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“Third time’s the most charming,” read the latest barrage of promos for Jimmy Kimmel’s turn as host of the 95th Oscars, set to unspool from the Dolby Theatre on March 12. Having emceed in 2017 and 2018, Kimmel’s selection is seen as a homecoming, to say nothing of a safe choice at a fraught time for both the Academy of Motion Pictures and award shows at large. “It’s so important to have a host who knows how to handle live television and a live audience,” Academy CEO Bill Kramer noted recently, adding of Kimmel’s appeal: “He’s funny, he’s respectful, his edges aren’t too sharp.” In late February, Kimmel took a break from his day job, as longtime host of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!, to discuss the delicate balance of being both funny and safe, the unrealistic expectations around ratings and run time and what, exactly, he’d do should someone storm the stage and slap him, as Will Smith infamously did to Chris Rock at last year’s ceremony.
Hosting the Oscars is easily one of the most thankless jobs in Hollywood, and it’s only gotten more so in recent years. So, honestly, why do this again?
I think it’s probably that I was surprised because I didn’t necessarily think I’d ever do it again or be asked to do it again. And it wasn’t one of those situations where they couldn’t get anybody and they asked me at the last minute — I definitely would have said no if that was the case. So, I don’t know, it kind of came out of the blue and they clearly got me at the right moment. I did wait a week to tell my wife. I thought she might react negatively, but she was very positive, so I said, “OK, yeah, I’ll do it.”
When you were about to host the first pandemic Emmys, you told me how much you had loved the extended time you’d just taken off and how it made you reassess the idea of retirement. Now, here we are, a few years later, and you’ve re-upped at Jimmy Kimmel Live! and you’re hosting the Oscars again. What happened?
Yeah. (Laughs.) That’s just me. I go from a hot to cold very quickly. I’m sure on Sunday at midnight of the Oscars, I’ll be contemplating retirement again. But if you catch me at the right moment, you can get me to sign almost anything.
Bill Kramer recently discussed your appeal to the Academy, noting that your “edges aren’t too sharp” and “people in the audience feel very safe.” How do you balance the need to make that audience in the Dolby feel safe with the need to make the audience at home feel engaged?
Well, first of all, when Bill said my edges aren’t too sharp, I think what he was saying is I’m fat. I take that as fat shaming. And I’ve told him I’m trying to lose weight. I did not fit into the tuxedo I wore in 2018, and it was disturbing. But I know what he means. I’m in a unique position in that my job is to make fun of people in Hollywood and then to have them sit next to me on the stage. And I’ve had 20 years of practice as far as balancing that stuff out goes.
When I first started doing [Jimmy Kimmel Live!], I had no practice and there was no balance. I would just mow through the guests and then we wouldn’t have another A-list guest for another eight months. (Laughs.)
You’ve improved considerably since then.
I’m also very conscious of what this is, that the Oscars is something that is very meaningful to people in the movie industry, and for many of them, this will be the biggest professional night of their lives. The last thing I want to do is ruin it for anyone.
Bill also revealed that there was now a “crisis committee in place,” noting that they’ve “run many scenarios.” What has that entailed?
I wish I knew. I’ve not been involved in that. I guess I’m the last thing they’re worried about. (Laughs.)
As the host, that feels like something you should be involved in, no?
Yeah, I feel like I should at least know what was discussed so I know what I should fear when I walk onstage. But, really, I suspect it mostly has to do with UFOs.
I am genuinely curious: If there’s another slap, what do you do?
You mean, if somebody comes up on the stage and slaps me? Well, I size them up, and, if I’m bigger than they are, I beat the shit out of them on television. And if it’s the Rock, I run.
Up until The Slap, you were part of the biggest Oscar night saga in recent memory, having hosted the year that La La Land was named best picture, only to have that title rescinded when it became apparent Moonlight had actually won.
Yeah, we got knocked down the list. It’s disappointing in a lot of ways. If you’re gonna be part of a fuckup, it might as well be the biggest fuckup ever. Being part of the second-biggest fuckup doesn’t carry as much cachet.
Industry monologues are your strong suit, as we’ve seen for years at the Disney upfront. Can we expect a traditional monologue?
It’ll be similar to what I’ve done in the past. I don’t have a lot of talents, so there’s not a huge number of areas for me to draw from outside of telling jokes. I mean, I am pretty good at drawing cartoons, so I guess I could sit down and do caricatures of the stars? (Laughs.) But I particularly enjoy writing jokes for a specific audience, whether that be at the upfronts or a bunch of TV or movie stars. It enables you to be very specific.
When you’re crafting those jokes, is the audience, in your mind, the stars in the theater or the average Joes watching at home?
The best advice I got about hosting the Oscars was from Billy Crystal, who told me, “Play to the room.” You always have to be conscious of the audience at home and make sure they understand what’s going on, but you also want to get laughs in the room — and if you don’t get that, it’s not going to play well for people watching on TV. So that is my focus: not just the actors but all the various production people and show business luminaries who are sitting there listening to your jokes. And unlike most joke situations, they are on camera, so they’re very careful about how they react, and that makes it a harder bar to clear.
Is The Slap almost boring to joke about at this point?
Well, whatever I say about it, it’s going to have to be great, right? Because so much has been said and there’s so much focus on it. I obviously don’t want to make the whole monologue about that, but it would be ridiculous not to mention it.
Tom Cruise was the butt of jokes at both the Golden Globes and DGA awards. He’ll presumably be at the Oscars …
Yeah, he’ll be at the Oscars.
Will you go there in the way that the other show hosts have?
No, I mean, listen, the reason that Tom Cruise is being embraced by the movie industry is that, I don’t know if he saved [movies], but he definitely gave them the Heimlich maneuver.
Steven Spielberg claims he saved the movie industry, and if Spielberg says it …
That movie [Top Gun: Maverick] made a lot of people who may not have been comfortable going to a movie theater, go to the movie theater. And I think that everyone in the movie business should be grateful, including Avatar, which might not have made nearly as much money had that ground not been broken by Top Gun.
It didn’t stop Globes host Jerrod Carmichael from making a Scientology joke. Speaking of Jerrod, during his monologue, he noted that he was being paid $500,000 to host the Globes. Did you immediately negotiate yourself a raise? [Kimmel has said he was paid $15,000 to host the Oscars in the past.]
No. You know, I think that they have to pay a lot to get people to host that show. (Laughs.) I mean, that was a tricky situation that Jerrod wandered into, and I don’t blame him for making them pay. They should pay him.
In an Oscars promo, you joked about the run time of this year’s show. How realistic is a three-hour show?
Oh, it’s preposterous! This show’s going to be a lot longer than three hours, I’ll tell you that right now. Alert the affiliates, we’re going long! (Laughs.) I mean, we’ve added all the categories back, so just by virtue of that, it’s going to be long, but hopefully it’ll be fun, too. I think we have some great performance moments.
You’ve got Rihanna performing.
We’ve got Rihanna. I think it’s going to be a fun show, but, yes, everybody’s always going to complain that it’s long. I mean, you don’t have to watch the whole thing, nobody’s holding a gun to your head. Watch the first 15 minutes and then you can go to sleep, as far as I’m concerned.
What’s a more realistic show length, which you will at least try to hit?
Oh, I want to run the show right up to Good Morning America. I want George Stephanopoulos to have to wait eight minutes to come out of his dressing room.
Much will be made about the ratings of the show. What are the expectations going in?
I don’t know, it’s not something that I have any control over. We’re excited that there are movies [nominated that] people have seen, so we’re hoping more people watch, but who the hell knows? There’s a lot of focus put on the ratings of these award shows and it’s used as a gauge in some ways, but it has almost nothing to do with the award shows themselves and everything to do with television viewing habits in general.
So, what is your gauge for success?
I’m a very harsh critic of my work, so if I feel even pretty good about it afterwards, I’ll be happy. Honestly, the worst thing is if you and your writers do all this work and it’s not worth it. Luckily, I haven’t experienced that in a long time. And I feel like, barring a teleprompter outage or some unexpected flub on my part, maybe I eat too much soy sauce for lunch and I can’t speak, I think we’ll be in pretty good shape.
Bill Kramer also said he hopes that this is “the beginning of a lovely, long new relationship with him.” Have you signed on to host next year’s show too?
No. I don’t even know what that means. My only guess is when he says, “a lovely, long relationship,” he means the show — the show isn’t going to be over until midnight. (Laughs.)
My final question for you: Can you name the last five best picture winners?
Oh, wow. OK. Do I have to name them in order? CODA was last year. The Shape of Water was one of them.
Look at you.
Obviously, Moonlight was one of them.
That was actually six years ago, but I’ll give it to you.
That just means I can name the last six. I’m showing off. (Laughs.)
That’s true. It was a nice flex. Keep going.
Green Book was one of them. Now, what am I missing? … The original Sonic the Hedgehog was one of them.
Oh, and We Bought a Zoo. That’s right, right? I got it?
You nailed it. Anything else I haven’t asked?
You didn’t ask what I was wearing.
What are you wearing?
Well, right now I’m wearing a flannel shirt, um, some kind of stylish, I dare say cute, little high-top sneakers and a pair of black jeans.
You’re Oscar ready.
I am. (Laughs.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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