"Musical chairs"
Chicago Tribune
August 12, 1998
by Phil Rosenthal


Comedy Central gets best of Kilborn-for-Stewart swap

The daisy chain of late-night TV is looking like a sidewalk shell game, that classic con played on tourists when the cops aren't around.

Craig Kilborn is leaving Comedy Central's The Daily Show to become host of CBS' The Late Late Show, replacing retiring broadcasting giant Tom Snyder. Snyder's backup, Jon Stewart, on Tuesday was named replacement for Kilborn, who now works for David Letterman, who came into late-night TV 16 years ago by replacing Snyder.

So, when the shells are all shuffled early next year, Comedy Central will have traded Kilborn, a would-be hipster who comes across as only as good as his writers, for Stewart, a genuine comedic talent. And CBS will have Kilborn but not Snyder.

Even the mouth-breathers fresh off the bus don't get taken like that. And CBS is acting as if it doesn't know it's been snookered.

"We're thrilled to have Craig at CBS," network spokesman Chris Ender said. "We can't wait to get him over."

It's not as though Stewart, 35, is a sure thing. But he's a good bet. His MTV comedy/talk show was terrific, and the syndicated nightly version for Paramount failed only because viewers, then as now, didn't need another late-night talk show. He wound up filling in ably for Snyder, and playing the successor to Garry Shandling's talk-show-host character on HBO's The Larry Sanders Show.

With The Daily Show, he inherits a sometimes brutal satire of the day's events and a staff capable of making Kilborn, a former ESPN score-reader, look like the Next Big Thing to CBS.

"The show's going to be the show," Stewart said Tuesday. "We're just going to see how well I can integrate into it.

"It's exciting for me because if you want to be in New York and be in show business, there are only two open jobs -- this, and being a Knicks City Dancer. Guess which tryout went badly."

Having fed Kilborn to CBS and Politically Incorrect to ABC, and seeing its British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? Americanized by ABC for a summer series, Comedy Central has been having something of an identity crisis, unsure whether it is a minor-league franchise feeding the majors or what.

"We decided that's the league we play in and we went out and hired, without question, the most talented free agent on the market," Comedy Central boss Doug Herzog said.

Comedy Central spent free-agent money, too, at least for a cable network. Stewart's four-year deal is worth $6 million.

"I signed up for what?" Stewart said. "I thought I was just ordering cable."

Stewart showed no interest in the post-Letterman Late Late slot on CBS. He had a development deal with Letterman's Worldwide Pants, producer of Late Late, but let it lapse.

Those who worked with him when he filled in for Snyder said Stewart always seemed more focused in pursuing a movie career -- he has a pair of feature films due in December -- than another talk show.

"We talked about doing something" following Snyder's 11:35 show on CBS, Stewart said. "Then, when that sort of didn't go, we talked 2:30 (a.m.), and then around 3. By the time we were done, we were talking about `Sunrise Semester.' "

So he is returning to cable. "I value my anonymity," Stewart joked.

And while there is talk about intellectual property rights and who owns such Daily Show set pieces as "Five Questions," everyone involved seemed to think Kilborn would get to CBS and Stewart to Comedy Central without a stop at Court TV.

"We're not litigious people," Herzog said.

"I think you have the new slogan for Comedy Central," Stewart said, " `We're not litigious people!' "

Of course not. The last place con men want to visit is a courtroom.


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