From ''Spin City'' to ''SNL,'' ''The Daily Show's'' rising stars are TV's moonlighters du jour

Craig Kilborn isn’t the only smart-ass wise enough to use The Daily Show (Comedy Central, Monday-Thursday, 11-11:30 p.m.) as a launching pad. The satirical newscast’s ex-anchor may have landed the highest-profile gig — turning on the smarm as Tom Snyder’s successor on CBS’ Late Late Show — but several of TDS‘ wickedly funny players have seen their careers take off in new directions as well.

To wit: Bone-dry correspondent Stephen Colbert has cocreated and costars with Amy Sedaris in Comedy Central’s new post-South Park sitcom Strangers With Candy. Paul F. Tompkins — who puckishly sent up EW and our ilk with his ”US People’s Weekly Entertainment Report” — has appeared on NewsRadio, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and HBO’s hilarious acoustic mockumentary Tenacious D. And TDS‘ own Baba Wawa wannabe, Beth Littleford, will soon expand her recurring role as Alan Ruck’s obnoxious girlfriend on ABC’s Spin City.

The Daily Show is definitely a fecund breeding ground for talent,” says exec producer Madeleine Smithberg. ”I like to think of it as All in the Family, and from that you get The Jeffersons, Maude, and, unfortunately, Archie Bunker’s Place.” Littleford offers another TV analogy: ”It’s been said to me more than once that we’re like the early days of SNL. It’s got that kind of cult-hit status, and the kids are watching.”

Clearly, the kids aren’t alone. Spin City‘s Michael J. Fox is an avowed fan — he was new host Jon Stewart’s first guest — so it’s no coincidence that Littleford and Colbert have turned up on his sitcom (or that Stewart will play a stockbroker with a gambling problem in the May 11 episode). Littleford will also be seen alongside Russell Crowe and Burt Reynolds in Disney’s David E. Kelley-coscripted hockey dramedy Mystery, Alaska. ”I went up for a small role and lobbied for a bigger, juicier one as a bitchy reporter,” she says. ”My Daily Show reel won me that part.”

Colbert has been equally busy. He’s provided voices for Robert Smigel’s SNL ”TV Funhouse” shorts and tested his improv skills on Drew Carey’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? Now he’s juggling his TDS duties with his role as a bisexual teacher who counsels Sedaris’ 46-year-old ex-addict/hooker high school freshman on Candy. ”The things we do on [TDS and Candy] wouldn’t play on the networks,” says Colbert. ”Maybe we step over the line, but the line’s not the important thing — the important thing is what’s funny.”

That philosophy didn’t go over well when Colbert worked on Dana Carvey’s self-titled ABC skitcom in 1996. Controversy erupted from the first sketch, about a lactating Bill Clinton. ”We just did what made us laugh, as opposed to what might work well after Home Improvement,” Colbert recalls. ”We got canceled because we thought this way.”

Although Smithberg says she wants to keep Littleford and Colbert on TDS ”as long as it’s physically and contractually possible,” the show could go on without them. New correspondents Vance DeGeneres (Ellen’s brother), Mo Rocca, and Stacey Grenrock are solid additions, and Stewart has settled into the host’s chair smoothly. ”Jon is an unbelievably multifaceted person — he can be silly, absurd, harsh, dirty, cutting, likable, and warm,” raves Smithberg. ”The show was great before, but it kinda had a single note. We’ve gone from playing a kazoo to a harpsichord.”
(Additional reporting by Dan Snierson)