After rough start, ‘Kimmel’ grows up

Talkshow reaches 1,000th episode milestone

Jimmy Kimmel admits he secretly hoped “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which reaches its 1,000th episode tonight, would get canceled during his first year on the air.

“It was so exhausting that first year that I wouldn’t have been all that devastated if it had been canceled in the beginning,” Kimmel says, reflecting on the rocky start of his five-year latenight run. “Not only do you have to learn how to do a talkshow, but all the people you work with have to learn how to do it, too. It’s like boxing. You can work out all you want, but you still have to spar with somebody to know what it’s really like.”

While Kimmel’s premiere show on Jan. 26, 2003, caught headlines for a member of the audience throwing up, San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman says it’s not unusual for a host to struggle when he or she first gets on the air.

“Once he got his confidence, stopped worrying about the ABC suits, then said, ‘Screw it. I’m going to do what I do, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,’ he found his footing,” Goodman says. “I love Letterman so much, but I think there’s a generational shift to Conan (O’Brien) and Kimmel. Kimmel has been underappreciated in the past, but I think he’s exploding now, and (the Ben Affleck video) just put the exclamation point on it.”

Added Stephen McPherson, president, ABC Entertainment: “Latenight shows take time to grow and get into a rhythm. Jimmy has done that and really struck a chord, appealing to viewers on a personal and relatable level. Jimmy’s latest accomplishments not only prove his reach and accessibility, but also his unparalleled connection to the younger audiences and his ability to get A-list celebrities from across the industry to sleep with him and his girlfriend. We’re very proud of Jimmy’s work.”

Short of setting up a latenight show in your living room, Kimmel says there’s no way to prepare in advance for a gig like this.

“The goal for me is that the show gets better every three months,” Kimmel says. “If I look back every three months and I’m embarrassed, then I know we are improving. Some nights are crazy and exciting, other nights are just a disaster. I want a good show every night and a few great shows along the way.”

ABC Studios, which produces the talker, may have had reservations at first but has come to appreciate Kimmel’s growing abilities as a host.

“It’s the smartest show in latenight,” says ABC Studios exec VP Barry Jossen. “Jimmy continues to evolve along with the show, which means you can’t predict what comes next, but you always know it’s going to be a fun ride.”

Co-exec producer Jason Schrift, who has been with Kimmel since his stint on Comedy Central’s “The Man Show,” says the host is a work in progress.

“We’ve all grown up on the air in a way. We’ve tried a lot of things, watched lots of old Conan and Letterman shows,” Schrift says. “When I look back on some of our shows, it’s like looking at your high school pictures and wondering ‘What was I thinking?'”

Schrift points to several milestones as the show has evolved.

“Jimmy didn’t come out and stand in front of the audience in the beginning because he didn’t come from a standup comedy background and wasn’t comfortable with that,” Schrift says. “Over the years, he’s gotten more confident and comfortable standing up and talking to the audience.”

The other big change for the show was when the decision was made not to go with different co-hosts.

“Jimmy’s a good listener, because he comes from radio, and the focus is on listening. He’s not waiting to tell a joke, but reacting to what his guest says,” Schrift says. “By getting rid of the co-host, we’re allowed to see more of Jimmy, and his guests have more time with him. By not writing for a co-host, it gave us more time for the show to breathe and really opened it up.”

Kimmel’s known for taking an active part in producing the show.

“He’s involved in every aspect,” Schrift says. “Nothing goes on without going through him. He doesn’t just show up and do the show, that’s for sure.”

Kimmel says he hopes people who watched the show on the first night and made a decision not to watch again will come back to take another peek.

“As the years have gone by, we’ve gotten stronger, which I hope continues,” Kimmel says. “Then, as soon as we’re at the apex, I’ll start mailing it in. I’ll lie back and stop working. That’s my plan for the future.”

Goodman predicts a brighter future for Kimmel.

“I think that when the (Affleck) video went viral, it was a guarantee that ABC won’t be going after (Jay) Leno when he becomes a free agent,” Goodman says. “I love what’s happening right now with Kimmel. He’s finally getting his due.”

TIP SHEET

What: “Jimmy Kimmel Live” 1,000th episode

When: 11:35 Thursday night, ABC

Who: Guests include Eva Longoria Parker, Richard Simmons, Kid Rock

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