Jimmy Kimmel's talk show hits 1,000 episodes

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It's taken a little more than five years, but Jimmy Kimmel is finally batting a thousand -- 1,000 episodes of "Jimmy Kimmel Live," that is. That his ABC late-night talk show is reaching that seminal figure no doubt comes as a surprise to many who might have doubted that a guy whose previous highest-profile credit was as co-host and writer of "The Man Show" could become a nightly mainstay on network television. Even at the time, Kimmel was quoted as saying, "Yeah, I'm the new lead-out for Ted Koppel. Crazy, isn't it?"

Well, yes, it kind of was a little nuts. But Koppel is long gone -- and we get the feeling that Kimmel is just getting warmed up. He's no longer "Jimmy Who?" but a known commodity in the showbiz community whose reputation as a great guy with the coolest greenroom in town precedes him. If the ratings haven't exactly taken off into the stratosphere (he still lags well behind Leno, Letterman and Conan in his 12:05 a.m.-1:05 a.m. time slot), the term "mainstay" must now be attached to the "Jimmy Kimmel Live" moniker.

So entrenched has he become that ABC is even giving Kimmel an extra half-hour of late-night real estate Thursday night in celebration of his 1,000th episode, running a full 90 minutes beginning at 11:35 p.m. It's his first-ever premidnight appearance on the network that has helped steadily transform the affable 40-year-old into a household name some 62 months after his show's Jan. 26, 2003, debut.

How has this happened? Kimmel will tell you he's put himself on the map the old-fashioned way: by working his butt off.

"A lot of guys get into this not realizing how much work it is, but I never had any illusions that I could just mail it in," Kimmel says. "It's hard coming up with stuff that's interesting and original night after night. I have a simple goal with this show, I think: to look back every three months or so and say the show is better now. I think we've pretty consistently been able to do that. Now, I look back at what we were doing at the beginning and I say, 'God, I can't believe how amateurish we were.'"

It was a grind at the beginning to be sure, Kimmel admits. He recalls feeling something like "a road comic going into Clinton, Iowa, and performing at the local comedy club. I had to prove myself every night. Once the audience is familiar with you and your rhythms, that makes it 100 times easier to sell a joke."

Kimmel also acknowledges that both he and his show were perhaps trying too hard at the start because of his inexperience at the game.

"I didn't understand the niceties of being a talk show host, what I was supposed to do and how to handle things," he says. "Every interview turned out to be my last with almost everyone. I'm still cleaning up a lot of that mess from the first three months of the show. We forced the Rock, Dwayne Johnson, to ride a dogsled out onto the stage. He didn't want to. My producer didn't want to hear that. It became an unpleasant thing. We were overly aggressive with people. You can't do that and build any kind of goodwill. Fortunately, I think we've turned it around."

Indeed, "Jimmy Kimmel Live" has. It's no longer the promotional pit stop of last resort. The A-list has come calling, reports executive producer Jill Leiderman. "We get Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, Billy Crystal, Orlando Bloom, Cameron Diaz, George Clooney, Matt Damon -- when he's not bumped -- Will Ferrell, Justin Timberlake, Hilary Swank, Steve Carell. Those people weren't coming on before. And I think a large part of that is just word of mouth on who Jimmy is and what he delivers on a nightly basis. People are magnetically drawn back to the show now because it's such a positive environment."

Not that Kimmel has any illusions with regard to his place on the late-night gabfest playing field. There remains a definite pecking order, he insists, "and we're not at the top of it. I really don't expect too many people to do my show before they do Jay's. At least we're competitive now with human interest and sports guests. The A-list still does Leno and Letterman before thinking about everyone else, and that's the way it should be. But we're on the map, anyway."

While it's true that Kimmel's numbers don't yet justify his being held in quite the same esteem as his longer-serving competitors, "Jimmy Kimmel Live" has clearly struck a chord with younger adults, who respond to the host's low-key hip approach, believes ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson.



"Jimmy celebrates what is funny and comedic in the world around him, and speaks to the younger generation like no one else in late night," McPherson maintains.

McPherson is undaunted by the middling ratings, moreover, and sounds like he's behind the show for the long haul. "Any late-night show takes time to grow: The performer finds his rhythm, and the audience finds the performer, and the performer becomes better," he says. "The phenomenon Jimmy created with his latest series of clips points to his incredible reach and accessibility, as well as his ability to get A-list talent to sleep with him and his girlfriend."

That girlfriend would be the comedian Sarah Silverman, who has been Kimmel's significant other for some five years. That each claim to be having wild sex with Damon and Affleck, respectively, has given the show that spawned the hilarious music videos describing it a major shot in the arm of late, following two and a half months when the show was dark during the writers strike.

Speaking of the strike, Kimmel retains more than a touch of anguish in describing the "terrible 'Sophie's Choice'-like nightmare" of both supporting his writers and explaining to the 100 other employees of his show why they couldn't go back to work until it was settled.

Kimmel's solution goes to his spirit of loyalty and generosity. He paid everyone on staff out of his own pocket for much -- and in many cases, all -- of the strike's duration. And this is not a guy who makes anything close to the kind of money that Leno or Letterman (or even O'Brien) do. ABC has not reimbursed him for any of it.

"I didn't do it to buy loyalty in the future or anything like that," Kimmel insists. "I know I'll have it either way. I did it because it was the right thing."

It's very much in keeping with the man's character, offers Leiderman, who previously worked as a producer for Jon Stewart's mid-1990s talk show. "There is not a single thing jaded about him," she says. "He's the most unaffected, warm, humble, intelligent workaholic I've ever met. We just love him around here, really."

That sentiment is echoed by Jason Schrift, a co-executive producer who has been with "Jimmy Kimmel Live" since ... well, since back when it was actually live (at least to the East Coast). It was live until about 14 months after the 2003 launch, when guest Thomas Jane uttered the phrase, "That's a great fucking band!" As Schrift remembers it, "The only word that came through crystal clear was 'fucking.'"

So now the show is live-to-tape, as they say. And Schrift notes that, while he's been on staff since the show's beginning, nothing has changed in terms of Kimmel's manner or work ethic.

"He's involved in every aspect of the show," Schrift says. "But the most impressive thing is how Jimmy's worked through everyone's doubts about his being able to even do this. But Jimmy kept his poise and saw this for the marathon it is. People come sit on the couch and enjoy his company. That's what has helped him survive."

That and the legendary Kimmel greenroom, of course. It's grown to become part of the show's lore that guests waiting to go on will be treated to a party rather than the usual staid peanuts, soda and ceiling-mounted monitor. Leiderman notes, "It's just a warm environment, aesthetically pleasing, nice bar, video games, a pool table. It sets the whole tone of 'Let's have fun.'"

But is Jimmy Kimmel himself having any fun yet as his show ponders life after 1,000?

"I have to say that it's way better now than it was during our first year and a half, when many days we booked our main guest at 5 in the afternoon," Kimmel says. "I feel like I'm better now at just having a genuine conversation with people instead of pushing too hard."

He feels like people might finally be starting to cut him some slack, too.

"'The Man Show' was such a strong identity that I felt like it was going to brand me for life. I'm sensing now that people think I may not be such a pig after all. How can I ask for more than that?"
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