Silence of the Laughs (A Writers’ Strike Story) … Ted Koppel’s Big B.S. … ‘Back to You, Melissa!’

Wednesday, March 28

A month from now, if you start to notice more bespectacled, scruffy-cheeked guys in sweatpants and Mr. Bubble T-shirts hanging out in your local record shop, flipping through rare Radiohead imports, you will know it’s happened:

New York’s comedy writers are on strike.

The bomb is set to drop on May 1. That’s the deadline for the showbiz community and the Writers Guild of America to come to terms on a new contract. While that deadline could move, and a pre-strike resolution is faintly possible, a work stoppage appears increasingly likely.

To date, most of the chaos surrounding the writers’ strike has been concentrated in Hollywood, where the movie and television industries have scrambled to stockpile enough big-budget drivel to last through an extended creative drought.

But New York will be among the first places to be seriously hit by a writers’ strike. That’s because most of the late-night comedy business–and many of the business’ best writers–call this city home. The Late Show with David Letterman , Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Saturday Night Live could all be immediately affected. Mr. Letterman and Mr. O’Brien would get it the worst, since they air five nights a week, often relying upon daily headlines for material.

“We just hope there isn’t going to be a strike,” said Maria Pope, The Late Show with David Letterman ‘s co-executive producer.

That said, all of New York’s comedy programs are trying to develop contingency plans. “We’re certainly preparing in the case of a strike, although we’re certainly hopeful that a strike will not occur,” said NBC spokesperson Rebecca Marks. Similar talks are underway at Worldwide Pants, Mr. Letterman’s production company. Saturday Night Live , which ends its season in late May, would only be affected briefly by a strike beginning May 1, unless the work suspension were to extend into the fall.

One plan could be for production companies to sign interim agreements with the Writers Guild that would allow the shows to continue to operate, as long as they adhered to W.G.A.-mandated guidelines. Johnny Carson, struck an agreement that allowed him to return midway through the five-month-long writers’ strike in 1988. Mr. Letterman, then on NBC, soon managed to get back on the air by writing his own material.

But such arrangements are by no means certain. “The question is, what they are going to give in terms of interim agreements?” said Ms. Pope. “If that is a possibility, then that is a great possibility.”

The Writers Guild is pushing for an increased financial stake in productions, an updated residual scale for the cable and Internet era, and greater say and credit in the creative process overall. Industry officials have countered that the W.G.A. demands are too broad and would prove to be financially crippling. “If you write the screenplay or the sitcom, you should be fairly recognized and rewarded,” said a spokesperson for W.G.A. East, who pointed out that the New York soap-opera community will also feel the brunt of a strike. “It’s a creative-rights issue.”

Not everyone in Hollywood or New York believes that May 1 is a hard-and-fast deadline. A growing consensus in both cities is that the W.G.A. could move its strike date back until later this summer and hook up in a powerful pairing with the Screen Actors Guild, which is also threatening to walk if not offered a new contract.

There is, however, the chance that TV programs could come back during the strike without guild writers at all. While it is clearly not her preference, Ms. Pope said The Late Show has not definitively ruled out coming back sans writers.

“We can do the show without writers,” Ms. Pope said. If the show had to go on, Mr. Letterman, she continued, “could go out and do an hour” himself.

One scenario is not a possibility for Dave’s show, however. Ms. Pope insisted that the show would never hire non-union writers. “We would never hire scabs!” she said. “Never, ever. That’s not an option.”

Talent manager David Miner of 3 Arts Entertainment, who represents a number of comedy writers in the city, said that some of his clients wouldn’t mind a brief work stoppage if it meant they could get away and work on other projects, like screenplays.

“No one wants a strike, but we all see the positives,” Mr. Miner said. “The consensus is, if we knew it would be a one-month strike, a two-month strike, everyone would swallow it and relax. But because of the nature of [the strike], no one knows what they are in for.”

Mr. Miner said he has advised clients to be careful with their money. “No one’s giving up their one-bedrooms,” he said.

At least one late-night comedy show in New York will continue production through a W.G.A. strike. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the nightly comedy-interview program on Comedy Central, is staffed by non-W.G.A. writers.

“We don’t see a major impact,” said Comedy Central spokesperson Tony Fox.

Mr. Fox acknowledged that a strike could prove to be a small boon for The Daily Show , since they will be offering fresh material.

“Listen, if people are looking for a funny take on the news and we’re among the few places–or the only place–to get it, we’d be happy to take more viewers,” he said.

But while Mr. Stewart might get some new eyeballs and the gangs at Conan and Letterman might relish the opportunity to polish up screenplays and other outside projects, no one is praying for an extended strike.

Besides, in the long-houred, often frenetic world of late-night comedy, some people–like The Late Show ‘s Ms. Pope–admit they aren’t totally prepared for a shutdown. “In our world, six weeks or a month away is like, ‘ Ahh , that will never come,’” she said, laughing. “We’ll figure it out when we get there.”

Tonight, while you can still see freshly baked comedy, tune into ABC’s new quirk-o-rama Denis Leary sitcom, The Job . Did you see that a prominent New York TV critic referred to The Job as the “the funniest show since I Love Lucy “? Ai-yi-yi . [WABC, 7, 9:30 p.m.]

Thursday, March 29

Fatherhood must be getting to the clean-but-dying-to-be-dirty Jerry Seinfeld, who got a little PG-13 on David Letterman last Wednesday, March 21, dotting his stand-up return with references to “ass,” “butt” and even uncorking a choice “mofo.”

But the following night, March 22, ABC’s Ted Koppel did him one better. That night, the copper-haired Nightline anchor said “bullshit” on the air.

Here’s the context: Mr. Koppel and the Nightline gang spent time in border country for a string of specials last week about the drug war. Entitled “Traffic” and inspired by the hit movie, the series featured interviews with adolescent drug users, drug enforcement officials and heavyweights including new Mexican president Vicente Fox.

One of the Nightline interviewees was Rudy Camacho, the affable field-operations director for U.S. Customs. In an exchange that aired the fourth night of the series, Mr. Koppel asked Mr. Camacho if we should assume that many of our own politicians have been “bought” by drug cartels.

Mr. Camacho replied: “Well, that’s certainly a political statement that, that you’re making there–-”

“Yes, I am,” Mr. Koppel said.

“–-concerning politicians,” Mr. Camacho continued. “And I’m concerned about the operational level. How do we maximize–-”

Mr. Koppel interrupted: “First, first time, first time I’ve heard you stutter all morning long, Rudy.”

Mr. Camacho nimbly advanced. “How do you, how do we maximize the operational effectiveness of what we’re doing? This is all we have to work with. Our resources are finite. It is our responsibility to use those resources in an interdiction format that provides the best results.”

At that point, Mr. Koppel fixed Mr. Camacho with the stern glare that has made everyone from Jim Bakker to Bill Gates quake in their loafers.

“That’s a bullshit answer , ” he said. “You haven’t given me an answer, Rudy.”

Mr. Camacho cracked up and playfully slapped the host’s side. “I know. But that’s all you’re going to damn get.”

Bully for Mr. Camacho, who understood that Mr. Koppel wasn’t trying to crucify him, just bust his chops for a classically bureaucratic non-answer.

But it was a truly inspired TV moment, as Mr. Koppel got to deliver the line that every interviewer has wished to utter at one point.

Nightline executive producer Leroy Sievers said that the crew at the award-winning program agreed that Mr. Koppel’s off-color quip was worth keeping.

“This is sort of an isolated thing,” Mr. Sievers said. “We thought it was sort of a fitting thing, and we thought Rudy Camacho’s response was terrific. Are you going to see that again? I can’t imagine.”

Mr. Sievers noted that Mr. Koppel’s latest on-air use of the term was quite different in tone from the only other time he used it. Nearly two years ago, Mr. Koppel was reporting from the war in Kosovo. During an interview with two Serbian men, he grew testy at their denials of war crimes against Albanians. Mr. Koppel told his translator: “Tell him that I know when I get a direct answer and I know when I get bullshit, and this is bullshit .”

“That was a serious thing,” Mr. Sievers said.

Tonight, Mr. Koppel attempts to steer away from the scatological on Nightline . [WABC, 7, 11:35 p.m.]

Friday, March 30

Tonight on HBO, Fight Club. Brad was wrong. The first rule about Fight Club: Nobody admits to watching Fight Club. [HBO, 32, 9 p.m.]

Saturday, March 31

In a desperate attempt to boost ratings, NBC will rerun an episode of Daddio between halves of tonight’s XFL contest between the Chicago Enforcers and the New York-New Jersey Hitmen. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, April 1

Joan and Melissa Rivers host the Academy Awards Fashion Review . To be scrutinized: Ashley Judd’s neo-flapper headgear, Tom Cruise’s decision to go sans tie, J. Lo in general. [E, 24, 10 p.m.]

Monday, April 2

Ahhhh , the competition, the sportsmanship, the rampant money-grubbing, corruption and decay. The NCAA Basketball Championship . [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]

Tuesday, April 3

Tonight, CBS has a David Copperfield special entitled Tornado of Fire . According to a recent report in Page Six, Mr. Copperfield and his girlfriend were quite the Tornado of Fire inside his Saturday Night Live dressing room the other night. [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]