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“I wish I’d known that it was all gonna be okay and that it was gonna work out, because there was a lot of pressure on me, not just as a performer, but as the employer of almost all of my friends and many members of my family,” Jimmy Kimmel, the host of ABC’s 11:35 p.m. late-night show Jimmy Kimmel Live!, says as we sit down in his Hollywood Hills home and he reflects on his early days on the job. “That’s a lot of pressure. There were times when I hoped the show would be canceled because then it wouldn’t have been on me, you know? It was relentless.” Fifteen years later, Kimmel is the longest-serving host of a late-night show on a broadcast network, and the second longest-serving in all of late-night, behind only Conan O’Brien. “We are now the old guard,” he muses with his trademark chuckle, noting that he is contracted through 2020 and currently has no plans to stop anytime soon. “When I feel like I don’t have anything more to offer this particular genre of television, then I’ll stop doing it, because I don’t have to do it anymore, and I don’t think you should keep doing something just because no one quits this job.”
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 168 episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Emma Stone, Harvey Weinstein, Natalie Portman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nicole Kidman, Aziz Ansari, Taraji P. Henson, J.J. Abrams, Helen Mirren, Justin Timberlake, Brie Larson, Ryan Reynolds, Alicia Vikander, Warren Beatty, Jessica Chastain, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet, Sting, Isabelle Huppert, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Michael Moore, Lily Collins, Denzel Washington, Mandy Moore, Ricky Gervais, Kristen Stewart, James Corden, Sarah Silverman, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Beckinsale, Bill Maher, Lily Tomlin, Ryan Murphy, Allison Janney, Eddie Redmayne, Reese Witherspoon, Trevor Noah, Elisabeth Moss, Jay Leno, Olivia Wilde, Rami Malek, Jill Soloway, Robert Pattinson, Kris Jenner and Jimmy Kimmel.
Kimmel, who will turn 50 this year, was born in Brooklyn and raised in Las Vegas. As a kid, he became deeply passionate about drawing, thanks largely to one of his grandfathers, and comedy, not least because his family’s many colorful characters provided him with great material. But his life never was the same after the age of 13, when he was flipping through TV channels and discovered the late-night host David Letterman, who became a hero. Kimmel’s own career ambitions, however, lay elsewhere: “I had no intention of being on television,” he says. “I thought I was gonna be a radio disc jockey.” And indeed, after dropping out of college, Kimmel, who had taken his first steps into radio while still in high school, became a nomadic radio DJ, hired and fired at stations across the country before winding up at KROQ in Los Angeles.
Kimmel, who was married and had two kids by the age of 26, quickly built up a following in L.A., which led to numerous TV-related offers. But despite the financial appeal of some, he turned all of them down until he was offered the job of Ben Stein‘s sidekick on the Comedy Central game show Win Ben Stein’s Money, on which he worked from 1997-2000, sharing Daytime Emmys with Stein in 1999 and 2001. Subsequently, he and comedian Adam Carolla — who recently had met and “really fell in love,” as Kimmel puts it — co-created and began co-hosting another Comedy Central production, the sketch comedy program The Man Show, which ran from 1999-2003. For the same cable network, they also teamed up to co-create and voice many of the most memorable characters on Crank Yankers, from 2002-2007.
Many regarded Kimmel as a frat-boy with limited potential to grow beyond that, but to ABC’s then-entertainment chief Lloyd Braun, he seemed like an interesting replacement for Bill Maher‘s Politically Incorrect, which had recently been canceled, on The Alphabet Network’s late-night schedule. Braun offered Kimmel the job of hosting a 12:05 a.m. show to Kimmel’s great surprise and he jumped at it. Jimmy Kimmel Live! did not get off to a good start — “I was just flat-out terrible,” Kimmel admits, noting that his list of guests also left something to be desired — and it was not helped by having the newsmagazine Nightline as its lead-in, nor a network whose audience composition rapidly was shifting from blue-collar male to middle-class female. But Kimmel and the show ultimately found their footing, thanks in no small part to what he argues was “the first late-night viral video,” 2008’s “Fucking Matt Damon,” followed shortly thereafter by a sequel, “Fucking Ben Affleck,” as well as recurring “Mean Tweets” segments starting in 2012.
By 2013, Jimmy Kimmel Live! had achieved solid and growing ratings, and Kimmel had a markedly higher profile than he did at the show’s outset, so ABC moved the show up to the 11:35 p.m. slot, opposite Letterman and Jay Leno. Kimmel still loved Letterman, but openly disliked Leno, partly because Kimmel sympathized with Letterman in the fabled Letterman-Leno feud; partly because Kimmel sympathized with O’Brien in the more recent O’Brien-Leno feud; and partly because Kimmel resented the fact that Leno had courted him with telephone calls at a time when ABC expressed an interest in hiring Leno to host a show at 11:35 p.m., for which Leno would have needed Kimmel to agree to move back a half-hour, but he then stopped communicating after the deal fell apart. But Kimmel now reveals, for the first time, that the Kimmel-Leno feud is over: “Jay and I have made peace,” he reports. “After my son had his operation, he called me and he was very nice.”
Kimmel is referring to the most heartrending moment of the past year for him and his family — the surgery that had to be performed on his newborn son, Billy, to address a life-threatening heart condition — which subsequently became the subject of perhaps the most memorable moment in the history of Jimmy Kimmel Live!: a 13-minute monologue, opening the May 1 show, in which the host tearfully revealed what his son had gone through and spoke, in the middle of the American health care debate, about the importance of Obamacare. “I felt like I had to say something about it,” Kimmel says nearly four months later, emphasizing that he has no regrets, even though he “heard from a lot of lunatics” in the aftermath of wading into the hot-button political debate. Donald Trump, the man leading the effort to repeal Obamacare, had been a guest on Kimmel’s show on May 25, 2016, well before securing the Republican presidential nomination, and Kimmel describes him as “a great talk show guest,” before offering greater context: “He’s a great talk show guest — and an absolutely atrocious president of the United States.” (He also offers a slight defense of NBC’s late-night star, who has been criticized for his handling — literally and figuratively — of Trump when the future president appeared on his show: “Maybe Jimmy Fallon thought he was diminishing him by messing his hair up.”)
In happier news, Kimmel is nominated this year for not just one Emmy, in recognition of his late-night show, in the top variety series category (the sixth year in a row that has happened), but two, the other coming in the special class program category in recognition of the 89th Oscars ceremony that he hosted on ABC back on Feb. 26. The show, which was produced by Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd, received rave reviews and ended in as memorable a way as any Oscars ceremony in history: with the wrong best picture winner announced before the right one was revealed. “I will admit, I don’t know why, but the whole thing seemed funny to me the whole time,” says Kimmel, who jumped back onstage as all hell began to break loose in the show’s final minutes. His deft handling of the whole evening earned him a return-invite to host the 90th Oscars on March 4, which he has accepted. “I’ll slow down a little when I do the monologue,” he says upon being asked what he plans to differently. “I was shot out of a cannon.” He also notes a lesson he learned. “I came out and I made a couple of O.J. [Simpson] jokes from the audience, and I didn’t take into account that when people are on camera they are much less inclined to laugh at jokes that are in questionable taste, so if I was up on the stage I think it would have gotten a better reaction,” he says. “But I will tell you, weirdly, it was my favorite part of the show.”
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