Craig Kilborn’s Secret Formula: “It’s All Make-Believe”

“Am I boring you?” asked Craig Kilborn for the third time. “Is this going well? Is this boring you?”

It was Friday, Dec. 5, and Mr. Kilborn was joking again: He didn’t really care. At 2 p.m., the host of The Late Late Show on CBS was sitting in the Halcyon restaurant at the Rihga Hotel as a blizzard raged outside. He was supposed to catch a flight back to Los Angeles at 4 p.m., and it wasn’t looking good. But Mr. Kilborn-blond, stubbled, V-neck-sweatered-seemed unperturbed and relaxed.

He said he can’t wait to retire.

“I’m a little different breed of cat from some of the other people,” said Mr. Kilborn, referring to his late-night competitors. “I don’t necessarily need the attention. It’s not like a rush to do the show; it’s more like a fun, easy way to make a living. I think other guys, they just can’t wait for that hour. And if you watch my show closely-which you probably don’t-I’ve been coasting for about four and a half years, especially during the second interview.”

He waited a beat.

“I’m just kidding,” he said, straightening his posture for effect. “I’m a professional. I’m committed to every interview.”

That was more convincing, a rare glimpse of candor from a guy who rarely, if ever, departs from his persona as glib guy extraordinaire. In March 2004, Mr. Kilborn will mark five years with The Late Late Show . After three-year stints as a) a local sportscaster in Monterey, Calif., b) an anchor of ESPN’s SportsCenter and c) the first host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show , Mr. Kilborn seems to have become what he wanted to be all along: honorary president of the frat house, Playboy magazine superhero, preening, quasi-jock smugster who has a way with the ladies.

But in those five years, the world has also changed quite a bit-wars, economic decline, David Letterman’s baby-and Mr. Kilborn hasn’t. At 41, he seems to be running in place, suspended in the late-90′s Cigar Aficionado version of himself, not necessarily jibing with the Zeitgeist . Remember Craig Kilborn, who was on The Daily Show ? Yeah ….

He’s still got an audience, of course, even a ratings bump, but the show has never broken out in a big way. He averages 1.7 million viewers a night, well below the top late-night star, NBC’s Conan O’Brien, and neck-and-neck with newcomer Jimmy Kimmel, whose ABC show had a rocky takeoff last January. But like Bing Crosby playing through in Morocco, Mr. Kilborn seems unflappable. On one hand, it can be seen as admirable resilience, toughness, Eddie Haskell unleashed. On the other hand, Mr. Kilborn’s claustrophobic frat den can seem terribly irrelevant.

To be sure, he’s unflinching, as in this “beliefs” bit on his Dec. 15 show, to patriotic music: “I believe that many of today’s youth are lazy and worried only about their nose rings and tattoos-but I don’t tell them that or they’ll spit in my latte.”

And Mr. Kilborn has his fans. “I think Craig is just screamingly funny- screamingly funny,” said Ben Stein, who last appeared on the show on Nov. 24, and who introduced his competitor, Mr. Kimmel, to the world on Ben Stein’s Money . He said the two were simply different. “At Jimmy’s best, he’s the most insightful human being on the planet, but Craig is really funny.”

He liked his riffs on news, even if they weren’t exactly for sophisticates. “I think he handles it very well, with a wink and nod,” he said, “and if you’re watching his show, you’re not going to be a huge current-affairs buff. You’re not the kind of person who watches Meet the Press and Face the Nation .”

Instead, you’re more likely to be tapping a keg, wearing a baseball hat turned backward and watching ESPN. It’s Mr. Kilborn’s passion for basketball, especially his George Plimpton–like follies with his beloved Minnesota Timberwolves, that tend to be the funniest thing on the show-because you can tell he actually cares about it. Sometimes you wonder why he ever left ESPN, where he kicked ass. He still has his “Five Questions,” that vestige of the Daily Show days; he still manages to maintain a striking amount of interest during interviews with B-list starlets you’ve never heard of (Mya, Elisha Cuthbert, Vanessa Marcil), letting his natural glow of thinly veiled horniness do a lot of the work. And his musical guests are some of the edgiest on TV (the White Stripes’ first network appearance was on Mr. Kilborn’s show).

Mr. Kilborn said he wasn’t worried that the late-night field had gotten crowded, with Jimmy Kimmel Live vying for the love of the fraternity brothers, giving them the jocular, rec-room guffaws they love. Even though that show has teetered into existence, it has managed to eat into Mr. Kilborn’s younger demographic. But hey, there’s room for everyone, said Mr. Kilborn-and in any case, Mr. Kimmel could use some work.

“Well, they got off to a slow start,” he said. “I know Jimmy; I like him. It got off to a slow start, and I think it could be a little tighter-I don’t want to give away any secrets on how to put on a successful show. Leave him alone, he’s a nice guy.”

Mr. Kilborn chalked up his November ratings to his warm, heartland atmosphere.

“I like to think the Midwestern roots are coming out and, uh, the guests seem to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere that we give them,” he said, slightly coiled. Was he serious?

“I was somewhat serious,” he said later. “I have to joke to say something like that-but it’s true.”

In the snitty back rooms of late-night comedy, the carpers say that Mr. Kilborn will be safely ensconced as long as Mr. Letterman is in power, because he doesn’t threaten Mr. Letterman’s reign. Even if it’s all talk, Mr. Kilborn said he doesn’t really speak to Mr. Letterman much.

“He’s told me some nice things on the phone when we did talk,” he said. “He said something to the effect, ‘Your personality is something that will’-I don’t know how he said it: ‘will work out,’ ‘works well’ or something to that effect.

“It’s an honor to follow the king, Dave Letterman,” he added, with mock authority. “That’s a great quote.”

But as Mr. Letterman has grown more human on national TV, Mr. Kilborn has left an emotional remove between his persona and himself, and between himself and everything else.

Mr. Kilborn said that if he had a baby, like Mr. Letterman did a few weeks ago, he wouldn’t choose to announce it on the show. “I would say, because I’m private-see, I think I approach it differently than some of these other guys. I just think it’s all make-believe,” he said. “Like, on the show, I’ll do jokes about my girlfriend. It’s not my real girlfriend, it’s a made-up thing. Or my dad: Thanksgiving with the folks came and we all held hands and my dad says, ‘Where’s my pot?’

“Well, that actually is my real dad,” he said. “Normally, it’s just for the joke.”

Craig Kilborn can sometimes seem at the mercy of “Craig Kilborn,” the persona. So much so that his role in Old School (as Mark, the philandering boyfriend) seemed almost uncomfortably close to his on-air personality. Playing the certifiable-asshole character wasn’t exactly a great P.R. moment for a guy who some people think might be one.

But that wasn’t him, he said.

“My parents have been married for 46 years,” he said, taking the tape recorder into his hands and holding it like a microphone. “I know on the show, I flirt. I just think that stuff’s funny. But if you want me to be that character in real life, you won’t want to hang out with me. You’ll be disappointed.

“I think I can occasionally be what I call a ‘naughty boy,’” he continued, “but that’s refreshing at times. But I don’t go out much. I’m a bit of an old soul.”

Naturally, NYTV laughed at this.

“I am! You wouldn’t believe,” he said. “I don’t watch any of the modern movies. I’m hung up on old standards, and I like Miles Davis, Chet Baker. The best songs were written back in the 30′s and 40′s.”

To hear him tell it, Mr. Kilborn is a regular Bing Crosby, hanging out in his Spanish-style home in the Hollywood Hills, drinking fine wine, smoking cigars, watching SportsCenter , enjoying the company of a girlfriend whom he wouldn’t name and digging old jazz recordings. He even recited by heart the lyrics of Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started”:

On the golf course I’m under par

Metro Goldwyn has asked me to star

I’ve got a house and a showplace

But still I can’t get no place with you.

“There’s nothing better for me than watching Vertigo or Rear Window or North by Northwest , an expensive cabernet or something,” said Mr. Kilborn. “But I do have this thing that, when I retire, it will be one of the happiest days of my life. Because it’s all playing a game, doing this stuff. Does that make sense? I just … it’s a joy, my show is a joy to do. And I’ve never been one to hero-worship, and I don’t want to rub elbows with celebrities-I just find it superficial.”

Mr. Kilborn said he prided himself on his intimate interviews, which he said made celebrity publicists happy and celebrities comfortable. “It means a lot when ‘Dennis Farina loves Kilby,’” he said, talking about the actor. “He says that, and he does the show, and we go to Maestro’s in Beverly Hills and he picks up the check all the time …. I don’t want this article to say I’m cheap-that’s not the point here.”

Since Mr. Kilborn left The Daily Show , Jon Stewart has redefined it-and come out as the comedy champ of the moment. Mr. Stewart bites down on his subjects-politics and the media-makes himself implicitly vulnerable and hints: There’s something at stake in these jokes, and you and I both know what it is, so I don’t have to say it.

But Mr. Kilborn’s wink refers exclusively to Craig Kilborn. This seems to be his point of view: Craig Kilborn loves jazz, the Timberwolves and the ladies.

“I admit to being dry,” he said. “I admit to being dry, and I admit to being private. I also accepted a long time ago that I probably won’t be accurately captured by the media.”

But, said Craig Kilborn, “I’m not one of these tortured comics. The other day at a Christmas party, a guy said, ‘You’re the happiest guy in late night.’ And I probably am.”

Through the window, a blizzard. Inside, Kilby smiled. What a gig!