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12 Videos Showing How Late-Night Shows Handled The Last Writers’ Strike

Conan O'Brien stands on seats in the midst of a crowd of fans. He is a white man with dark reddish hair, wearing a black suit. The crowd is multi-ethnic.
Host Conan O'Brien speaks onstage at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on April 13, 2014.
(Kevork Djansezian
Getty Images for MTV)
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The Writers Guild — the folks who write much of what we see on television — have stopped work and headed to the picket lines for the first time since their 2007–2008 strike.

Without writers, late-night talk shows are among the first programs leaving the airways, as numerous outlets including the New York Times report. The same was true in that previous strike, which lasted 100 days.

Talk shows went dark in 2007 in solidarity with the writers and because of the difficulty filling time when there’s no one to write what the hosts are saying throughout the show. However, as the strike dragged on, shows started returning — some of them without writers.

Here’s what that looked like.

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Late Night with Conan O’Brien

Conan O’Brien is one of the hosts who made a meal out of the situation, using it to inspire segments on the show while still bringing attention to what the writers were fighting for. He’s also considered one of the great comic minds of all time, from being a late-night host to writing on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, so he was among the best-suited to carry on without a writing team.

Here’s the opening from Conan’s first episode back after going dark, returning on Jan. 2, 2008:

Or if you want what may be the most memorable moment from not just that episode but that string of shows, here he is spinning his wedding ring on his desk with a dramatic drum backup from Max Weinberg, in a segment built around Conan trying to fill as much time as possible:

He also riffed his way through a pre-taped segment showing what he had supposedly been up to while being off the air, sharing Christmas cards he’d received and covering Radiohead’s “Creep”:

Here’s more of how O’Brien handled the strike, with a highlights package aired after the writers returned:

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The Daily Show with Jon Stewart & The Colbert Report

Several of the more critically acclaimed hosts teamed up during that 2007–08 strike, with the hosts of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report crossing over not just with each other, but with Conan and NBC’s Late Night. The ongoing series of segments culminated in an all-out fight:

The 2008 election was also underway and played a role in Stephen Colbert’s parody of daytime host Ellen DeGeneres’s frequent dancing. Ellen took it in stride:

The Late Show with David Letterman

Considered one of the all-time greats, David Letterman had another advantage. Because his production company owned The Late Show, he was able to make a side deal with the WGA that allowed him to bring back the show with writers, before the strike was over.

Before initially going dark, though, he did a segment running down the stakes of the potential strike:

Letterman, as well as several other late-night hosts including O’Brien, grew strike beards — Letterman later shaved his off after returning to the air.

The situation also provided some post-strike fuel, as in this bit featuring Tom Hanks:

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson

Craig Ferguson also came back during the strike with WGA writers — like The Late Show, his program was produced by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company.

His opening segment returning from the strike featured Ferguson coming back to the show from his native home of Scotland:

One of his takes included the fact that, for him, the strike was basically a vacation — you can watch that segment here:

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

Jay Leno went onto the picket lines as a member of the Writers Guild in support of the union early on:

But he didn’t stay on the writers' good side for long. While the video isn’t readily available, Jay Leno moved from “guy who annoys comedy nerds” to “guy who annoys union members” when he returned to his show without writers — but unlike hosts such as Conan, still wrote his own monologue jokes. On his first night back, he opened his monologue with a play on the old “walks into a bar” format and, after a series of jokes, explained his argument in favor of being able to write those jokes despite the guild’s objections.

As a member of the WGA, the guild threatened action against him for his writing. But while the guild accused him of breaking the WGA’s rules and considered suspending him, even putting together a trial committee, they ultimately chose not to punish him.

Saturday Night Live

The strike led to only 12 episodes of SNL being produced in the 2007–2008 season, with the show going dark from Nov. 3 until returning on Feb. 23 with Tina Fey hosting.

Last Call with Carson Daly

Carson Daly — initially famed for hosting MTV’s Total Request Live countdown and more recently for being the longtime host of The Voice — spent years in a lower profile gig hosting a late, late talk show airing at 1:30 a.m. His show was one of the first to return during the strike, with Daly saying his staff was about to be fired by the network if he hadn’t come back. Similar reasoning was given by other shows when they returned, as staff at many of those shows received payments out of pocket from their hosts to help support them while the shows were dark.

Real Time with Bill Maher

Bill Maher was never a typical late-night host. He’d previously been kicked off of ABC for controversial political comments before returning with Real Time on HBO. His always political nature led to him criticizing both sides of the writers' strike dispute in his first episode back during the strike:

Beyond late-night, the strike extended to other programming that aired during the writers’ absence but would normally be written by WGA writers. It led the Golden Globes to cancel their 2008 in-person ceremony. It gave both reality shows and game shows newfound momentum, particularly in primetime — The Amazing Race, Big Brother, and The Price Is Right were among those that benefited. The long production time of most scripted shows meant that many of them were able to run episodes during the strike — though it led to shortened seasons for many, as well as other shifts due to that strange Hollywood era.

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