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Late Night's Reluctant Hosts

David Letterman came back on the air last week and made having his writers back seem like he didn’t have writers — which was funny. After 25 years Letterman understands that irony abhors sleekness. Jay Leno didn’t have his writers back, but delivered self-scripted monologues to keep up the appearance that he did have writers — which wasn’t funny. Then again, Jay wasn’t funny before the strike.

Conan O’Brien kicked off his writerless return with genuine statements in favor of picketing scribes, but showed that he can thrive on his own fleet wit and tailspin nuttiness. Meanwhile, Craig Ferguson — who got his writers back because Letterman is his boss and Dave’s Worldwide Pants made a separate deal with the Writers Guild of America — continued putting on a show that seemed less written or ad-libbed than maniacally unleashed.

But while these network stars wrenched supportive jokes out of the WGA’s compensation face-off with the AMPTP, they ultimately carried on their entrenched professionalism as stewards of nightly vaudeville with “the show must go on” brio. Which left Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to return Monday to their Comedy Central posts with bittersweet portrayals of writer-reliant entertainers reluctant to go it alone. Maybe because he knew people actually watch his show for news, Stewart riffed at length on The Daily Show about writers’ actual demands — even sticking it to his Viacom bosses by mentioning their billion-dollar suit against YouTube (no money in the Internet, huh?) — and had labor-relations professor Ron Seeber on as a guest. But he also couldn’t help hinting at disappointment that he didn’t get a special deal for his writers to return the way Letterman did. And his moment of Zen was a shot of picketers outside his own show, a truly bracing acknowledgment of how conflicted he feels about being on the air.

Colbert, meanwhile, needed to assure viewers he wasn’t another WGA-taunting Leno, so like a magician convincing an audience of a box’s structural integrity, he had his cameras reveal wordless prompters. But while he was effortlessly funny at times, Colbert still seemed half-hearted in keeping up his insane Republican shtick in the absence of his staff’s fiercely imagined satirical screeds. You’d have to say his real heart was in his sendoff at the end: “Writers, I’ll see you in my dreams.”