NEW YORK -- What's gonna happen tonight?
That's the sort of question seldom raised about late-night talk TV, whose hosts keep the audience content with variations on a durable formula, night after night, gag after gag, guest after guest.
But the late-night landscape is about to change, and no one -- not the hosts, not the viewers -- knows how it will look.
What everybody does know is, today, five late-night hosts will return to work. Each host is sure to be stoked after having been sidelined since the writers strike began eight weeks ago.
Welcome back, guys!
But there's a twist. Thanks to an agreement with the Writers Guild of America forged just last week, two of the hosts -- David Letterman and Craig Ferguson -- will be accompanied by their writing teams.
It's a different story for Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. They will be deprived of their writers' services while, on the fly, they retool the talk-show format and, relying on improvisation, do, well, who knows what?
One more thing: The haves and have-nots will be going head-to-head.
Consider the writerless shows: NBC's Leno-led "Tonight" (which airs opposite Letterman) and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (against CBS' Ferguson), as well as ABC's "Jimmy Kimmy Live," whose hour straddles all four other shows.
Just how entertaining, or dreary, will they be without a key support system? Will adversity expose a new side to these hosts: maybe unimagined resourcefulness or a tendency toward flop sweat?
As long as the strike drags on, we can expect the hosts (all of them Writers Guild members) to be firing salvos at the writers' adversaries, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The union cause will have a nightly platform reaching millions of viewers, particularly those tuned to "Late Show," where Letterman's righteous indignation should be on full comedic display.
But Letterman, like Ferguson on the "Late Late Show," will have his writers backing him up on this and everything he does.
And not only will both shows be blessed with scripts and cue cards. They'll also have union approval, which could mean a better grade of guests than for their rivals, where A-list names may balk at crossing guild-staffed picket lines. (Exhibit A: Robin Williams will be Letterman's first guest on the "Late Show" return.)
In short, compare-and-contrast opportunities will be abundant.
Many viewers will warmly greet Jay, Conan and Jimmy, if only to see how they weather the storm. And this curiosity might extend beyond the late-night regulars, drawing an expanded new audience to witness the spectacle.
Of course, the novel appeal may be short-lived. Viewers soon may ditch shows stuck with what may prove to be an insurmountable handicap. Maybe Dave and Craig, long the Nielsen underdogs, will find they've gained a competitive advantage that translates into ratings.
The disruption of late night by the strike comes as lame-duck Leno approaches his final lap hosting "Tonight." In an arrangement announced three years ago, he will hand over the show (and not by choice, according to some reports) to O'Brien sometime in 2009. Will Conan inherit a "Tonight" show left weaker by the strike? Similarly, will a new host at "Late Night" face a heartier Craig Ferguson?
Between now and then, the world of late night will be rocked as it hasn't been in 15 years. And, in one way or another, the next few weeks could provide the first jolt.