When CBS announced
in early 1998 that Craig Kilborn would replace the departing Tom
Snyder as host of The Late Late Show, the powers-that-be at Comedy
Central were not pleased. Kilborn, who had been the anchor of
the satirical newscast The Daily Show since its debut in the summer
of 1996, was one of the cable channel's few bona fide stars, and
they had hoped to keep him around for a while.
they couldn't stop Kilborn from jumping ship, but he was under
contract to Comedy Central through summer 1999, and they tried
their best to at least make sure CBS didn't start celebrating
his signing while he was still on The Daily Show. Comedy
Central sought an injunction to keep him from making a high-profile
promotional appearance for the network but eventually agreed,
with some reluctance, to let Kilborn out of his contract a few
In the meantime,
the comedian Jon Stewart -- who at one point had been considered
Mr. Snyder's most likely successor at CBS -- was hired to take
over behind the Daily Show desk.
months after Kilborn began his tenure as a late-night talk-show
host (and eight months after Stewart replaced him on The Daily
Show), it's hard to understand why Comedy Central was so upset
about losing him.
is blessed with both a quick wit and an understated, self-effacing
charm, has breathed new life into a show that hadn't even seemed
to need it. Kilborn, in contrast, often appears to be gasping
for air. He seems most at ease doing "In the News,"
a seven-to-eight-minute segment near the beginning of the show
that allows him to reprise his news reader role from The Daily
Show, although the quality of the writing is spottier and
not as smart as it was, and continues to be, on Comedy Central.
(Sample Daily Show news joke: The voters will decide whether
Bill Bradley or Al Gore is "the bland technocrat to be defeated
by that cokehead George W. Bush." Sample Late Late Show
news joke: Both sides in the Mideast peace talks say that if they
can't reach an agreement on a peace accord, "they might be
willing to settle for a Honda Accord.") But the bulk of The
Late Late Show casts Kilborn in the traditional role of celebrity
interviewer, and not only isn't he very good at it, it's hard
to tell if he even cares whether he's good at it. When he interviewed
a less-than-superfamous fashion model plugging her new cookbook,
his end of the conversation included this observation: "So
you're a model who actually cooks. This is kind of cool."
When Kevin James, the star of the CBS sitcom The King of Queens,
jokingly claimed that ABC had moved the starting time of Monday
Night Football from 8 to 9 P.M. because it didn't want to
go up against his show, the following exchange ensued:
pretty cool, huh?
Conan O'Brien seemed equally lost when he began his career as
a talk-show host six years ago, and he has proved that it is possible
to grow on the job. Kilborn, too, may get better and more comfortable
with time. But even in O'Brien's first year on the air, when the
screen fairly dripped with flop sweat (and none other than Jon
Stewart was rumored to be waiting in the wings to replace him),
there was something endearing about him. Although he affects his
own version of the glibly ironic stance that has been de rigueur
for late-night hosts since David Letterman showed everyone how
to do it, O'Brien has always given the impression that deep down
inside he's a sweet guy who just wants us to like him. Ultimately,
it was that quality that kept at least a coterie of loyal viewers
tuning in until he found both a unique comedic voice and a sizable
another story. When he was anchor of The Daily Show --
a job that involved reading the news, doing a brief celebrity
interview and otherwise functioning as a kind of ringmaster ushering
correspondents and commentators on and off the set -- it was possible
to believe that he was an actor pretending to be a vain, empty-headed
pretty-boy newsman. Now that he has a whole hour to fill all by
himself, it is beginning to look as if he may really be vain and
empty-headed. Could it be that deep down inside, Craig Kilborn
If Conan O'Brien
wants us to like him, and Jon Stewart seduces us into liking him,
Craig Kilborn practically dares us to like him. It almost doesn't
matter whether his endless preening and posing and his "But
enough about me, what do you think about me?" attitude are
genuine or a put-on. The important thing is that they're annoying,
and that they tend to put an awkward distance between him and
both his audience and his guests.
show is so self-referential it hurts. It is full of jokes that
intentionally go nowhere and other devices meant to let us know
that he knows that we know how phony it all is. A recent monologue
included a gently self-deprecating joke (the punch line had to
do with his considering himself a "dweeb"), which he
followed by lunging toward the camera, pointing at it with both
index fingers and shouting: "Self-deprecating, baby! That's
me! Yeah!" A little of that sort of thing goes a very long
The Late Late Show are so far not significantly different
with Mr. Kilborn as host from what they were when Snyder had the
job, and despite its youth-oriented makeover, the show continues
to get beaten by NBC's Late Night With Conan O'Brien. Ratings
for The Daily Show have risen slightly since Stewart took
The idea of
simultaneously conducting a talk show and mocking the conventions
of the genre was pretty radical when Letterman started doing it
in the early 1980's. But these days such mockery is a talk-show
convention, and Kilborn is probably going to have to be more than
just the most sarcastic kid on the block if he ever hopes to stand
out from the crowded late-night pack.
the irony quotient seems to have diminished considerably on The
Daily Show, where Stewart delivers the news with more of a
conspiratorial wink than a condescending smirk.
For a while
it seemed as if the correspondents' reports that are a vital feature
of the show had degenerated into an endless set of variations
on a rather cruel theme: making fun of people for being in some
way eccentric, misguided or simply not very bright. There's still
some of that bullying spirit in the air. But lately -- presumably
at least in part because of Stewart's influence, and perhaps also
because it's getting harder to find people naïve enough to
let themselves be embarrassed on camera -- it seems as if the
subjects of these reports are in on the joke more often than not.
degree of complicity makes the reports no less funny, and it often
makes them downright endearing. Take the recent piece in which
Vance DeGeneres, one of the driest and funniest of the Daily
Show correspondents (and, yes, Ellen's brother), examined
a campaign to persuade the city of Philadelphia to erect a monument
to Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. It was clear that everyone
being interviewed, including Fine's sister, knew there was something
inherently silly about the whole thing. But correspondent and
subjects alike played it just straight enough to let the humor
speak for itself.
Some of the
special features presented near the end of the show, like the
segment devoted to local television commercials, remain mired
in the ridicule-people-for-being-less-hip-than-us mentality. But
the best of them -- notably "God Stuff," in which John
Bloom (a k a Joe Bob Briggs) presents clips of television evangelists
at their most absurd, and "Out at the Movies," in which
Frank DeCaro offers campy and often catty film reviews -- are
among the funniest things on television.
it all together deftly. He interacts with the correspondents far
more than Kilborn ever did, sending the message that even though
its official name is now The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,
the show is a team effort rather than a star vehicle. His celebrity
interviews are sharper and funnier than Kilborn's were, although
the edgy playfulness of "Five Questions," the trivia
quiz with which Kilborn ended his interviews, is missed. (Kilborn
took "Five Questions" with him to CBS, and it is one
of the few consistent highlights of The Late Late Show.)
of hosts has had only one obvious downside for The Daily Show.
In the words of Madeleine Smithberg, the co-creator and executive
producer, the show has lost "the crystal-clear joke that
we were a parody of the news."
really believed that Craig was that guy behind the desk,"
Ms. Smithberg said in an interview. "He looked like everyone
you've ever seen on TV. Jon Stewart has an unbelievable range
of things that he's capable of doing, but he delivers headlines
like a guy telling jokes. He's brilliant, but you don't really
believe he's a news anchor."
It could be
that The Daily Show was the ideal environment for Craig
Kilborn, whose dead-on imitation of an anchorman helped give the
show its identity. And although his syndicated talk show of a
few years back was a ratings disaster, that may ultimately be
the ideal environment for Jon Stewart, who can ad-lib with the
best of them and conduct interviews in which he actually appears
to be paying attention to what is being said.
day he'll get another shot at it. For now, though, Stewart seems
very much at home on The Daily Show. A lot more at home
than Kilborn seems away from it.