LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Late-night TV comedians Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien said on Monday they will resume taping their shows on January 2, and cross picket lines if necessary, after nearly two months off the air in support of striking film and television writers.
With no end in sight to Hollywood's worst labor clash in 20 years, the hosts of NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" said they were returning for the sake of scores of co-workers idled by the strike.
Both will renew production without their writers, who presumably will still be on strike, NBC said.
"The Tonight Show" and "Late Night" were among the strike's first and highest-profile casualties, going into immediate reruns when the Writers Guild of America launched its walkout against major film and TV studios on November 5 in a dispute hinging on money paid for Internet distribution.
Leno and O'Brien had resisted pressure from NBC to resume production even as ratings for reruns of their shows plunged. But earlier this month negotiations to end the strike collapsed amid harsh rhetoric and finger-pointing from both sides.
"Now that the talks have broken down and there are no further negotiations scheduled, I feel it's my responsibility to get my 100 non-writing staff, which were laid off, back to work," Leno said in a statement.
O'Brien said he, too, was acting for the good of his 80 non-writing employees, and acknowledged that his show "will not be as good" without his writing staff. "In fact, in moments it may very well be terrible," he wrote.
Leno, who replaced Johnny Carson as "Tonight Show" host in 1992, and O'Brien, who is slated to take Leno's place on the No. 1 U.S. late-night show in 2009, both are WGA members, and both said they continue to support the union and its cause.
The WGA expressed sympathy for Leno and O'Brien, accusing NBC in its own statement of "forcing" the two hosts back on the air without writers.
The guild said it has no plans to single out Leno or O'Brien for the kind of targeted protests aimed at another late-night NBC host, Carson Daly, when he returned weeks ago.
"Jay and Conan have been supportive of us from the beginning, and we understand the pressure they're under from NBC," said WGA spokesman Jeff Hermanson.
Leno also faces stiff competition from his longtime rival, CBS "Late Show" host David Letterman, who is expected to return soon with his writing staff intact.
Letterman, who owns his show, as well as CBS's "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," is negotiating an "interim agreement" with the WGA to allow both those programs to resume taping with the union's blessing.
Some experts suggested that a comeback of late-night TV hosts, whose sidelined shows were major symbols of the union's clout, might actually be good for the Writers Guild.
"I think when they go back on the air, they're going to be tweaking the noses of their corporate bosses over the strike," said industry lawyer Jonathan Handel, a former WGA co-counsel.
Leno and O'Brien's producers acknowledged during a conference call with reporters that both shows, which usually feature a heavy dose of topical jokes and comedy bits, will be forced to get by with less scripted material, perhaps devoting more time to interviews and musical guests.
"It's going to be hard. We have 12 writers here normally," "Late Night" executive producer Jeff Ross said.
Writers Guild spokeswoman Sherry Goldman said O'Brien and Leno would be violating strike rules if they wrote monologues or other material normally handled by their writing staffs.
"They don't write their own comedy. They can't start now. That is struck work," she said.
"Tonight Show" executive producer Debbie Vickers said Carson and Letterman did monologues when they went back to work during the 1988 writers strike under rules that allowed hosts to write and prepare their own material. But she said Leno would abide by whatever current union rules dictate.
In any case, NBC executive Rick Ludwin said there was little doubt the General Electric Co.-owned network or its corporate parent would become the butt of on-air jokes from Leno and O'Brien, calling strike-related humor "fair game."
Another potential hitch for both shows is the reluctance of some celebrities to cross picket lines in order to appear as guests during the strike. But as the walkout drags on "it does seems like people are warming to the idea," Vickers said.
Elsewhere on the late-night front, an ABC spokeswoman said "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" is expected to remain in reruns through year's end. There was no immediate word on whether cable channel Comedy Central was looking to bring back its two late-night stars -- Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.