All Hail Jimmy Kimmel
He's the new king of late night (and has been for a while).
It would be wrong to say that Jimmy Kimmel’s moment has arrived. That happened when ABC trusted him to host his own late-night talk show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, in the first place. It happened again when millions of people woke up to his talents when then-girlfriend Sarah Silverman’s song, “I’m F---ing Matt Damon,” went viral and Kimmel’s retort, “I’m F---ing Ben Affleck,” topped it.
Yet another moment happened when Kimmel took down Jay Leno to his face over the Conan O’Brien situation. And another happened when Kimmel was picked to host this year’s Emmys.
Ah, but this is his Big Moment. ABC announced that it’s flip-flopping Kimmel’s show with Nightline, which puts Kimmel head-to-head with his hero David Letterman and his nemesis Leno, dropping him into the 11:35 p.m. time slot against the biggest names of late night.
It’s the right thing to do. Not because Kimmel will win the ratings battle – that’s yet to be seen and irrelevant to his talent. No, it’s the right thing to do because Kimmel is the best late-night host on television.
No doubt Letterman goes into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, certainly in my book. It’s impossible to overstate the man’s genius. The Television Critics Association gave Letterman a lifetime achievement award this summer. But even Letterman probably would tell you he’s been at this game a long time – he’s been copied and recopied by others forever – and that at some point you go from appointment television to another choice on television, no matter how great you are.
Right now, Kimmel is can’t-miss television. In a crowded field with plenty of people doing excellent work, his is the show that feels both vibrant and essential. It’s not just a show that’s fun to watch most of the time for musical guests -- like Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night -- it’s a show that guests want to be on because there’s cachet to the appearance, a hip factor and a sense that you’re on the talk show people are talking about. Maybe you sell more movie tickets talking with Leno on The Tonight Show, but that sense of strained camaraderie doesn’t have to be endured with Kimmel. You’re there because he wants you to be and you want to be and not because your agent or the movie studio says you should be.
That’s what separates the pack in late night.
Going on Late Show with Letterman is still a high-water mark for a lot of stars. After all these years, there’s an amazing out-of-the-industry allure to Letterman. He’s so hard to figure out, so uniquely his own person, that it’s almost like guests want to go there just to see him and in some way to please him. He’s still the Dalai Lama of late night.
But Kimmel is the one host who holds all the important cards. Fallon is a lot of fun, as is Craig Ferguson and his own off-kilter approach. Leno is important. Conan is the respected wild card. Letterman is legendary. But Kimmel has the buzz show. His is the party everyone wants to attend – because it’s influential as well as fun; it’s of the moment, alive and essential. And in this new time slot, he’ll have even more power. The man has made an incredible transformation from where he started until right now, in this Big Moment. And the truly impressive part of it is that he’s really just begun to make his mark. He’s been on the air for almost a decade now. People who haven’t seen his show might be contentious about any such coronation, but this is how it works in late night. There aren’t any more Johnny Carsons. What you think of as your late-night host eventually cedes ground to the next generation’s late-night host. Hell, even Carson knew Letterman was the future. And maybe Letterman knows Kimmel is the future. (And yes, it would take a separate and much longer column to detail how Leno wears a separate kind of crown -- one with a lot more tarnish, which ultimately can’t be covered up by ratings victories.)
So here we are, then, at Kimmel’s coronation. He’ll kick off his new time slot Jan. 8. Eighteen days later, he’ll celebrate the 10th anniversary of his late-night show. But none of those dates really matters for Kimmel. Because his time is now.