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Too bad neither host is half as funny as Letterman, says Ken Tucker

By Ken Tucker
Updated August 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Craig Kilborn, The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn
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  • TV Show
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  • NBC
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Kilborn’s improving, but Leno’s on cruise control

Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien are the talk show hosts that cool TV fans like, and Letterman is The Man for happy misanthropes like me, but with Letterman in reruns this week, I decided to give the competition another squint. By which I mean Jay Leno’s ”Tonight Show” and Craig Kilborn’s ”Late Late Show.”

A week’s worth of Jay’s jumbo sized monologues and I laughed out loud exactly once: ”Why does Airwest let kids fly free? Because they don’t know they’re on the plane!” And really, my laugh was as much for the delivery as for the punchline. I used to love the pre-”Tonight Show” Leno when I’d catch him in a nightclub — he had that career comedian’s tough hide, the breezy yet steely confidence that communicated I AM GOING TO MAKE YOU LAUGH. HARD. That’s one reason I don’t know how he can stand the way his entrance is choreographed on ”The Tonight Show,” as some prearranged number of fans are permitted to politely rush the stage and shake hands with the host, as if he was an Elvis Presley who required a careful approach.

When you see Leno outside the precincts of ”The Tonight Show” — when he pops up for a sound bite on a show like ”Entertainment Tonight” or displaying his love of mechanical objects as a guest inventor on ”BattleBots,” he’s still a tremendously likable man, always speaking common sense and radiating an intelligent perspective on his own stardom. Which only makes his gaudy, goosed up ”Tonight Show” that much more of a disappointment. I keep thinking it’ll lose its depressing sheen of forced jollity, but it never does.

Craig Kilborn, on the other hand, has actually gotten better. Of all the late night hosts, he’s the one who projects a false persona: that of a self-absorbed, horny cad (or at least, I HOPE it’s false). This ironic distance leads him to make jokes about his own vanity. For example, he’s always checking his hair in the monitor, always using his name in self-conscious jokes, as when his arms move out of camera range and the announcer intones the words of a title card flashed on the screen: ”Craig Makes A Lewd Gesture For The Studio Audience That He Can’t Show On TV.”

That stuff is hit or miss; what I like more about Kilborn recently is the way he’s loosened up, doing an occasional spontaneous little dance, or making what’s probably a scripted joke sound like a spontaneous non sequitur: ”Quick note to Tim Burton,” he suddenly said the other night. ”Sunshine is not a bad thing — Goth is OUT!”

I know if I watched him every night, Kilborn’s smirk and nonstop irony would soon become insufferable, but in small doses, and with guests he clicks with (guy’s guys like Jon Favreau or any woman in a short skirt), Creggers is funny. Creepy, but funny.

Still, I’ll be glad when Dave gets back from vacation.

What are you watching late night?

Late Night With Conan O'Brien

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  • TV Show
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genre
status
  • In Season
network
  • NBC

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