Jimmy Kimmel on His Competition and How Late-Night Hosting Is Like Being an Athlete

This year's Emmys host explains why he's never prepared an acceptance speech beforehand.
ABC/Randy Holmes
Jimmy Kimmel

[The Hollywood Reporter spoke with an assortment of the biggest names in late night about changes to the volatile variety talk category at the upcoming Emmys for a magazine story. Some longer Q&As from those interviews are going online.]

For chronology junkies, Jimmy Kimmel was the first of the late-night figures The Hollywood Reporter spoke to in the pre-Emmys run-up, because like the president of the Hair Club For Men, he isn't just an Emmy contender, he's also the host of this September's ceremony on ABC.

Since it launched in 2003, Jimmy Kimmel Live! has picked up four nominations in the outstanding variety series category, though Kimmel says he's never had an acceptance speech in his pocket, in part because of the domination of newly departed favorites like Jon Stewart's incarnation of The Daily Show. He also insists he isn't expecting to have a better shot this year, saying that shows that "serious" topics have the advantage.

In this conversation with THR, Kimmel discusses his own show's approach to the serious topics of this year, the challenges of filling a writing staff in this age of talk show proliferation and how the current viral video stage really started with Matt Damon.

Jon Stewart and Daily Show have been an 800-pound gorilla in your category for a long time and I was curious as to how its dominance sort of colored the way you viewed the Emmys these past few years.

It actually makes it nicer and more relaxing because you didn't feel like you had any pressure to compose any kind of an acceptance speech. Not once did I ever have a piece of paper folded up in my tuxedo. And by the way, I've seen that. There's nothing sadder than the person kind of putting that speech back in their pocket in the audience after someone else's name was announced. It's kind of heartbreaking. Somebody should make a coffee-table book out of those never-read acceptance speeches.

Does that make you look at this year's show differently, not just because you're obviously hosting it, knowing things are at least hypothetically more wide open than they have been in past years.

Oh, not really. I hadn't really thought about it. Listen, the shows that deal with more, I guess you might say "serious" topics probably have a better chance of winning. So I never really go in there thinking we have any chance to win.

I'm looking at the nominees from last year and since last year, half of the nominees in the variety/talk category either don't exist anymore or have changed hosts. Is that the sort of a sea change that you can feel when you're in the middle of it?

Well people certainly talk about it a lot, and I think it's something that's been happening so much lately it's not nearly as big a deal as it use to be. I think it used to happen once every like five-and-a-half years, and now it seems to happen once every five-and-a-half months. Just because there are so many more shows, so none of it seems as important as it used to and of course it was never important in the first place.

How does it feel to you to suddenly have seniority in this landscape almost?

Well, Conan still has seniority, but it feels weird. You know, you never think of yourself as kind of the old veteran, but ideally, that's what happens.

Does it change your approach, knowing that you've been on for a certain number of years and knowing the people have expectations of you and maybe seeing all these young pups, as it were, coming up? Does that change your approach at all, or do you keep doing the same thing?

I think it's like being an athlete in a way, you have more confidence, you know what to do, you know how to prepare for the job, which is a long slog. People sometimes ask me, "What do you guys have coming up next season?" And I always say, "There's no next season, there's next week." We just keep going. We don't take the summer off, we have a few weeks here or there, so it's a hard job and I do enjoy and I get some comfort from talking to other people who do it about that. Because there's nobody else with whom you can discuss that without sounding like an asshole.

Do you actually have time to watch anybody else in late night?

You know mostly I do what everybody else does. If there's some sketch that I've heard about, I watch it on YouTube or on the world wide web.

Is there someone on your staff who's keeping an eye on what everybody else is doing just to make sure that you guys aren't doing those things?


What does that job consist of?

There is a guy who sits and makes transcripts of every other show and then we go through every night and make sure we don't repeat jokes. Really the hardest one is looking through and making sure we don't repeat our own jokes from Valentine's Day of 2008, you know? It's like, "Oh you guys already did this bit," and it's like, "Oh god." We'll go that far as to nix things because we did them nine years ago. I don't know why we do it, but we do. It's just a thing for me.

What is the line between repeating something because it's shtick, because it's a bit you're doing, and repeating something just, repeating something?

Yeah, there are always running jokes, but there are certain things that are clearly not running jokes that you're just kind of repeating yourself. I think once you start doing that, you're done.  So I try to avoid it. I think you always have to come up with new things, it's hard for the younger writers, the writers that come in and are new. One of the most difficult things I ever tried to do when I was a young man was I tried to write a spec script for The Simpsons and every topic that we came up with had been done. It wasn't so easy to look them up at that time, because we didn't have the Internet, but we had a hard time even finding subject matter that hadn't been covered and I can't imagine how difficult that is now, 15, 16 years later. You really have to come up with new stuff constantly.

When your team thinks about the competition as it were, is it just Fallon and Colbert, or is it everybody out there at the same time.

It's nobody in a way. This idea I think is an old idea of competition because in the old days, you could only watch one thing at a time. If Carson was on at 11:30 and then Joan Rivers was also on at 11:30, you had to choose between them. It's just not the case now. People are putting together their own patchwork of shows so, in a way, everything is your competition and in a way nothing is your competition.

How about tonally though, because obviously there are a lot of you guys in late night and you're all, as you say, doing slightly different stuff, or very different stuff in terms of your approach to the material, which material is on topic, etc. Do you pay attention to what the more "political" late-night shows are doing, or is that just not your thing?

I pay probably less attention than you might imagine I would do. The main reason we pay attention is so we don't repeat things that have already been done. Sometimes we have to scratch things. You saw, for instance, Beyonce had her Lemonade video. And I think in that case I felt like, "Oh, people are going to do a video parody of this so maybe that's something we should shy away from and decide to do something else." So sometimes you even try to predict what other people might do and avoid it sometimes for no reason. But in that case, both Colbert and Corden did pretty good parodies of it, so I'm glad we did something else.

From the outside, everyone looks at this election cycle and assumes that it's been comedy gold, but has it produced a challenge in the sense that it's so ridiculous that it's not forcing people to be creatively funny, do you think?

I don't think so. All you really want is something that the nation is focused on, because one of the big challenges as far as telling jokes and writing comedy bits go is sometimes you have to educate the audience on what you're even talking about and when they already know what you're talking about, you just kind of cut that part of it out. It's helpful, it's a little bit of a short cut. I don't have to explain who Donald Trump is to the audience before I make a joke about him. I do have to explain who Dennis Hastert is to the audience before I make a joke about him. I don't think of it as a bad thing. To me it's a challenge because everybody is talking about it, but it's the kind of challenge that I think we all like.

Exactly, if Trump says something dumb or if Hillary makes a flub, there has to be some awareness that there are 10 other people with similar jobs getting ready to make the same joke; so how much to you have to out-think the room on that?

What I usually do is if with my writers, if I see more than one of the same joke, like sometimes you get three writers will write basically the same joke, and if that happens, even if it's funny I'll skip it because I feel like that's a joke that's going to be made. It's almost inevitable.

Along those lines if there are this many shows on at this moment, that means this many writers' rooms working. Is it harder to find fresh voices? Is the marketplace strained at all?

In a way it's easier. Almost everyone has Twitter and Instagram or whatever, and then there are people who make videos and post them. A couple of my writers I hired after just watching some videos they made themselves online. In the old days you just had a piece of paper with a bunch of jokes and comedy bits on it. On one hand, when you look at the videos you can see more fully realized versions of their jokes and also when they have Twitter you can look back and see like, "Okay, this guy may have like three funny pages of jokes, but let's see was he funny every day for a couple of years?" You can really look back and see their consistency right there online. Or lack of it.

And you have competition that airs only one night a week in some cases, that do only half-hour a week in some cases, that have sort of the looser limits of cable. From your point of view, what are some of the advantages and the disadvantages of doing an hour, doing it nightly, doing it on network?

When it comes to like, awards and that kind of stuff, there are no advantages to doing the show every night. If we only had to do 30 shows a year, I can guarantee you 26 of them would be very strong. But, the advantage for me is you can be looser and there's not so much pressure and focus on what you're doing. You can try new things. I think from a creative standpoint, it's probably more fun to do the show every night. From a, "What one episode are your voters going to look at and judge" it's probably disadvantageous, a disadvantage.

When you're not thinking of Emmys, how often are you jealous of the people who get to do it one night a week?

I get jealous at midnight when I'm still working on the show or when I will spend like a whole Saturday working on something. Really when I get tired is when I get jealous.

Does that happen more or less now? You've sort of grown up in this business, in this time slot, etc. Are you doing a better job of managing time of avoiding getting worn out?

It's relentless, it doesn't vary. A lot of it is because I'm a lunatic and everything has to go through my filter and so I can't just kind of leave something alone and let somebody else put it together and present it to me. I know that that's a flaw in my personality but I also feel like it makes the show more me. I think that it's a good thing, professionally and it's a bad thing personally, probably.

From your point of view on the outside, can you tell the difference between the shows that have gone through the host's personal filter and the ones that feel more room-written?

Sure, absolutely.

OK, I'm not going to ask you to call anyone out, but what is it that you're seeing from your point of view?

I think in the old days, you just get a bunch of jokes about current events on cards and then your job as the host was to put them in order and read them. That's not how we do it. We go through a grueling process every day of writing our monologue and I think that that's something you can't really do anymore because there are so many other shows.

You mentioned that you tend to watch other shows, basically when someone tells you something was good, and you watch it online. Has the responsibility of viral video and "going viral," has it changed the emphasis of what you do on a nightly basis from doing say a cohesive hour to maybe targeting one bit per night?

I don't think I've ever done that. I don't think I've ever, ever approached it that way, where we need to put a viral video on. The only time that it hits me is at the end of the night when they say, "What do we want to feature? What do we want to put on our homepage on YouTube tonight?" Then you have to think about it, but I think that once we start getting paid by YouTube significantly, I'll think about that. But until then, I really try to focus on the whole hour of the show.

And the network hasn't started coming to you and saying, "Hey, where's tonight's viral video?"

No, this whole viral video thing really started with our Matt Damon video, so you can't really force it, there are elements that are almost guaranteed to get a certain number of views but you really don't know. Some things you put months of work into and they do okay, and then you'll go out of the street and shoot something and you turn around and it has 6 million views.

Do you ever look out at the landscape though go, "Oh, dot, dot, dot, forced it on that one. That's someone going for that viral push"?

I suppose people are doing that and I think it's good and bad. I think it raises your profile and more people see your show, which I guess from a creative standpoint is ultimately your goal, but it also lets people know that they do not have to be there watching in the middle of the night, because when they wake up it's going to be very easy to press a button and see what you've done and cherry pick. It's a lot like the record industry in a way, where the focus use to be on albums and now its on singles, now that you can buy one song off an album, it's hard to sell them in a complete form.