Why ABC Keeps Apologizing for Jimmy Kimmel's China Joke (Analysis)

Illustration by: Skip Sterling

"Nothing could be more ludicrous" than taking the late-night show's "Kill everyone in China" quip seriously, says ex-ABC chief Lloyd Braun as other comedians refuse to mock the uproar and Disney and other studios tiptoe around the sensitivities.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Bob Iger always has been a big Jimmy Kimmel fan, so when the Walt Disney Co. chairman's television lieutenants Anne Sweeney and Paul Lee met with the comic on the Burbank studio lot in the wake of a bad China joke, one can surmise that their tone was conciliatory.

The gist: Apologize immediately and let the network handle the fallout. Shortly thereafter, ABC issued a news release and Kimmel on Oct. 28 said he was sorry on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, repeating the apology on Nov. 1 in writing. And it didn't end there. ABC apologized again Nov. 9 -- in English and Chinese. But that did not suffice; on Nov. 11, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said ABC needed to "respond with a sincere attitude."

This high-level reaction came in response to a joke uttered not by Kimmel but by a first-grader in a taped routine. In the offending segment, which aired Oct. 15, Kimmel asked a group of kids for suggestions on how the U.S. should deal with the massive debt owed to China. "Kill everyone in China," answered one grinning blond boy. Kimmel responded, "OK, that's an interesting idea," and wrapped up the bit by calling it "the Lord of the Flies edition."

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Given that Disney -- like every other studio, only more so -- has a great deal at stake in China, it isn't surprising that corporate sensitivity is high. But while many in Hollywood agree the joke was in poor taste, they are baffled how this has developed into such a protracted incident -- one in which Kimmel has been so publicly held to account.

"I'm sure a slew of Disney execs saw the Kimmel broadcast before it hit the air," says Robert Morton, former producer of Late Night With David Letterman. "There were plenty of opportunities to kill the piece. … Jimmy was just doing his job as a comedian, as tasteless as the piece may have been." He adds, "If the fates and fortunes of these multinational conglomerates rest on talk-show comics, we're all f---ed."

Maybe so. ABC now says it will impose "additional executive oversight" to make sure this kind of problem doesn't arise again. And Disney isn't the only big company that seems to be highly sensitive to Chinese concerns: Bloomberg News reportedly recently dismissed a journalist for talking to The New York Times about an investigative story that was killed to avoid conflict with the Chinese government.

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Of Disney's many interests in China, perhaps none is nearer to Iger's heart than mainland China's first Disney resort, the $4.4 billion Disneyland Shanghai, scheduled to open at the end of 2015. Disney also is planning to open its first China store in Shanghai in 2015, covering a massive 53,000 square feet. And the studio wants to retain access to China's movie screens. (It made changes to Iron Man 3 -- including toning down the lead villain, The Mandarin -- and the film grossed $121 million there.)

Perhaps tellingly, the Kimmel imbroglio did not make for late-night fodder from other comics; in fact, the most notable person to stick up for Kimmel publicly was Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review, who wrote in a Nov. 12 column that the apology should have stated: "We're sorry that you are so humorless. We're sorry you don't have anything better to do with your time. We're sorry that you are cheapening every genocide in history."

When Kimmel apologized, ABC said the segment would be scrubbed from clips and repeats and the entire Kids' Table format would be abandoned. That didn't stop demonstrators from marching outside his studio and elsewhere with signs depicting Kimmel with a Hitler mustache and swastika.

Still, the entertainment community seems to be split on whether the bit was, in fact, offensive and apology-worthy. A film executive who has experience in China believes it was. But former ABC Entertainment chief Lloyd Braun disagrees. "In Jimmy's own way, he was making fun of the absurdity of the comment -- which was from a 6-year-old!" he says. "Does anyone actually believe this reflects Jimmy's or ABC's thinking? Nothing could be more ludicrous."

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The industry also seems to have varied opinions on whether Kimmel has been pushed too far as Disney attempts to defuse the controversy. A longtime talent rep who sees the gag as "offensive" says Kimmel could have apologized and left it at that, but excising the bit and dropping the Kids' Table concept appears to show too much willingness to appease China. "Succumbing to corporate interests and to the will of a reprehensible government -- that's a bad day for [Kimmel]," he says. Industry sources predict major fallout for Disney is unlikely because of its powerful ties to the country. Its partner on the theme-park project is the government-owned Shanghai Shendi group, and Disney is working with the Hong Kong government on the park there.

Given these ties, an executive with extensive experience in China is surprised and baffled by the government's decision to keep fanning the flames. "The initial apology -- that I can see happening," this person says. "But this follow-up -- I don't know what's going on."