The interview below clues you in to how I met Jimmy Kimmel for the first time many years ago. What’s most important is what happened after that, which we didn’t really get into during the chat: He never changed. Fame didn’t change him. He wasn’t nice to critic schmucks one day when he was barely known and acting like we were a cancer 10 years later when he got his ABC late-night show. He was the same to me back then as he is now. And while I actively try not to become friends with people in the business (it’s entirely possible that I would hate their next project — I mean, look at my job — and that could make things awkward), it’s not always possible. You meet people through the years and become friendly. Because they’re nice. Because they are fundamentally good people. And they stay that way. Even — and especially — when there’s no gain for them. Those are the ones that stick.
I’ve known Kimmel since 1999, but it’s not like our families hang out or he has an extra room at his house for me. (Honestly, nobody likes me that much and I don’t like a lot of people anyway.) But we’ve kept in touch and been social and I have truly, through the years, enjoyed — and championed — his work. On the eve of the Sept. 18 Emmys, which Kimmel, 48, is hosting again, I flew down to Los Angeles from the Bay Area to have a chat in his office. Circumstances had caused us to miss hanging out or having dinner at the most recent Television Critics Association summer tour and a couple of recent outings to L.A. were too brief to get together, so this was a nice catch-up.
Listen to Tim Goodman’s full interview with Jimmy Kimmel as a podcast below.
Have you reached out to Colbert?
Colbert I’ve known for a long time. I was on his show. I would never be bold enough to offer him advice. I think he was doing such a great job on his show, it’d be a joke for me to offer him any advice. But if somebody asked me for it or if they seem like they want it, I will definitely share what I have learned.
I love that guy and it pains me to see he’s struggling. And it’s weird cause it’s like, “We want you not to be the person that you were on Comedy Central, we want you to be you.” And then it’s like, “You know, you being you is not really working out. Let’s bring that guy back.” To me, that’s weird and messed up in some strange way.
I know Stephen and I don’t think he pays it as much mind as other people do. He is doing the show the way he wants to do it and that’s all you can do.
And there is a learning curve to it, right?
Oh boy, look at me, my learning curve was (laughs) was wicked. It was filthy, as they say in baseball. But all this stuff is on the outside and Stephen I think doesn’t pay a lot of attention to it. And as long as you feel like you’re doing good work in your community of co-workers, I think you can be satisfied and not necessarily as stressed out as people might imagine you are.
I know it doesn’t really happen this way but I kind of like the idea of five or six late-night talk show hosts getting together and having a little chat.
At the Emmys is the only time it really happens.
Well it couldn’t happen on one of your days when you’re not eating, right? You’d have to plan around that.
I will say I’m pretty religious about the not-eating thing but I will take any excuse then. It’s like, “Oh well, yeah but there’s hamburgers here” or “It’s Labor Day.”
The last time Kimmel hosted the Emmys — in 2012 — he pulled in 13.2 million viewers.
I’m guessing these two days float? I’m fascinated by this, by the way. Do they float?
They move a little bit. Yeah.
You can’t just say I’m not eating Monday and Friday or something like that.
No, it’s Monday and Thursday are my non-eating days, yeah, so today’s one of them. Although I did eat today. (Laughs.) Sometimes I get hungry. (Laughs.)
You think? I would too. Well you’re looking good. One of the other things that’s new for you now is that you’re a parent now. How is that?
You know what, the truth is I really don’t pay much attention to my kid so it hasn’t affected my life at all. (Laughs.)
As busy as I was and I felt I was, the addition of a 2-year-old into my life has really added four hours into my day, you know? I get home usually around 6:30, 6:45 and she’ll stay up till probably around 8:30. And she wants my undivided attention and then in the morning too. And every day I go to work she cries. It’s terrible. She just doesn’t want me to leave. She is very fond of me and vice versa.
As a dad myself, I can tell you that there are a lot of people who say they are good dads and are putting the time in but they’re mailing it in.
I think there are also levels of good dad-ness. And I wouldn’t say I’m at the top of those levels. I mean sometimes I meet guys and I go, “Jesus Christ, dial it down a little bit, you know?” (Laughs.) I know people who have literally quit their jobs to spend more time with their children and I go, wow, my dad used to go to work at 7 o’clock in the morning and he’d come back at 7:30 and we’d kind of see him walk in and then he’d go upstairs and suddenly he’d be in a T-shirt and grumpy. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation that went on. But my little brother, who works here now, he’s nine years younger than I am, he was a great baseball player and I trained him when I was a kid. One day I saw my dad playing catch with him and I was like, “What are you doing? (Laughs.) What is this? We never played catch.”
So the Emmys are coming up. Only you and I think you’re gonna win. You actually don’t think you’re gonna win.
Oh I know I’m not gonna win, yeah.
It’s a political year so John Oliver is probably gonna win. I’m just gonna be honest, John Oliver is gonna win and you’re not gonna win.
I think so, and I think he does a great show and honestly I don’t care that much.
Mostly I just want to do well as host. I would rather get a laugh than the trophy. I’d rather have a funny — even when I’m presenting or whatever, right? I just want it to go well and afterward everybody to say “Oh, that was funny.” That’s to me its own reward. (Laughs.)
You know, you can’t put laughter on a shelf, Tim.
Hopefully when people hear the actual sound of this they’ll realize how fake that is.
I know, that’s what I worry about. Doing a combination print interview and podcast, context is sometimes important.
Yeah, the print version, it’s like, “What an ass, did you see what he said about just being nominated and winning?”
I once did a live interview with Bill Carter for a benefit for the YMCA in New York, and as a complete joke I did this long speech about how much I love David Letterman and how much he meant to me and all this stuff, and then somebody said, “What about Jay Leno?” and I said “F— Jay Leno,” and I was kidding, you know? It was a follow-up. But of course that got carved out and none of the context was included and I became the monster who said “F— Jay Leno.” Just for the record, I did not mean f— Jay Leno.
But for the record, you did eventually go on and f— Jay Leno over regularly.
Well yeah, this was after that. (Laughs.)
Have you guys patched it together?
Not really. (Laughs.) I figure we’ll leave well enough alone.
Yeah that’s probably best. What were your impressions after having both Hillary and Trump on the show?
First of all, our objective every night is comment on what’s going on in the news. So at a time like this, and of course these political seasons are getting longer and longer and longer, what’s going on in the news and what people are talking about. Really people at dinner are talking about two things: They’re talking about Donald Trump and they are talking about what they are watching on Netflix. Those seem to be the only conversations that are being had.
Stranger Things and Donald Trump.
And if you sit at a restaurant and just listen around you, you’ll hear Trump, Stranger Things, Trump, Stranger Things, Narcos, Mr. Robot, Trump. That’s really like all we talk about anymore.
You notice you didn’t mention any of the ABC shows?
I didn’t mention any ABC shows? Ohhhh …
Give me one that you might have overheard at a restaurant on one of the two days you were actually eating.
I’m hearing people talk about the promos for Designated Survivor a lot.
I’m hearing that too.
I just made that up but I’m glad you’re hearing that.
I actually made it up too but I am reviewing it.
But that show is gonna be a big hit and thank God because it’s on at 10 o’clock.
It’s gonna lead right into you.
Yeah. We need it.
There’s a boost there.
Yeah that will be nice.
So Kiefer Sutherland, it’s all on his shoulders.
Yeah, I told him that when he was here. I said you have a big responsibility here, you need to help me. We are relying on you, Kiefer. And as far as the candidates go, well, they are both really good guests. They’re both very good guests. And for me, I’m interested in even the most minute details of their lives and their thinking process, and I don’t know if it’s as interesting to everybody else but if I was given like three hours with Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, I want to know what they eat for breakfast and I want to know what their daily routine is. I’m interested in all of those tiny little things. I’m not sure why, exactly. I don’t know if I’m interested in them because I feel like I might learn something about them or about myself by adding all this stuff up and forming kind of a psychological profile. Donald Trump is a great talk show guest. He is everything you could possibly want. He is totally unguarded, he does not seem to care about offending people, he is so different from almost everybody else. You can ask him anything, he might get mad but you can ask him anything. I have to say it’s a pleasure to interview the guy, it really is, because almost everything out of his mouth is interesting.
But was there ever a point when you were talking to him thinking like “I’m skewering you or I’m kind of making fun of you,” this is a little wink-wink, and he’s either a) not getting it or b) not caring?
That’s my whole life. I mean really that’s what I’ve been doing since I was a teenager. The first thing I ever did in any kind of show business was a college radio show on Sunday nights in Las Vegas at KUNV. I was in high school at the time. And I would look in the telephone book and I’d find people who seemed like interesting characters and then I would goof on them but they would not know that I was goofing on them because, first of all, I was a kid, and secondly, they were excited to be on the radio.
And Hillary and the “Mean Tweets” [segment]. If we’re talking about guarded, she is a whole lot more guarded than Trump is, but how did you get her to agree to do the mean tweets?
She didn’t do mean tweets. She read some of Donald Trump’s tweets, yeah. So we would like her to do “Mean Tweets” and we would like Donald Trump to do “Mean Tweets” and we have pitched it to both of them and each one of them has declined. But Obama doing them was a pretty great thing. And it’s funny because when he came in and did them — you know, obviously he has people and they’re concerned. I mean, mean tweets could potentially go sideways. So they went through them and they cherry-picked the mean tweets that they thought would be appropriate for the president. And he sat down and he just starts looking at them and he goes, “You guys, you missed a lot of … These are not mean enough.” And I’m sitting there, giving the stink eye to his people because we wanted him to read the really mean ones, and he doesn’t understand why he’s not reading the mean ones and nobody wins.
Nobody wins. You’re going to be doing this for a long time, right? I mean you’re not going to retire anytime soon.
I have a contract that I signed recently for three more years after the end of this year and that will take me to 17 years. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I guess I’ll figure out at that time whether I feel like I’m doing a good job and I’m still interested. I never want to get to a point where I feel like it’s a bummer to come to work.
Your love for Letterman was pretty boundless, but at the end there did you feel he was tired and he didn’t want to do it anymore?
I don’t think he had the enthusiasm that he had at one time in his life. I mean, just like nobody was better at going out on the street and talking to people and just f—ing around than Dave. And those are the kind of things, as you’re, you get older, you become famous, it’s hard to go outside and have conversations with people because you just get surrounded. And now you just have to pose for pictures the whole time, nobody even wants to have a conversation anymore. It’s just take a picture and I’m gone, you know?
Just selfies, yeah.
But that definitely makes it difficult. And that’s a good reason why it’s fun to do things with kids, because they don’t do that stuff. But I don’t think he was as into it at the end as he was. I mean obviously. He quit.
But did you sense it? I could see it.
Yeah I did, yeah. Yeah.
He reached out and he supported you.
He has been very, very kind to me. And I don’t think it’s because he admired my talent or anything like that. I just think that he had an awareness of how much he meant to me and he knew that his kindness would go a long way and if he was anything other than that, I would be devastated. So he really was very nice to me; I think mostly because he knew I needed that. (Laughs.)
Letterman reached out to you after the fact, right? We can do this, right?
After what fact? I’m not sure. It’s happened a few times.
We’re gonna do this. So he reached out and because — and you said he was being nice to you — he did like you. He gave you advice, he wasn’t just trying to not break your heart by not responding to you. So when it was all over, he sent you all of his ties, right?
That is true. He did send me all of his ties, yeah.
You haven’t told that story.
I haven’t told the story. It was a huge box of ties, yeah, all his ties.
That is tremendous. And what did he say when he sent them to you?
I don’t exactly remember what the note said. But he said maybe you can use these, something to that effect. And I did wear one of his ties on the show. They are long ties, by the way, they’re hard for me. I really have to tuck them in. But I did wear one of his ties and I was quite delighted. In fact on my first show, I was wearing a Late Night With David Letterman T-shirt under my clothes.
So what are you doing to take off the stress of this job? Do you have time to watch any TV?
I make time for it. I love a lot of the shows. Right now I am very excited about Narcos. I love Mr. Robot, I love Game of Thrones like everybody does, Veep, Silicon Valley I think is great. I always feel bad when I go through these lists because then afterward I’ll think, “Oh I forgot to mention this or that.” I enjoyed The People v. O.J. Simpson, I enjoyed the ESPN documentary about it, I thought that was really great. I’m excited to talk about that at the Emmys.
But I really do love TV shows and that’s why I think about you and your job a lot because I can barely keep up. I know it’s not supposed to cause you stress but I’m stressed about the fact that I am three episodes behind in Mr. Robot right now.
Oh, anything can happen.
I am desperately trying not to discuss it with anyone and trying not to click on — last night there were hashtags and I was so tempted to click on them and I didn’t. And it makes it hard. It’s like, it has made it hard for me to work any sports into my life, although now football is coming and —
You’re not gonna turn into a Rams fan, right?
I don’t really have a favorite football team, so possibly, possibly. But probably not. It’s kind of fun to not have a favorite football team because you’re not bound to those bad games and you can watch whatever is the most exciting.
As far as yourself, you’re an Emmy nominee. Did you do any campaigning? Is it hard to campaign or not campaign when you’re a nominee?
No, I didn’t do anything. I had done that a couple times. Like we had an event where you invite the Emmy voters to come and you do like a panel. And there was another, a party where you meet people and stuff like that. And you know what, it’s a bummer, really. It makes you feel like a real piece of shit, in a way. People shouldn’t vote for you because they like you or they met you at a bowling alley; they should vote for you if they think you’re the best one. And I don’t see myself doing that kind of thing ever again.
It might be awkward now that you’re hosting. If you do win, which is not out of the realm of possibility. I mean, we think it’s gonna be John Oliver. I think it’s gonna be you but it could be a —
Can I tell you? I actually am hoping I don’t win because I feel like I have a very strong bit to do when we lose. (Laughs.) And it will screw that up, I will be totally discombobulated if we win.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.