NEW YORK - Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart all plan returns to late-night television the next two weeks, but aside from their familiar faces, viewers may not recognize much.
Barring a New Year's miracle, none of their writers will be joining them.
The hosts - with the exception of NBC's Carson Daly - are also members of the striking Writers Guild of America, making them subject to union rules that would severely limit what they can do.
The union's strike rules say members cannot write or perform any material that would normally be written for them. Under this interpretation, for example, Jay Leno couldn't perform a monologue, because his staff of writers normally crafts his jokes.
The comic skits that are a part of several late-night shows would also be off-limits without writers.
"I think that people will see some interesting television," said Chris Albers, former president of Writers Guild of America East and a comedy writer for O'Brien. "Obviously, these are some of the funniest people in the country so they're probably going to do a very good job. It's just a different animal than what they're used to and what we're used to."
Comic ad-libbing, musical performances and lengthier appearances by interview subjects willing to cross picket lines are the most likely recourse.
"I don't know what they're going to do," said Mike Sweeney, head writer for O'Brien's NBC show. "My obvious speculation would be more guests, and maybe talk to them more slowly." *