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In return, Leno beats Letterman and posts season highs

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Seems it didn’t matter that Jay Leno had to make a go of it alone without his writers. Last night’s first original episode of The Tonight Show attracted 7.19 million viewers, enough to beat The Late Show With David Letterman (5.5 million) and to give Leno a season-high performance. It was also the best turnout for Leno on a Wednesday in nearly four years and helped to boost Conan O’Brien’s return; he, too, drew a season-best audience (2.84 million) despite having no writers to provide him with some clever bon mots. Leno opened his show with a monologue that he admitted he wrote himself, while O’Brien made a few strike jokes and spun his wedding ring on his desk to illustrate life without his comedy scribes.

Still, Letterman was hardly the slouch: The Late Show also posted season-high numbers, as did Craig Ferguson’s The Late Late Show (2.24 million). But both programs were no match for NBC’s — despite having their writers in tow thanks to an agreement made between Letterman’s Worldwide Pants and the WGA. In fact, Letterman almost behaved like he was speaking off the cuff without a script from the writers; his laid-back demeanor suggested he was improvising the opening segment, as he spoke fondly of a Christmas moment with his 4-year-old son.