A talk-show critic in the hot seat


An article in yesterday's Sun about Greg Kinnear replacing Bob Costas as host of NBC's "Later" incorrectly listed the broadcast time of the show. "Later" appears on WMAR, Channel 2, beginning at 2:35 a.m.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Greg Kinnear can appreciate the irony. In a world where just about anyone gets to be the host of a talk show, the relatively unknown Mr. Kinnear -- who has built a career on skewering talk shows -- will soon be the host of his own.

Currently Mr. Kinnear presides over "Talk Soup," the E! Entertainment Network cable program that highlights the previous day's most bizarre talk-show segments. Today, Mr. Kinnear moves to network television, taking over "Later" from Bob Costas. The 1:35 a.m. slot (WMAR, Channel 2) follows "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."

Unlike Mr. O'Brien -- the comedy writer and producer whose anointing by the network as David Letterman's heir drew a collective "huh?" from the media last year -- at least Mr. Kinnear brings with him the small but enthusiastic following of "Talk Soup." Mr. Kinnear was also the host of a short-lived Fox series, "The Best of the Worst," and a bit TV actor ("Life Goes On") before jumping into "Soup" in 1991.

But with E!'s limited cable exposure, something of the same "Who is this guy?" curiosity that surrounded Mr. O'Brien's unlikely ascension has greeted Mr. Kinnear.

So who is Greg Kinnear?

"He's but one man, leading the nation down the somewhat bumpy, incoherent world of talk TV," answers Mr. Kinnear in mock stentorian tones. "I'm too complicated to be summed up in a few words. We'd need volumes to sum up the myth that is me."

That's typical Kinnear, whose sarcasm and perpetually cocked eyebrow on "Talk Soup" greet the you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it clips from the Geraldo and Sally brigade.

But behind the hip smugness that won Mr. Kinnear loyal fans -- and reportedly had Fox, Disney, CBS and a slew of sitcom producers vying for his services before he settled on NBC -- is "just a nice guy," Mr. Kinnear says.

Speaking on the telephone from Los Angeles, he says the "Talk Soup" sarcastic tone "is pretty much me. . . . But it's hard for those qualities not to come out when you're watching a clip of some guy dressed in his wife's clothes. I'm just a normal guy who happened to stumble onto this show."

Well, sort of. Mr. Kinnear, 30, admits he always longed to break into show business. And although he says, "It's a path that I envisioned early, but there are no guidelines to what I do or where I go," Mr. Kinnear clearly had his sights set on some kind of fame.

Born in Indiana as the youngest of three boys, Mr. Kinnear is the son of a career diplomat whose travels took mom and the boys to Lebanon and then Greece. While attending high school in Athens, Mr. Kinnear was host of an Armed Forces Radio show. He then majored in broadcast journalism at the University of Arizona, where he got his first taste of the limelight emceeing the school's centennial celebration in 1985.

David Williams, a professor of communications, chose Mr. Kinnear as host of the festivities because the senior "was always polished and poised and seemed to 'turn on' before an audience," Mr. Williams says. "He had a glint in his eye that was almost impish."

After graduating from college, Mr. Kinnear moved to Los Angeles and worked as an advertising assistant at the now-defunct Empire Entertainment, helping promote such campy B-movie fare as "Assault of the Killer Bimbos."

Mr. Kinnear's stay at Empire lasted only six months. Yearning to be in front of the camera, he wooed and won a job as host on Movietime, a fledgling cable station that eventually became E!.

Mr. Kinnear's career hit a snag when Movietime was bought and turned into E! and he was let go in a staff purge. He went on to produce "Best of the Worst" and act a little, then returned to E! for "Talk Soup" in 1991.

He's obligated to stay with the show at least another year, and so "Later" will relocate from New York to Los Angeles to accommodate him. "Later With Greg Kinnear" won't exactly be the type of talk show he's accustomed to needling on E!. #F Besides one-on-one interviews, he plans to do skits and a tongue-in-cheek news segment.

But the double duty presents an interesting scenario: Will the "Soup" Kinnear poke fun at the "Later" Kinnear?

"By all means, yes! Most certainly," he says. "I've already cleared it. But it will be as fair and objective as possible -- and only when it's appropriate," adds Mr. Kinnear, sounding sincere. Almost.

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