After shutting down production in the wake of last week's devastating attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., late-night TV is expected to return to the airwaves. But with Letterman, Leno, Conan and Kilborn all reliant on jokes about politics and current events, the hosts are struggling with exactly how they can return--and more importantly, whether audiences are ready to laugh.
"There are people who feel the fact that you're on TV at all is inappropriate," Leno told the Los Angeles Times. "At some point you say, 'okay, let's try to get some sense of normalcy.' "
Most late-night TV hosts will make that attempt this week. Leno and Conan O'Brien will return to production on their NBC shows Tuesday, while Letterman and Craig Kilborn are expected to head back to their late-night desks as early as tonight.
It is also still unclear what celebrity guests are scheduled to appear on the shows.
Late-night TV has endured plenty of tragedies over the past decade, but none of the magnitude of last week's terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The networks have already broken a record for continuous news coverage of the tragedy, with many stations not breaking for a commercial until Saturday.
So what's a comedian to do when there's little to joke about? Leno sought advice from the big man himself, Johnny Carson, about how he dealt with tragedies like the assassinations of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Leno told his staff: "What did he do in any tragedy? He waited a respectful amount of time, he came on the air with thoughtful comments and went on with the show. And that's what we have to do."
Over on ABC's Politically Incorrect, host Bill Maher is accustomed to taking a serious tone with some current events. But when he does return to the air this week, his show will leave one of its four guest chairs empty as a tribute to Barbara Olson, the TV commentator and frequent P.I. guest who died aboard the Los Angeles-bound jet that crashed into the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, Saturday Night Live is still scheduled to premiere September 29, with Reese Witherspoon as host and Alicia Keys as the musical guest.
Writers and cast members still haven't figured out how they will handle the show, both in its tone and content. But it's still early. Said a source close to the show: "Even if the tragedy hadn't happened last week, we wouldn't know what we were going to do yet."
One of the biggest predicaments, however, seems to be over what to do with Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart has always been a welcome voice when it comes to skewering politicians and unleashing his staff of goofball correspondents. Now, they're not quite sure what to do.
After shutting down production last Tuesday, The Daily Show will remain in reruns through Tuesday. A spokesman for the network said he wouldn't be surprised if production remained shut down through the rest of the week. An editorial meeting was scheduled for Monday to decide how to proceed.
"Were not certain," spokesman Tony Fox said. "The Daily Show is in a unique situation in that it is a news parody. And because we poke fun at the news, there's some concern about what content we'd have on the show."
Fox says the network also is paying close attention to Daily Show reruns to make sure no inappropriate older episodes air during the nation's time of mourning.