Originally Published October 7, 1996
Attention, channel surfers! If E!’s “Talk Soup” gives you the giggles, if you’re suffering “TV Nation” withdrawal, if Dennis Miller makes you laugh, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” is guaranteed to make you guffaw, harrumph and occasionally choke on a yuk-yuk.
“The Daily Show” is deceptively simple television. Presented five nights a week as a news show but lacking an iota of actual news value, anchor Craig Kilborn’s delivery is straight but his lines are landmines of seering irony and twisted wit.
“I’m in charge of the hard laughs — the big funny,” Kilborn, 31, a former Los Angeles comedy traffic school and ESPN Sports cut-up, said in an interview with Mr. Media. During the conversation, he had a “Slinky in my hands and a smile on my face.”
Each show begins with the day’s headlines. When much-maligned ValuJet returned to the air, for instance, “The Daily Show” interviewed Lauren and Louis Martinez — identified as “crash test dummies” — who said it was difficult choosing between the return of safety-bereft ValuJet and bankrupt Kiwi Airlines. “The Martinez family,” Kilborn deadpanned, “is also looking forward to the return of the convertible presidential limousine.”
Despite taking jabs at hapless civilian air passengers, Kilborn says he has toned down some elements of the show.
“We don’t want the jokes to be too harsh, too mean-spirited,” he says. “We want to avoid racism and being sexist. Well . . . for the most part.”
IDs on video clips are one of the funniest parts of the show. Fighting in the Middle East? “Business as usual.” The U.S. House of Representatives? “Corporate headquarters.”
Kilborn doesn’t carry the show alone. Lewis Black, an agonizingly intense commentator, rages about the issue of the day, the veins on his neck pulsing, ready to burst. At the end of one rant, the camera switched back to Kilborn. He paused, shook his head ever so slightly and said, “Thank you, Lew. Good sentence structure.”
Ed Lover, star of rap, film and MTV, has also joined the show as a contributor. He demonstrated a light, deft touch in a report on how Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are viewed by elementary school students. Art Linkletter couldn’t have done better. The kids on Dole: “He’s a mean, ugly, grumpy old man.” On Clinton: “He lies to his wife.” Each child’s comments was followed by a clip of the president saying, “Thank you very much. Thank you!”
Some features work better than others. “This Day in Tesh History” — which replaced “This Day in Hasselhoff History” — successfully ribs John Tesh. (Brooke Shields may be next.) But “Five Questions,” in which Kilborn lobs a series of unrelated questions (“What is 7 times 9”; “Mousse or gel?”) at a celebrity guest, often falls flat. He asked Englebert Humperdinck, “Bras or panties,” but the answer was unremarkable; better was Humperdinck’s laughter when Kilborn revealed that in high school, he named his manhood after the singer. The celebrity interviews, in general, are the weakest part of the show. Guests such as Kathy Ireland and Dan Hedaya appeared uncomfortable — few have probably seen, let alone heard of the show before being ushered in by a publicist — and few can keep pace with Kilborn’s sly witticisms.
A smart move for “The Daily Show” would be a modest studio audience. Some pretty funny jokes fall flat for lack of anyone laughing beside nervous tittering among staff and crew. Kilborn says Comedy Central — he actually refers to it as “the funny channel” — plans a live audience experiment soon. No doubt it would help his timing and add more spontaneity.
“When we do the headlines in the show and we hit the jokes, a natural thing is to hear laughter, right?”
Thanks to the upcoming January shift of Comedy Central’s “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” to ABC (following “Nightline”), Kilborn and “The Daily Show” will soon graduate to the 11 p.m. (Eastern) time slot, dodging Leno and Letterman.
“I think it’s going to be great,” Kilborn says.