Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Smug Alert

By Jim Hanas

APRIL 12, 1999:  On the face of it, Craig Kilborn seems like a shaky replacement for crusty broadcast veteran Tom Snyder. Say what you want about Snyder and his eminently parody-able anecdotes, his staid interviews were the best late-night television had seen since America’s generalist, Bob Costas, surrendered his seat at Later. Like Costas, Snyder can talk to anyone -- be they literati or glitterati -- and find out something an audience might want to know. That the opening monologue always found his massive, chuckling head wrapped in the tightest close-up allowed by law hardly mattered, except perhaps to the squeamish.

Fortunately, early indications from the new Late Late Show, which debuted a week ago Tuesday, suggest that Kilby was never intended as a Snyder substitute, but as CBS’ answer to Conan O’Brien.

He does have the breeding for it. In a tradition at least as old as Carson, he’s a slice of white bread that could only have been packaged way between the coasts (Minnesota, in Kilborn’s case). He’s a provincial doofus like the rest of us, over his head in a world of cinema celebs and supermodels. And of course, in a tradition only as old as Letterman, Kilborn has a smug yet self-deprecating awareness of this. Sort of.

If anything, he takes Lettermanesque self-consciousness to the next level. Dave himself can’t pull it off anymore. He’s been around too long. We know what he earns and his just-in-from-Indiana befuddlement has given way to full-blown bitterness. Meanwhile, Conan O’Brien has broken new ground in the field of self-proclaimed loserdom, never missing an opportunity to detail his own purported lameness.

Kilborn’s self-deprecation, however, takes place on an entirely different level. Rather than being a loser who becomes cool by admitting it, Kilborn’s a loser who thinks he’s cool, and painfully isn’t, but who still manages to make a joke out of his persistence in the delusion. His self-mockery is aimed at his vanity, not at his awkwardness.

Thus the endless promos featuring the dewy-eyed pretty boy tossing his hair and whispering sweet nothings to the camera and the central conceit that the show is being filmed from the host’s bachelor pad in the Hollywood Hills. Conan O’Brien is a dork who never gets laid. Kilborn is worse: a player who never gets laid.

Not that Kilborn doesn’t have his share of awkwardness. He can’t seem to get a handle on where to put his feet or hands during the opening monologue and sometimes has trouble getting out of the way and letting his guests talk. He’s still miles ahead of O’Brien, however, who couldn’t introduce a segment without explaining it to death if his life depended on it. He’s more at ease at the desk as well, and his smarmy wit may be quicker than anyone expected.

As for bits, The Late Late Show has a way to go before things fall into place. Fans of the Kilborn-hosted Daily Show will want to tune in just for “In the News” and “5 Questions,” spots that were in no way damaged in transit. Beyond that, the show’s writers are taking a cue from Kilborn’s previous employer, satirizing the idea of a talk show itself with constant references to focus groups and demographics. (Funniest monologue line from week one: “A guy comes up to me from the audience. Nice guy, about 18 to 34.”)

The show is also peppered with bits of Ernie Kovacs-inspired surreality, prefigured in the hilariously bizarre promo spots featuring Kilborn decked out as a devilishly self-absorbed Willy Wonka. After the news, Kilby retires to the window to congratulate himself on a job well done and to worry if Vince Vaughn is better-looking than he is. Back from commercial, he silently spies through binoculars at buildings falling down and bombers taking off. Combine these un-gags with theme music that might have been lifted from a David Lynch film, and watching The Late Late Show becomes a lot like watching television from a foreign country.

Once the kinks get ironed out, the new Late Late Show promises to be far more entertaining, if less informative, than the Snyder-led version, and far better than any post-Costas episode of Later ever was. It might even give Conan a run for his money, although that seems less likely. The Late Late Show is strange, not wacky, and its subtly quirky atmosphere will probably not produce any catch-phrases that include the word “poop.” So much for ratings.

Then again, it could be so smarmy that it just might work.

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