Craig Kilborn on ESPN, Women in Late Night, and His Comeback
by Joel Keller, posted Jul 14th 2010 2:08PM
When Craig Kilborn and I spoke last week, LeBron James hadn't yet told sports fans around the country that he was going to play in Miami. So it's not a surprise that the topic was still on the mind of a guy who came to America's attention as an anchor of ESPN's 'SportsCenter' in the mid-'90s.
"I'll tell you what's odd, if he does leave Cleveland, he's going to drag the city through this announcement and then kick them in the gut and say 'I'm leaving,'" he told me.
Kilborn has had an interesting career, to say the least. He left 'The Daily Show' in 1999 to take 'The Late Late Show' over from Tom Snyder; his successor, Jon Stewart, has become a superstar. And five years later, he stepped away from 'Late Late' seemingly into obscurity. Craig Ferguson took over and has become the new star of late night TV.
Six years after leaving CBS, he's back with 'The Kilborn File,' a show that's being syndicated by Fox to a limited number of stations this summer on a trial run. The show is a fast-paced half-hour that has a lot of what Kilborn fans have come to expect: headlines, Five Questions, and the signature Kilborn style.
I talked to Kilborn about what he thinks of ESPN these days, if 'The Daily Show' is truly anti-women, and why he's been away from showbiz for all these years.
What do you think of your old stomping grounds at ESPN being taken over for an hour by LeBron?
I have a lot of different thoughts. But it's a little ridiculous, obviously. Years ago... Kobe Bryant is a basketball player who irritates a lot of people. I'm out here in L.A. When LeBron was coming out of high school, he was drafted, he was the number one pick out of high school. And on that day, Kobe Bryant decided to announce that he was opting out of his Laker contract and he was going to be a free agent. In the next few months he flirted with going to other teams, he eventually resigned with the Lakers. But I was told by a NBA agent what a jerk Kobe is, he's stepping on LeBron's day. Because ESPN said "We would normally lead with the number one pick out of high school LeBron James, but instead Kobe Bryant..." He was just trying to steal his thunder.
But I think LeBron is down to earth. He has I guess some of his buddies as his advisors, like his high school buddies. So I find it ridiculous, I'm curious to see where he goes.
You've been gone from ESPN now for about fifteen years, do you still watch the network at this point?
Sure. I don't watch a lot of television but when I need a score or I need highlights I go there. I'm a big NBA fan so I might go to NBA TV, which is not as popular but it's a new venture for the NBA. I'll go to ESPN to get information, but I don't, you know... I do go to the ESPN website also, they have good reporters there.
Does it seem like a different channel since you were there?
Yeah. I think it was funny, when I was there, a lot the executives, encouraged me to be comedic. And then, I've heard other things where they want to tone that down after I left. I'm not sure if that's true or not.
There are some executives that are like "Make sure we get the scores and the highlights." It's funny because I joke now, I was always a comedic guy and I was hesitant to get into ESPN because I wanted to get into comedy. But it was such a great gig that I said yes and then after I left, I was like, "Please just give me the scores and the highlights, guys. Don't try to be cute." (laughs)
It does feel like the anchors are either Craig Kilborn or Keith Olbermann clones.
I think you can be a comedy fan and a sports fan. This guy Jeff Van Gundy, I didn't know he was that funny until he did the color analyst on the NBA games.
Never cracked people up as a coach, did he?
(Laughs) He wasn't trying to be funny when he was grabbing Alonzo (Mourning)'s leg. It just looked very funny.
He was good at the physical shtick then.
Yeah... The other thing that I like to point out when I was at ESPN and I did these highlights, these games are over, so we don't have to treat them that seriously. In other words, this regular-season NBA game is over, how can we make it in entertaining? I'm showing highlights of a game, so let me do some pop culture references, let me clever. Does that make any sense?
In other words, we're rehashing games that have been played so we're just giving a condensed version, so why not make it colorful?
Are you talking about now, or back when you were there?
When I was doing it, in other words, if anyone says "Oh, he's being too cute" or whatever, I said no. I'm covering a regular season game between the Bulls and the Clippers. The Bulls win, this is not (about) major foreign policy issues. This is just a game, a couple of hours old, I'm going to make it entertaining, I'm going to add some stuff.
When you hear these guys, do you actually think back to those days, and what you guys were doing back then, or does it not connect at all at that point?
No, I don't really think about, I mean. Every job I've had I've been grateful for them. And I was there three years, and it was very, very exciting. The hours were rough. I was doing it live at 2AM., I'd get to bed at 4. But no, I left a number of places. I had some fond memories prior to ESPN, I was in local television in Monterey, and that was my start in television. And the news director there, a guy named Paul Miller, he gave me a lot of leeway. I covered the Gilroy Garlic Festival, I did a lot of things outside of sports, so I have fond memories of all the places.
But a buddy of mine, he was a writer, (when) we left 'The Daily Show,' he said, "Doesn't it feel like that was so far away? It feels like we were in high school or something." I was like, "Yeah it seems like a long time ago." But it was a great time, I had a magical time.
When you left the 'Late Late Show,' you left because it seemed like you didn't want to be a part of show business anymore, or at least take a rest for a little while. Was that the kind of vibe we were getting?
I think, yeah. I didn't explain it very much because I don't think people would comprehend it and it's one of those things where I don't have a strong desire or urge to explain it. Some people got it, there were some people, fellow broadcasters, who said "You must be the happiest person in the world." There's a dysfunction to late night, there's a dysfunction to Hollywood, you know, the formats were somewhat repetitive.
But I'm realistic where I said "Craig, when you do this, that might be it." And I was very happy to do that because I didn't believe fully in the way the show was set up. I think it's human nature that eventually we all want to start our own company and there was an extra layer there, but I asked myself because I like to be honest, "Are you prepared to not be a part of this anymore?" and I said "Absolutely." And I was talking to myself at the time.
But I knew there would be good opportunities that would come up and there were in the last few years a number of good opportunities that came up but they just weren't quite right. I wrote a half hour scripted comedy and it was a fun process to write, the other process of development is slow and a little too many cooks in the kitchen.
There were calls made that said "There's a sitcom pilot that's going forward and they want you to be the lead," and I declined. I declined because I said, "I want to create my own." I joke, and (when someone) says, "Hey, you turned down a lot of money to re-sign," I say, "Yeah, I'm an artist." It's a joke but there is something true to that, where if I can't do something I want to do or believe in, I'll sit on the sidelines.
Were you getting annoyed at all when in the intervening six years when people were saying "Where the hell is Craig Kilborn?" It kind of felt like people were lumping you into the David Caruso category sometimes.
Well the first part of the question, no I didn't find it irritating, because "Where is he?" means that fans miss you. I've never heard the David Caruso reference. I think he left to do movies, I left to do nothing. I left to leave. And again, if you don't want to explain it, what are people supposed to think? I didn't explain it and when I do, I completely understand where people won't get it and other people do get it.
It was very cathartic for me to leave. There are other good stories about it but it becomes more of a philosophical, the way I look at life, and the way I look at.... I just like being creative, that's what I like about entertainment, the other stuff is silliness and if I don't want to participate, I'm not going to. I've looked for the perfect gig. I've achieved enough and I still enjoy doing it.
I've said this before, I used to romanticize about doing radio in Carmel because it's my favorite place in the world. When I was on 'The Daily Show,' again it was a show I was a grateful for but it was set up kind of the wrong way and it was kind of a mess, and I just wanted my own show.
But then you went to 'Late Late Show' and that wasn't set up the way you wanted either?
Right, it was a combination, it wasn't set up the right way but also, there were just a proliferation of shows and it was, yeah, it was just like maybe, there's this expression "You want to be in your own universe." I don't know if everyone knows what that means but you're in your own little space.
But 'The Kilborn File' is definitely a very similar format to the 'Late Late Show.' Is there a difference to how this show is set up and how the 'Late, Late Show' was set up that makes this a more satisfying experience for you?
When I was at 'The Daily Show,' it was a half hour news parody. I don't particularly like news parodies, and it was also heavy into politics, which I'm proud to say I've always stayed above the political fray, and I'm not heavily into politics, but I do follow it in my private life.
I was a fan of the Johnny Carson show, so then I did that and then for the reasons I explained before, we now have so many of these shows so it might be better to specialize a little bit, so you do a half hour show on a different time of day, which is early fringe. half hour is a little faster pace, a lot of jokes, pop culture. And then people always enjoyed my interviews, so we do one interview with Five Questions. It's something that's always worked, that's a signature bit.
There are certainly differences but whether they're major, who knows? There are different things that are part of my sensibility that I don't always hammer home but people, I already know that people get that.
What's an example?
It's one of those things where I don't always like to bring it up, but I... well, from a comedic standpoint, my favorite kind of comedy is irreverent comedy but you balance that with topical jokes. Other people have said things like "This is minor but it's..." like they said my old set on CBS, they really liked the set, well I helped design that, people loved the new set and the new desk, but that's just an extension of (how) I like architecture.
I've said before, I'm not a tortured comic, so I like... growing up my dad was extremely funny, my favorite teachers were funny, I grew up watching Monty Python, I like Bill Murray, 'Saturday Night Live,' Martin Mull in 'Fernwood 2night.' But it wasn't, as they say, comedy comes from a dark place, yeah maybe 95% of the time. But I believe I'm an exception to that.
There are certain stylistic things on the show that I've done that I like, that are always there. And comedically I've always enjoyed it when people say "You're above the political fray, you're not have a political agenda, you're positive, it seems like you're really enjoying yourself." It's these different things.
Do you own this show, as opposed to the other shows you worked on?
It's profit participation, it's a business model that I like.
What are you expecting, and what is Fox expecting out of this trial run?
I don't know. They told me "Hey it's summer time, viewership is down, don't worry about the ratings, just do the show." And I just do a show that I like and I say "If you guys have notes, give me notes." They haven't given me many notes and they say "We like it."
So, it's um... I remember I was interviewing this singer years ago, Dido, and she came out with her second album and I go "Good luck with the album." And she said in the interview on the show, "I've done my part, they got to promote it." I don't know how syndication works but I'm intrigued by it. I just take a very simple approach: just do a good show and see what happens.
What are we going to see from the show that we haven't seen to this point? What have you found that works, what have you found that doesn't work?
There are a couple of segments that I've done that are detailed that I tried and I thought were fine. I just want Act 1 to be a certain amount of time, add some video elements, and then Act 2 I like when we do this power panel, and then we do a tight interview and Five Questions. And there are different things that we keep adding.
How do you feel when people associate 'The Daily Show' with Jon Stewart and the 'Late, Late Show' with Craig Ferguson when you were hosting the shows before them?
Obviously it doesn't bother me because those are jobs that I rejected, ultimately. I didn't want to do them. So that's where I come from. I think those guys are great. I joke that I love to create great jobs for others.
I can tell you every guy deep down prefers their comedic style over the next guy.I don't want to be a political comedian. I grew up watching 'Firing Line' with my dad and I thought Bill Buckley was the greatest political pundit of all time. But at the same time it was pragmatic, I knew that not everyone was going to relate to this guy. I just don't want to push a political agenda. And then I think Ferguson's energy is great. I'm happy for him.
Was 'The Daily Show' really pushing in a political direction when you left? Or was that something when Jon came in?
People were thrown together and it was more, there's a basic way television works. Jon Stewart did the right thing, he took over the show. And some of the original people that were there are gone. But I didn't want to take over... the president of Comedy Central wanted me to take over and I said I don't want to because ultimately that's not I wanted to do.
Did you hear about that big piece on Jezebel which painted 'The 'Daily Show' as a place where women aren't welcome? Your sidekick on 'The Kilborn File' is female. Do you agree with those articles?
I have no clue. I'm not aware of it. I just know on my old show I love interviewing women, I'm a fan. there are misconceptions all along the way and I guess I like 'Cheers,' I like 'Moonlighting,' I like old movies, Katherine Hepburn and Carey Grant. I like witty repartee between men and women. I don't really worry about all that stuff.
The thing that I would comment on that you didn't ask, because I do like to make this point, when you do political humor, you're automatically more significant than irreverent humor. (rapidly) Conan O'Brien years ago on the Emmys came out in a white tuxedo with a bunch of chorus girls, did a bunch of jokes and they said "You're out of time, you can't do your bit." There was a beat, and he walked over and he had taps on his shoes. Some reviewers said "The joke was over before it started." No, it was actually funny. but Conan didn't win any writing awards because politics is more significant, even though irreverent comedy I prefer, you know what I'm saying It's just like in movies, dramas win Oscars, comedies don''t.
It's a beautiful point. I know you didn't ask that question.
At least as you've seen 'The Kilborn File' and on your old show, is that belief about women not having a voice in late night true or not?
I don't know. Are they talking about writing staffs or are they talking about hosts?
I don't know. They gave one to Wanda Sykes, they gave one to Chelsea Handler. Maybe men don't have enough say in daytime. I don't know. I don't know how it works I have not analyzed it.
Who is the guest you would want to get for 'The Killborn File' that would make the trial period all be worth it?
There are only two guys I put at the top and I've already interviewed both of them on my old shows which are Bill Murray and Clint Eastwood. And I'm one of those guys I don't need to keep going to that, I guess I'm not, I don't like to keep asking that. Once I've done it I'm satisfied, but that being said, Bill Murray is a great guy and he's been good to me over the years. And they already said they want to do the show. He has a movie coming out and wants to do the show, because he's good to me. There you go. Bill Murray. Funniest man of all time.
And by that philosophy I shouldn't want to interview Craig Killborn again.
(Laughs) Maybe, who knows.