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'I think I'm a smart aleck'; TV: Next week, Craig Kilborn takes over the late, late night time slot vacated by Tom Snyder; Radio and Television

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It seems like we've been talking about it for months. But there's a changing of the guard finally about to take place on late, late night CBS.

Tom Snyder leaves "The Later Late Show with Tom Snyder" at the end of the week. And, then, on Tuesday starting at 12: 35 a.m., it becomes "The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn."

Kilborn, the former host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, is going from the network of "South Park" to the network of "Diagnosis Murder." Will he have to adjust?

"Well, I think of it as more as I'm following David Letterman, which to me is the greatest," Kilborn said. "Actually, it's a dream come true. Like a lot of people my age, he was the guy. I mean I'm not 'the fan' or something, but it was nice that he selected me. That's the way I think of it anyway."

What Kilborn's referring to in saying Letterman "selected" him is the fact that Letterman essentially owns the time period following "The Late Show with David Letterman" on CBS. Part of the deal that brought Letterman to the network from NBC is that his production company, Worldwide Pants Incorporated, controls that late, late time period -- a nice little perk worth a few more million dollars annually to Letterman with the right host. Letterman was the guy who brought Snyder out of his first major retirement from network television to follow him on CBS.

"But, as far as your question, the answer is no. I'm going to do the same jokes that I did at 'The Daily Show' and that I liked at 'The Daily Show,'" Kilborn said.

"There were some jokes that I thought were a little too mean-spirited that I didn't care for, but that I was talked into doing. For example, the Christopher Reeve jokes. We've done those, and I don't like that. But, outside of that, I've talked to some of the people at CBS, and I've told them some of the jokes, and they say 'fine.' I don't think they'll much change in that."

Kilborn describes his overall style as "smart aleck," and promises that won't change either on CBS.

"I do think I'm a smart aleck. I like to make fun, but I'm not necessarily out to hurt people. I'm out to make people laugh," he says.

"Growing up, my influences were Bill Murray and David Letterman. And there's another guy who I think is underrated, but I always mention him, is Martin Mull. I used to see him doing a show called 'Fernwood 2Night' and he played a character named Barth Gimble, who, to me, is the best host ever. But that was a fun show, and I think Martin Mull is very funny.

"My father also had a huge influence on me. He's a very funny man. And we both liked Johnny Carson and David Letterman. But we would spend days arguing in fun about who was better. And my dad would always say, 'Johnny is so smooth.' And I would say, 'Yeah, but Dave has that edge.'"

Right now, the top smart aleck in the time period is Conan O'Brien on NBC. Can Kilborn beat O'Brien and make more money for Mr. Dave, his boss?

"As far as the ratings, I don't think we're necessarily competing against him [O'Brien]," Kilborn says. "He's been doing it for five years. We're trying to first just create our own show."

Rob Burnett, the CEO of Worldwide Pants, says, "I can be slightly more specific: There's no way we're going to beat Conan. Certainly not out of the box.

"As far as what we'll do with Snyder's core audience, I don't know. Tom's a guy whose been broadcasting for 40 years, whereas Craig is a very talented young guy who's been on cable. We're not expecting to come out of the blocks charging.

"But my hope is that, if the show is good, and I believe it will be, it will grow and eventually people will find it and hopefully we'll do fine."

As for Snyder, I first started reporting on him in the 1970s when he was really something to see. He brought an electricity and daring to nighttime talk. He seemed totally wired into American life, and perfectly capable of speaking the kind of truth that would get him in trouble with his network bosses.

Snyder wasn't like that in recent years. I remember an interview he did in November with Jewel. She kept mentioning her work on the Lilith tour, and finally he said, "Excuse the ignorance, but what the heck is the Lilith tour?" Jewel just shut down from that point on, and I don't blame her.

If you are going to interview performers, do the homework and find out something about their work. Or at least pay researchers enough to do it for you, so they can fill in the holes.

The Lilith Fair was a big deal in pop music, because it proved an all-woman music tour could make it at the box office, and nothing beats back prejudice like economic clout. Jewel has a right to feel proud about her participation in it.

It isn't that Tom Snyder got old. It's that he seemed to be going through the motions and was no longer plugged into politics, media and popular culture the way he once was. Snyder had a long and fine run in network talk television. But he tried to squeeze a couple too many extra seasons out of the tube, and we need to be honest about such things if we want television to get better.

Pub Date: 3/24/99

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