It’s clear that Craig Kilborn never looked in the mirror and asked himself, “What would Jay Leno do?” Kilborn sent industry pundits into a tailspin of confusion by voluntarily ending his reign as the host of CBS’s The Late Late Show in 2004 after a successful five-year run, but what looked like madness at the time may have been the shrewdest move possible, now that we’ve seen the late-night wars go thermonuclear. Six years after walking away, Kilborn is back behind the desk, but his return may cause even more confusion than his departure.
That’s because Fox isn’t exactly giving the host’s comeback effort The Kilborn File the red carpet treatment. In fact, unless you live in one of a handful of cities, you may be surprised to learn the show even exists. The Kilborn File is getting a six-week trial run this summer on seven Fox-owned stations; depending on the ratings, it will either get a national rollout next year or disappear without a trace. If Kilborn thinks the network is treating him like he’s in the witness protection program, however, he isn’t letting on. In his recent round of publicity interviews, Kilborn has stressed the show’s dinner-hour timeslot (it airs at 6:30 pm in Los Angeles and 7:00 or 7:30 pm in most other markets) as one of its strengths, what with the primary competition consisting of game shows and sitcom reruns.
As it turns out, Kilborn’s theory doesn’t apply in my hometown of Austin, Texas, where his show airs at 10 p.m. — which makes it a direct competitor of The Daily Show. That sets up a comparison he may have wished to avoid because, as my fellow geriatrics will recall, Kilborn was the original host of that particular program back when Lewinskis roamed the earth. Based on the first episode of The Kilborn Files, I don’t think Jon Stewart is feeling the heat.
The good news is that if Fox decides to pass on The Kilborn Files, it will always have a home on public cable access. Coming to us from a broom closet-sized set in Hollywood, in front of a nonexistent yet strangely audible audience (hello, laugh track), the half-hour show begins with little fanfare as Kilborn takes a seat behind the desk to deliver his opening monologue. As he lobs topical jokes about Al Gore visiting massage parlors and the 11-hour marathon match at Wimbledon (“Tantric tennis!”), it quickly becomes clear that his trademark smarminess and self-infatuation are intact, albeit in greatly diminished form. Yes, hard as it is to believe, Kilborn is even blander now than in his heyday. (Also, his voice has taken on an unpleasant, strained Muppet-like quality that soon becomes grating.)
We get our first hint of the randomness that will characterize The Kilborn Files when he introduces his sidekick, Christine Lakin (best known for her seven-season stint on the sitcom Step by Step), who sits in a director’s chair in the corner, engages the host in a brief discussion of plastic surgery, and is never heard from again. Gags about today’s hottest celebrities — Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan and La Toya Jackson — are followed by a video clip of a small boy setting the world’s record for simultaneously wearing the most pairs of underpants. It’s at this point that I begin to suspect Kilborn has no intention of coming out of his early retirement at all. The whole thing seems like it was thrown together during happy hour, and that impression doesn’t change with the next segment, the Power Panel, in which Martin Mull and Seth MacFarlane appear in split-screen with Kilborn (God only knows where they really are, but I’m guessing they have guns to their heads just out of frame) to offer carefully scripted one-liners on four different topics: Lady Gaga’s bad behavior at baseball stadiums, Al Gore’s massages (again), pies, and love. (On the latter subject, Mull offers that “it’s no score in tennis,” and MacFarlane counters with a quizzical “Love is an easy chair?”)
They make it through the segment, their families are released unharmed, and we move on to the interview with The Kilborn File’s first guest ever…Jeff Foxworthy. Way to break out the big guns, Kilby! Our foremost redneck humorist shares anecdotes from the set of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? and serves up some of his moldiest material (“Why do they have Braille instructions at the drive-thru?”), and then it’s on to Five Questions, a holdover from both of Kilborn’s previous shows. You’ll be relieved to learn that Foxworthy went five for five, correctly identifying America’s top-selling truck (the Ford F-150) and three celebrities who also have “Fox” in their names (Megan, Jamie and Redd). Then abruptly, yet somehow not nearly soon enough, it’s all over.
It’s not always fair to judge a five-night-a-week comedy/talk show from its first episode or even its first few months, as anyone who caught the flop-sweating basket case that was Conan O’Brien early in his Late Night tenure can attest. The difference is that O’Brien was an unknown, inexperienced novice who perfected his craft on the job, while Kilborn is the finished product. In a way, it was admirable that he walked away from his last show just for the hell of it, but the television landscape has changed immeasurably in the six years he’s been gone. When he was out of sight, he was out of mind, but now that he’s back, it’s only too clear that we haven’t missed him at all.
· Actual The Kilborn File joke: “Now, turning to the situation in the Gulf…” followed by a photoshopped picture of The Jersey Shore’s The Situation pointing to his abs in front of an oil slick. That’s all he’s got on the biggest news story of the year.
· But wait! “What’s happening in our nation’s capital?” Yes, it’s a picture of the cast of What’s Happenin’!! in front of the White House. Wow, what’s next — jokes about moon rocks and streaking?
· Martin Mull seemed relaxed and not at all embarrassed to be a part of this, as befits a show biz lifer, but there’s something vaguely unnerving about Seth MacFarlane. A certain American Psycho quality.
· Did you know that Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? is still on the air? Neither did I.