Greg Kinnear has a line—and a smirk—for every weirdo. His victim on this holiday-season morning is a middle-aged man squeezed into a black leather outfit who is obnoxiously revving his motorcycle near the L.A. sidewalk cafe where Kinnear is imbibing a 7-Up. As the biker shakes his long, platinum-blond hair and continues disturbing the peace, Kinnear loads his trademark deadpan and shoots: ”You suppose that guy’s trying to get noticed?”
Kinnear knows something about getting noticed, though quietly. As the host of E!’s Talk Soup since its debut in December 1991, he has played wry veejay to a clip parade of oddballs from each day’s talk shows. His well-timed wisecracks, accentuated by limber eyebrows, have won him a media following far disproportionate to Soup‘s audience (E! reaches less than 30 percent of American homes). Kinnear, 30, received calls last fall from Fox (when Chevy Chase got the hook), Disney (exploring sitcoms and talk shows), Rob Reiner at Castle Rock (for a syndicated interview show), and CBS (which wanted him for the post-David Letterman slot). ”He’s fresh and bright, someone you can’t help but want to work with,” says Rod Perth, CBS vice president for late-night TV.
”My life became like Let’s Make a Deal,” says Kinnear. ”You just don’t want the booby prize.” Right before Thanksgiving, he took the door marked NBC: On ^ Feb. 14, Kinnear will inherit Bob Costas’ interviewer seat on Later. (Costas is staying at NBC to do sports, news, and prime-time specials.)
It’s remarkable enough that NBC picked Kinnear over two dozen other candidates (including Chris Connelly of MTV and Premiere magazine and Rolling Stone‘s Bill Zehme) without a screen test. But NBC also threw possible prime-time specials into the deal. And, to let Kinnear stay at least one more year with Talk Soup, NBC is transplanting Later from New York to L.A.—an unusual move of support, given the network’s insistence that Conan O’Brien move from L.A. to New York when he took over Late Night, which Later follows at 1:35 a.m. Is NBC coddling Kinnear as a possible replacement for O’Brien? Kinnear dismisses such talk: ”I didn’t take this job as a stepping stone. I see my competition at night as the Chia Pet, Susan Powter, and the GLH hair spray commercial.”
But NBC Entertainment chief Warren Littlefield hints that good things are in store for Kinnear. ”I told Greg, ‘You can come here or go to Fox. Fox had a commitment to Chevy Chase, and he lasted five weeks. You should be very, very afraid. We’ll give you a five-year plan.”’
Unlike Costas’ setup, Kinnear’s Later will tape before a studio audience and will, in addition to the single interview, include occasional comic skits. ”I’ve bitten off an enormous chunk,” he admits. ”The question is, will I be able to chew it? And will I be spitting out little pieces at 1:35 in the morning?”
At least he has provenance in his favor. Like tube stars Letterman and Jane Pauley, Kinnear is a Hoosier, born in Logansport, Ind. While his mother, Suzanne, raised Greg and two older brothers full-time, his dad, Edward, was a career diplomat, whose work took the family to Athens and Beirut. ”It was kind of a bummer, but it made me one of those people who can adapt to anything,” says Kinnear. ”The only American TV I saw was Dallas and The Muppet Show. That’s pretty much where my sense of humor comes from—my role models were J.R. and Miss Piggy.”
After graduating with a broadcast-journalism degree from the University of Arizona, Kinnear got a marketing job with Empire Entertainment (Assault of the Killer Bimbos) but wanted to be on camera. He did guest spots as ”one of Paige’s many boyfriends” on Life Goes On and as ”a cheesy reporter” on L.A. Law but decided he didn’t want to ”play the angry mechanic in a sitcom with the same 10 lines every week.” Pre-Soup, he was host of the syndicated game show College Madhouse (1989) and Fox’s Best of the Worst (1991), and was a veejay for Movietime, the channel that became E! in 1990.
Kinnear, who lives alone in L.A., acknowledges it might be harder to court rather than mock talk-show guests, as he now does on Soup. ”I don’t want a show that’s just people plugging their books or movies, but I don’t want to just knock people,” he says. ”It’s awfully hard to do a show if guests won’t come on. I’ve done research on this.” He’s right—just ask Conan.
It was probably a smart move for Kinnear to sign on for the wee hours, when his inevitable growing pains will be witnessed by a spare audience. Kinnear, typically, is cynically optimistic. ”Because of the late hour, NBC will let me take chances. Of course, this is the honeymoon stage. I’m waiting for the time they come in and ask me to be more like Norman Fell.”