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Craig Kilborn seems to have a habit of taking a job, putting his style to it and then moving on to something new. He did it on ESPN's "Sportscenter." He did it again at Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," and he did it with this, his CBS Late Night talk fest.
To really understand what went on with this program, you have to know the history. Go back to the remarkable HBO series, "The Larry Sanders Show," where Garry Shandling played a self-absorbed emcee. At a crucial point, the fictional Sanders was looking for someone to host a program after his and the name he came up with was Tom Snyder. In a "life imitates art" moment, David Letterman brought Snyder in to host "The Late Late Show." Where Snyder was innovative and cutting-edge in the 1970s and 80s, his delivery and selection of guests for the late 90s were more conducive to a mid morning deadly dull radio program, and people were quick to tune out.
Meanwhile, Kilborn was building a reputation as an amusing character, doing interviews on "The Daily Show" and introducing his "Five Questions" quiz of guest celebrities there. When it was time to replace Snyder, Letterman plucked Kilborn from his Comedy Central job and installed him at the 12:30am slot. Craig's arrival at CBS may have surprised some, but it was clear that he was ready for this next step in his career. In early 1999, Kilborn signed on, with almost no fanfare whatsoever.
The critics didn't seem to get what Kilborn was attempting to do with the genre at first, and branded him a smarmy frat boy early on in his run. He was, in fact, probably the most underrated host in the history of late night television.
His set looked like an erudite bachelor's lair, with wood tones, a fully stocked bookcase, overstuffed and distressed warm leather chairs, a bar cart and a sound system where he could play the stylish music of Sergio Mendes, Antonio Carlos Jobim or sample the hits of a performer on the program. There was also a "windowseat," to which he brought several female guests to do some canoodling, most famously, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
When he was not figuratively or literally kissing up to his guests, the host of the show was clearly trying to do something a little different from other late night talkers. His affirmational concepts including his catchphrase, "Proud of you," were a constant, and he had a metrosexual air, even before that term became part of the vernacular. His attempt to bring back the Ascot was only one in a series of style choices, and he was typically well groomed, keeping a hand mirror as one of the props on his over-sized Bavarian Oak desk.
His heroes were the stars of Old Hollywood and 1960s teevee, and many made semi-regular appearances on the program. His "Tuesdays With Buddy" segment featured Borscht Belt favorite Buddy Hackett. Adam West, William Shatner and Merv Griffin all paid visits, and his final show featured a taped segment with famed producer Robert Evans. Also notable were the seemingly never ending parade of supermodels and starlets that visited, which gave Kilborn a chance to show off his boyish charm and Midwestern homespun manners.
Perhaps the most historic moment for the show came when, with the sponsorship help of Coca-Cola, they took the program on the road to the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four in 2003. A week in New Orleans was the first and only road trip for the program, and featured a segment where the modest Kilborn wandered around the French Quarter imploring women to keep their tops on, and permitted him the opportunity to show off some of his basketball prowess, since he was a member of his college team.
Kilborn had a taste of success with acting during the run of the program, including a well-received appearance in the big screen "slob" comedy "Old School," and that might have sealed the show's fate. He realized that he wanted to do something more, and hosting the program meant he would be tied to that desk, unable to continue to grow. He shocked many people (including some CBS execs and industry insiders) by leaving the program on August 27, 2004, a decision that was only made public a few weeks before his departure.
Many of the show's staff remained in place through the guest host trials that followed Kilborn's exit, and many stayed on for the program's ensuing incarnation: "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson."
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