Forget Times Square, forget the BCS, forget Iowa, forget Dave and JayÁ¢€™s returns last Wednesday: 2008 officially gets underway Monday night, when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert return to Comedy Central. How theyÁ¢€™ll fare without their writing staffs these next few weeks is an open question, one to which a million or two political junkies and collegiate potheads eagerly await an answer. But even if each man is only half as sharp-witted as usual, isnÁ¢€™t it bizarre that the return of a pair of late-night comedy programs to the basic-cable airwaves seems so much like a public service?

ItÁ¢€™s not really a surprise that the late-night shows (and this includes HBOÁ¢€™s Real Time With Bill Maher, which returns on Friday) should serve as the front lines of a TV writersÁ¢€™ strike Á¢€” they are among the few remaining scripted shows that run on anything like a Á¢€Å“liveÁ¢€ or same-day basis. The sturm und drang surrounding their absence over the past eight weeks Á¢€” the requests for union waivers, the hostsÁ¢€™ generosity in paying their below-the-line staffs, the subsequent pressure to cross picket lines in order to save those staffersÁ¢€™ jobs Á¢€” has pitted Emmy-winning writers and multi-millionaire hosts against huge media conglomerates such as Disney, Time Warner, GE and Viacom (which owns Comedy Central as well as CBS). The stakes could hardly be higher for the entertainment industry, in terms of ad revenues, time-slot tent poles, ratings wars and long-term bragging rights (for Leno and Letterman) Á¢€” not to mention a break for viewers from the horrors of American Gladiators and Howie MandelÁ¢€™s ubiquitous chrome-dome.

Still, it is for the nation as a whole that the return of Stewart, Colbert et al feels like an event of outsized importance. Indeed, their collective contribution to the body politic at this particular moment in history can hardly be overestimated. With the New Hampshire primaries coming Tuesday, and with both partiesÁ¢€™ wide-open nominations likely to be decided by the first Tuesday in February, America needs these smirking wiseacres more than ever to help us sort the wheat from the chaff of our political discourse.

I mean, is there anybody left out there who trusts CNN, Fox News (god help us), or Chris Matthews to give us the truth about these guys (and that woman) who want to be our president? (Maybe Keith Olbermann, but his schtick has just one foot in news, the other in late-night.) Heaven knows the candidates arenÁ¢€™t going to offer us much truth themselves Á¢€” even when they venture onto the late-night shows, which will be recruiting them heavily to replace celebs who wonÁ¢€™t cross WGA picket lines. (Will the dialogue lean heavily rightward because liberal candidates and authors wonÁ¢€™t serve as scab guests? WeÁ¢€™ll see.) In any case, it is no longer only college kids who have come to rely on 11 o’clock satire rather than the traditional news media to cut through the crap; it’s ironic that, as conservatives have derided the news business for its “liberal bias” and as that business has emasculated itself in response, Americans have turned to an even more liberal institution for their political information.

Of course, some candidates are better served by the return of late-night comedy than others. Barack Obama, who for various reasons is rarely a target for ridicule, arguably has benefited the most of all the Democrats from the comicsÁ¢€™ dogpile on Hillary Clinton. (Maher seems to be a John Edwards guy, not that that likely will matter much after tomorrow night.) Meanwhile, Mitt “Gosh, I Love America” Romney Á¢€” should he overcome his Iowa collapse and score big in the early primaries Á¢€” seems the candidate Most Likely to Be Strapped to the Late-Night Whipping Post.

On the other hand, the ever-gregarious Mike Huckabee received the most prominent Á¢€Å“Colbert bumpÁ¢€ of the pre-primary season, though one wonders if his free ride would have continued had the late-night shows been airing as he rose in the polls and aired that ridiculous Christmas ad. (From what I hear, Huckabee is scheduled to appear on The Colbert Report again this Wednesday.) Similarly, John McCain is a reliable foil for Stewart and may become even more so if he completes his comeback Tuesday night Á¢€” though weÁ¢€™re virtually certain to be reminded of his 2006 Christian-right reach-around at Liberty University.

In fact, if I were McCain or Obama or even Huckabee Á¢€” or the union-butt-smooching Edwards, if his candidacy survives the week Á¢€” IÁ¢€™d be hauling ass to Hollywood later this week and spending some of my pre-South Carolina downtime trying to solve the strike. ThatÁ¢€™s right: IÁ¢€™m suggesting that some presidential candidate, even a Republican, might have much to gain by engaging in a full-blown strike intervention. (Goodness knows the tin-eared George Bush isnÁ¢€™t going to lift a finger Á¢€” neither dog in this fight is on his side, and heÁ¢€™s not on theirs either.)

IÁ¢€™m half-serious here. LetÁ¢€™s face it Á¢€” an electorate faced with a winter of American Idol and Damn Little Else may soon view this strike as a national emergency, and the man who can get CSI and Ugly Betty out of reruns the soonest might earn some serious leadership cred. (Do you want to argue with me that getting AmericansÁ¢€™ favorite shows back on the air isnÁ¢€™t as important to them as solving a railroad, steel, or minersÁ¢€™ strike used to be, back when this country actually produced things?)

He might also earn the undying (or, at least, the slow-dying) gratitude of certain late-night writers and hosts who can keep his faux pas off the air Á¢€” and put even more of a spotlight on his opponentsÁ¢€™ foibles Á¢€” while offering up some precious free airtime in the form of interview slots. ThatÁ¢€™s motherÁ¢€™s milk to a guy like McCain or Huckabee who will have a hard time competing financially in the run-up to February 5 Á¢€” or to a guy like Obama or Edwards, who can use every Hillary joke he can get over the next month.

Writers or no writers, the late-night shows by now are fully aware of their heightened role in the electoral process, and their return couldnÁ¢€™t be more timely or more welcome. HereÁ¢€™s hoping that these fellas are able to ad-lib their way around their temporary handicap, and that they can convince some interesting characters to populate their guest slots. (Maybe Colbert will even revive his South Carolina campaign as a write-in.) So welcome back, guys. We need you. And donÁ¢€™t forget to break out the skewers.