Can Harvard Charmer Billy Kimball Make Craig Kilborn a CBS Star?

Billy Kimball is well known in the television industry for being charming and funny and all that, but he’s also known for having a career that one of his friends described as “erratic.” Now, after more than a dozen years spent bouncing around behind the scenes in TV comedy, he’s getting a shot at the success that many feel has eluded him. As the executive producer of the soon-to-debut Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn on CBS, Mr. Kimball is running an actual major-network program. “He finally has a job commensurate to his talents,” said his friend Al Franken.

Mr. Kimball, 39, believes he’s ready for the job. In 1994, he went to Kiev, Ukraine, to produce programs on market reform for the United States Agency for International Development. “We made TV shows under exceptionally difficult circumstances with antiquated equipment, language difficulties, physical danger and a Communist hangover mentality,” Mr. Kimball said. “After that, I could make a TV program anywhere.”

Even in the cutthroat environment of late-night network TV? Much of his success, or lack of it, will be tied to Craig Kilborn, who inherits the Late Late Show chair from Tom Snyder on March 30. The change in hosts means an about-face for CBS at 12:30 A.M.: Mr. Snyder, 62, is a sincere fellow with a big laugh who likes a long, in-depth interview, especially with stars of yesteryear like Robert Blake and Rosemary Clooney; Mr. Kilborn, 36, who rose to some prominence first at ESPN and then at Comedy Central’s The Daily Show , is glib, ironic and a little mean.

The team of Kilborn and Kimball was hired by Rob Burnett, the executive producer of Late Show With David Letterman and the chief executive of Mr. Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, which owns Late Late Show . A week before the first broadcast, even Mr. Burnett said he was not expecting big numbers. “We’re on a network where the average age of the audience is about 76,” joked Mr. Burnett, but only slightly. “There’s probably very few people watching CBS in prime time that will then watch Craig. He and Billy will have to recruit their audience from elsewhere.”

No one expects Mr. Kilborn to seriously challenge NBC’s 12:35 A.M. show, Late Night With Conan O’Brien , any time soon. Conan O’Brien, who’s a friend of Mr. Kimball’s, is on a roll; his show recently tied Late Show With David Letterman among the key 18-to-34 demographic-and Mr. Letterman’s show airs an hour earlier than Mr. O’Brien’s, when more people are awake.

Mr. Kilborn’s vain persona helped make Comedy Central’s The Daily Show a hit, but he was not known to write his own material or to be congenial on the set. He once told Esquire that the show’s co-creator Lizz Winstead would “blow” him if he wanted her to; although he may have said this “ironically,” Ms. Winstead left the show and Mr. Kilborn was “suspended.” Maybe Mr. Kilborn will fare better with Mr. Kimball, another good-looking preppy with a flair for irony.

“Craig Kilborn is the closest thing to an on-air approximation of Billy,” said Jay Itzkowitz, a senior vice president of Fox Television and a friend of Mr. Kimball’s.

Mr. Kimball is well connected, counting among his close friends such opposites as New York playwright Wendy Wasserstein and California conservative Arianna Huffington. But even some of his friends call him a “brilliant failure” with a “checkered” career. In 17 years of professional comedy, he’s participated in more aborted projects than successes.

“There are exceptional people who stay with one program for 17 years,” Mr. Kimball said, “but for most people in the business, moving from project to project is a fact of life.”

His wit, according to many of his colleagues, is his greatest asset. “Some producers are good executives, some are good schmoozers, and some hold the hand of the star,” said lawyer and Comedy Central game-show host Ben Stein, who recently guested on a Late Late Show test program. “Billy is just so funny, almost otherworldly funny.”

But a sense of humor is obviously not the only criterion for a successful producer, and grumblings about Mr. Kimball have begun: He’s in over his head, has no idea what he’s doing, etc., etc. Mr. Kimball dismissed such talk. “Everything else recedes when you get into the rigors of trying to make the damn thing,” he said.

The Late Late Show that Mr. Kimball is creating will reflect his topical, newsy sensibility; Mr. Burnett said Mr. Kimball has developed a vision for the show and a point of view. Mr. Kilborn will preside over an informal set with a small audience, and no sidekick or band. Expect a casual feel, with Mr. Kilborn occasionally breaking into a dance, or walking over to a bookshelf to read some history.

Mr. Kimball grew up in Greenwich Village. Now he has a loft downtown (which he’s subletting) and a summer house in Cutchogue, L.I.

“He’s suave and sophisticated,” said Mr. Itzkowitz, who went to Harvard with Mr. Kimball. “He represented all that I, as a country bumpkin from New Jersey, thought was wonderful about New York City.”

“He’s a real New Yorker, like me,” said Ms. Wasserstein, who was Mr. Kimball’s date to Time magazine’s 75th-anniversary dinner last year. They met about a decade ago, when Ms. Wasserstein occupied an office next to Mr. Kimball at Comedy Central (though she did not work for the network). “We go to musicals-we ran out to see Robert Goulet in Camelot together. Billy keeps a souvenir book of Camelot on his coffee table.”

While preparing Late Late Show in Los Angeles and looking for a permanent place to live, Mr. Kimball has been living at the deluxe Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard and also at its slightly less deluxe counterpart across the street, the Standard Hotel; both hotels are owned by Andre Balazs.

Mr. Kimball graduated in 1982 from Harvard, where he was on the staff of The Harvard Lampoon . “He was mature beyond his years when he arrived at college,” said Mr. Itzkowitz, adding that Mr. Kimball spent most of his time during college at the Lampoon , on social outings to New York and with various women. Though not particularly wealthy himself, he surrounded himself with wealthy people. “He was like a throwback to a gentleman from the 1920’s, a well-born society humorist,” recalled Mr. Itzkowitz. “Like Nathaniel Benchley or something.”

During college, Mr. Itzkowitz said, he, Mr. Kimball and Lisa Henson, the daughter of Jim Henson who went on to be the head of Columbia Pictures, staged a “senior prom” at Harvard’s stuffy Signet Society, with the theme of “Better Dating Through Knowledge of Etiquette.” Mr. Kimball also reportedly danced in his underwear to “It’s Raining Men” at one of the Lampoon ‘s more legendary parties, the Sexual Depravity Dinner; joining him at the party was a live camel. (“It wasn’t in my underwear and it wasn’t ‘It’s Raining Men,'” Mr. Kimball said, by way of a denial.)

A few years older than fellow Lampoon alumnus Conan O’Brien, Mr. Kimball crossed paths with him later at HBO’s Not Necessarily the News and Fox’s short-lived The Wilton North Report .

“Conan was one of the first people I called when I took the job,” said Mr. Kimball. “I don’t think about the competition thing. I think of the vast range of possible things to watch at 12:30 A.M.-the people watching Jewels of the Hapsburgs on A&E, that’s my competition.”

Although Mr. Kimball downplayed the rivalry, he knows that Mr. O’Brien’s young, male fan base is virtually identical to Mr. Kilborn’s-but Mr. O’Brien has had six years to win them over to his own brand of irony.

In 1990, Mr. Kimball’s and Mr. O’Brien’s careers diverged, as Mr. Kimball was tapped to edit the floundering National Lampoon , the seminal magazine that had descended into irrelevance. But before he could put out a single issue, the company was sold to J2 Communications Inc. (the producer of Tim Conway’s Dorf on Golf video) and Mr. Kimball was given the boot.

No matter; at the time, he was already a producer-performer for Ha!, MTV’s attempt at an all-comedy network. At Ha!, Mr. Kimball learned how to behave in front of a camera, hosting a talk show with Denis Leary called Afterdrive and a game show called Clash . But Mr. Kimball found he would rather be pulling the strings behind the scenes.

“Being on-air is not a preference of mine,” said Mr. Kimball. “There are people, like Craig, who love being on camera, and I’m not one of them. But I’ve learned how vulnerable performers are, and it’s definitely improved my bedside manner.”

After Ha! and the Comedy Channel merged into Comedy Central in 1991, the nascent network needed something novel. Indecision ’92 , the Presidential campaign coverage produced by Mr. Kimball, put the network on the map and remains Mr. Kimball’s greatest triumph.

The experiment began in January of that year with State of the Union Undressed , a live, simultaneous commentary on President Bush’s speech by Al Franken and Mr. Kimball (who jumped in after Bob Costas bailed out). Though the program was technically raw, it received scads of press coverage. “For a channel desperately trying to get [carried by cable companies], that was a huge victory,” said Mr. Kimball.

Mr. Kimball then oversaw all of Indecision ’92 , which included up to four hours per night of the political conventions. The production, complete with comedian correspondents and unconventional pundits, drew on Mr. Kimball’s knowledge of politics, not to mention his Rolodex.

“He has a great feel for getting a lot of production value from not much money, and of using a talk show conceptually to do comedy,” said Mr. Franken.

Since leaving Comedy Central, Mr. Kimball has bounced around. Most recently, he helped Arianna Huffington with her book Greetings From the Lincoln Bedroom , and wrote for Mr. Franken’s ill-fated NBC sitcom Lateline . Mr. Franken’s new book, Why Not Me? , is dedicated to him. In 1996, he produced the Hub for America Online Inc., an attempt at comedic Internet programming that didn’t last long. “It was like having a little tiny network,” Mr. Kimball said. He has also been a commentator for MSNBC on various different news events, “regardless of whether I knew anything about them.”

In 1994, before he left for Ukraine, the New York Times Sunday Styles section covered his bon voyage party, a sign of his status in Manhattan society. Of his six-month experience with Soviet economics, Mr. Kimball said, “It was like a long-delayed junior year abroad.” It was also typical of the breadth of his interests, which includes a passion for the spy thrillers of the 1920’s British writer E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Not everyone who has come across Mr. Kimball loves him. Matty Simmons, in his 1994 book, If You Don’t Buy This Book We’ll Kill This Dog: Life, Laughs, Love and Death at the ‘National Lampoon’ , spends several pages slamming him: “Kimball had all the arrogance and assuredness that a Harvard education provides … Apparently, he expected to be in charge of everything from the editorial package to deciding what time the receptionist went to lunch … The gall of this totally untested young man … was simply astonishing to all.”

When told of the characterization, Mr. Kimball said he has never read the book and does not recall ever meeting Mr. Simmons. “I apologize if he was offended by me,” Mr. Kimball said. “Maybe he’s thinking of someone else.