F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said, “There are no second acts in American lives,” probably wouldn’t know what to make of Craig Kilborn.
FOR THE RECORD:
Craig Kilborn: In an article in Monday’s Calendar section about Craig Kilborn, former host of “The Daily Show,” the first name of his former “Daily Show” co-worker Madeleine Smithberg was misspelled as Madeline. —
After all, the 47-year-old Minnesota native is about to start his fourth act. The lanky ex-host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and CBS’ “The Late Late Show” returns to television with “The Kilborn File,” a topical half-hour talk and comedy show that debuts at 6:30 p.m. Monday on Fox’s KTTV-TV Channel 11.
The 6-foot-5 former college basketball player, who originally rose to national prominence at ESPN alongside Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, is something of an enigma. As Conan O’Brien can attest, few voluntarily quit a late-night talk show. But that’s exactly what Kilborn did when he left “The Late Late Show” in 2004.
Since then, Kilborn has pretty much been on extended vacation, and it showed when he looked a little puffy in a recent A&E documentary on the history of late-night television.
“I enjoyed retirement the right way — linguine con vongole, red wine and plenty of truffle cheese. It was my Orson Welles stage,” Kilborn cracked. He’s since lost 15 pounds and looks like his old self. “I feel like a French woman,” he said.
Not one for reflection, Kilborn claims he has never questioned his decision and is tired of people looking for some secret reason behind his departure. “I didn’t leave to do anything else, I left to leave,” he said, acknowledging that he actually knew early into his stint that this wasn’t the job for him.
“I thought late-night was crowded … the formats repetitive,” Kilborn said at Chateau Marmont, just a hop and skip away from his Hollywood Hills home. “I achieved my goals, and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.” On his last show he said, “My job is done here,” and in his typically self-absorbed style quipped, “I’m going to miss my best friends — my cameras.”
“He was totally bored,” concurred Mike Gibbons, a former head writer and producer on Kilborn’s CBS’ show. “He’d much rather do his comedy and not deal with three guests a night promoting their wares.”
Getting antsy is a Kilborn tendency. “He worked real hard, especially in the beginning,” recalled ESPN Executive Editor John Walsh. But about halfway through his time at ESPN, Kilborn came to Walsh with a script for a sitcom he wanted to pursue. “He liked sports, but at a certain point and time he was going to move on. … He wanted a career that didn’t necessarily match up with ESPN and ‘Sports Center.’”
It was a similar story at “The Daily Show.” Kilborn was a hit right out of the box and put the network on the map in late night, but behind the scenes he wanted more say in the production. While Jon Stewart has since taken “The Daily Show” into another stratosphere with his biting political commentary, Kilborn’s old executive producer feels the original host was often underappreciated.
“I’ve always thought Craig was much sharper than he was given credit for,” said Madeline Smithberg, who worked with Kilborn on “The Daily Show.” It’s a sentiment echoed by those who worked with him on “The Late Late Show.”
Sometimes knocked by critics for being a lightweight, supporters like Smithberg counter instead he’s a television savant who is able to make it all look easy. And unlike many other television personalities, Kilborn’s shtick is that of a self-obsessed frat boy, not a tortured soul — either on or off camera.
“I don’t do well around the angry, bitter and emotionally fragile among us, which may eliminate 70% of the population,” he said. “They say comedy comes from a dark place. Maybe 95% of the time it does, but it doesn’t for me.”
“He’s not an idiot who is self-absorbed,” said Smithberg. “He’s a smart person who is self-absorbed and uses it as a comedic device quite successfully.” Kilborn says it’s all an act. “I’m a down-to-earth guy.”
To the Kilborn faithful, his latest effort will probably seem more like his version of “The Daily Show” with a bit of “Politically Incorrect” thrown in than “The Late Late Show.” “The Kilborn File” will have a limited summer run on several big city Fox stations and, if it performs, would be rolled out across the country as early as next year.
On the new show, Kilborn will have a partner — actress Christine Lakin — probably best known for her seven-year stint as the tomboy on the ABC sitcom “Step by Step.” The show will open with Kilborn and Lakin honing their comic chops on the day’s headlines. Later, a roundtable discussion will ensue with a potpourri of comics, athletes and academics. There will also be the obligatory big-name guest and the Kilborn staple of “Five Questions.”
If the show doesn’t work, Kilborn says he won’t lose sleep over it. He has sitcom ideas and fantasies of returning to Northern California and becoming a disc jockey. Although he has a nice house in the hills, the Hollywood scene holds little appeal.
“I lived in a studio apartment until my mid-30s, I don’t have an extravagant lifestyle,” he said. “All I ever wanted to be was an old man with a dog.”