterman, have replicated during the current strike.

Also taking a cue from his idol, Letterman, who owns CBS' "Late Show" and "Late Late Show," has been trying to negotiate an interim deal with the Writers Guild of America that would allow the two shows to return with writers January 2.

Carson had been pursuing such a contract in May 1988. According to news reports from that time, frustrated by the slow progress in the negotiations, he decided to return May 11 without writers. A couple of weeks later, his scribes followed after the WGA signed off on a deal. Now, things are not moving fast on a contract between Letterman's Worldwide Pants and the WGA either.

There were two guests on Carson's first night back, a copy of which is available at the Paley Center for Media: San Diego Wild Animal Park's curator of birds William Toone, who talked about the birth of the first baby condor in captivity, and actor-comedian Joe Piscopo, there to promote his movie "Dead Heat." The "Tonight Show" band also saluted composer Irving Berlin for his 100th birthday with a medley of his tunes.

Talent booking for the late shows is getting a lot of attention these days, with speculation that many actors won't cross a picket line, making non-Hollywood types like Jack Hanna and medical experts preferred guests.   Continued...

 
<p>In this file photo Jim Shaughnessy (R on scooter), a writer for NBC's 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno', takes part in the picket line with other writers at NBC television network studios in Burbank, California November 5, 2007. Late-night TV history will repeat itself January 2 when, two months into the Hollywood writers strike, NBC's "The Tonight Show" will return to the air without its scribes. REUTERS/Fred Prouser</p>