Jimmy Kimmel Kicks Off Oscars Week: On "Bombing Miserably," Trump Jokes and His Matt Damon Ban (Q&A)

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Jimmy Kimmel

Ahead of the Feb. 26 ceremony, the host talks about his eleventh-hour recruitment and shares his thoughts on the recent surge of political speeches: "I think I'd be intimidated by how good Meryl Streep's was, so I'd probably keep my mouth shut."

With its enormously high pressure-to-payoff ratio, hosting the Academy Awards long has been considered one of Hollywood's riskiest jobs. But taking on the first Oscars of the Trump era — where tensions are sure to be high and speeches politically charged — is an even dicier proposition.

If Jimmy Kimmel is nervous, however, he's a master at hiding it. Sitting with THR in his dressing room following a Jan. 17 taping of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!, the 49-year-old funnyman (who also hosted the 2016 Emmys in September) is relaxed and effusive. Not even the impending mayhem in Washington, D.C., seems to rattle him — "My guess is that there will probably be some new crazy thing we're all talking about," predicts Kimmel, well before "alternative facts" and national security adviser Michael Flynn's resignation commanded the national conversation — as he only hopes for fodder to keep the show moving and the audience laughing.

You know, you once sent me an email.

Oh, you must have written something nice about me.

It was about the Oscars, actually. It was two years ago when Neil Patrick Harris got the hosting gig. I reported that he was their third or fourth choice.

Oh, I wonder what I was. I had to be at least eighth. (Laughs.) It took so long for them to ask.

Did you expect it?

No, not at all. In fact, I had decided that I had a date in mind — I don't remember exactly what it was — but if they don't ask me by this date, I'm not going to do it. And then a month later, they asked me to do it, and my agent is like, "Of course you're doing it." I was like, "Oh, OK, I guess I'm doing it."

I guess it's unprecedented that someone hosts the Emmys and the Oscars in the same year.

It's technically not the same year but in the same season. Cycle. Right. Really, I guess I'm setting records.

How are you separating the two tonally?

I always kind of take the same approach and it's to look at something and see what it really is and then be honest about it. I guess maybe take a little of the air out of it. I think that tonally, it will probably be similar. Then I think of ideas that don't necessarily improve the show but they sound funny. At the Emmys I thought it was a pretty good idea to have "must be present to win." You know? There's nothing more disappointing than somebody wins and some stranger walks up and says, "Oh, by the way, they're not here." We gave them this award and they don't really care. So I do kind of look at the traditions and see if I can put a spin on them.

What do you feel has been missing from the Oscars the past few years?

I don't know if anything has been missing, but the things that have worked best on the Oscars are things that you don't know how they're going to turn out — like when Ellen [DeGeneres] orders pizza for the audience, I think that that's a real gamble. Garry Shandling did a great thing on the Emmys once where he blindfolded this young couple, and they didn't know they were coming to the Emmys, and he brought them out onstage and unmasked them and got their real reaction to suddenly being onstage at the Emmys. And that's something that you don't know how it's going to go. It's a real swing, and I like to take a couple of those. That makes the show more fun. Of course, it also raises the potential for something bombing miserably.

I was at the Emmys last September and the whole peanut butter-and-jelly-sandwich thing was like, "That's a joke, right?" Then they came out with the bagged lunches. They were real. I tweeted a photo of the contents and people were super into it.

Well, the funny thing about that is that I wanted to make it funny, but even more than that, I've been in the audience there and people have not eaten for many hours and you lose energy. There's nothing worse than performing in front of an unhappy audience. So I really wanted, just from a practical standpoint, the audience to have food. And people said, like, "Oh, wow, he did a thing with peanut butter and Ellen did pizza" or whatever. But I'm going to give the audience food in some way again because they have to have it. It's a miserable three-and-a-half hours if they don't.

So the Oscars audience will get food.

I will absolutely figure out some way, whether it be on camera or off, to make sure the audience has food.

Jimmy Fallon opened the Golden Globes with something different — a choreographed musical sequence based on La La Land. Did that steal any of your thunder? How will you compete with that?

I think Billy Crystal really started that. I don't necessarily want to say what I'm going to do but there will definitely be something pre-taped in there somewhere.

Like, song and dance? Would you ever do that?

Well, I am known for my singing and my dancing. Right? So, yeah, I'll be singing, I'll be dancing, tapping...

How do you feel about all the political speeches at recent awards shows? Can the politics detract from the proceedings?

It depends on the speech, you know? I think that you've got a group of people who are largely very liberal, although I will say, the first time I hosted the Emmys, I had a joke about there being no Republicans in the room, and a surprisingly big group of people clapped when I asked if there were Republicans, and I was a little bit thrown by it. So I don't think the audience in its entirety is as liberal as people in Middle America imagine it is. But the celebrities, most of them are pretty liberal. If I was nominated and I was going to stand on that stage, I think I'd be intimidated by how good Meryl Streep's [Golden Globes] speech was, so I'd probably keep my mouth shut when it comes down to it.

In your Emmys monologue, you took a lot of jabs at Trump. You referred to Melania as Melanoma or something like that.

No, Malaria. That wasn't a comment on anything other than her name, really. It's just whenever I say it people laugh, so...

Now that he's president, how does that change things?

I don't think it necessarily changes anything. I don't know where we'll be mentally on Feb. 26. I don't know if we'll feel like we're past that stuff or if there will be some new crazy thing we're all talking about — my guess is that there will probably be some new crazy thing we're all talking about, so it really depends largely on what's going on that week. And I would definitely make those decisions the day of or day before as to how much material I do and what my spin on it is.

Matt Damon's Manchester by the Sea is up for best picture. Have you thought about — ?

I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that he doesn't win or doesn't know that he won. My goal is to keep him offstage.

For all of THR's Oscars 2017 coverage, click here.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.