Cover Story: Jimmy Kimmel Pushes Limits for Latenight Laughs

Talk show host's penchant for edgy viral hits powers his ABC talker through its first decade

Jimmy Kimmel
Chris Buck

Jimmy Kimmel may have earned himself a seat at the big kids’ table in latenight TV, but that doesn’t mean he’s dulled his edge. If anything, Kimmel’s penchant for grabbing headlines and igniting controversy has only grown with his promotion to 11:35 p.m. — all while driving more viewers to the first entertainment latenight franchise that has stuck on ABC in the history of the network.

Compared with David Letterman and Jay Leno (and Jimmy Fallon in a few months) Kimmel is the bad boy of latenight — and it’s clearly a role he relishes.

In the past few months, he has engaged in a highly publicized Twitter feud with Kanye West (they made up on the show), angered Asian advocacy orgs with a segment in which a child suggested killing Chinese people as a way to solve the national debt crisis, and raised the ire of child-rearing experts with a stunt involving parents lying to kids about eating all their Halloween candy. Amid all this, Kimmel and his staffers managed to dupe hundreds of news outlets with a fake YouTube vid featuring a young woman who sets herself on fire after a twerking mishap.

“Thank you for helping us to deceive the world,” Kimmel said with a mischievous grin on the Sept. 8 edition of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” when he revealed that the twerking vid had been produced by the show with a stuntwoman.

Kimmel’s critics say he has a habit of crossing the line separating comedy from cruelty, such as the Oct. 16 installment of his “Kids Table” segment, in which he discusses complex issues with young children. A discussion of the debt crisis led one kid to suggest that the U.S. “kill everyone in China.”

The backlash was quick and fierce, forcing an on-air apology from Kimmel and written mea culpas from ABC execs. The segment has been yanked off the Web and removed from any future reruns. Some orgs are still protesting the show and ABC, and even the White House is due to respond to an anti-Kimmel petition that gathered more than 100,000 signatures in a matter of days. (Despite the public apologies and the show’s promise to drop the Kids Table segment entirely, hundreds of anti-Kimmel protestors gathered outside ABC’s headquarters in Burbank on Nov. 9, and smaller demonstrations were held in Phoenix, Boston and other cities).

But in a world where no press is bad press, Kimmel is a master at pulling levers to keep his show high on the pop culture buzz meter and differentiated from his competition.

“This stuff can be Viagra for a career,” says Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com and a veteran Hollywood image-maker. “Jimmy has a very good sense of self and what it is that makes his show different from the competition. The (viral) videos and the controversies — that’s just gold for a demographic that isn’t even watching the show in real time, but more likely watching clips on their smartphone.”

Kimmel, who turns 46 on Nov. 13, has definitely grown up on air since “Jimmy Kimmel Live” bowed on Jan. 26, 2003, after ABC’s telecast of the Super Bowl.

It’s hard to reconcile the svelte man sitting on his office sofa, red tie slightly askew and suit jacket open, with the doughy guy who once gleefully offered gratuitous slow-motion shots of women jumping on trampolines on the Comedy Central series “The Man Show.”

These days, the newly married Kimmel has learned to love the suit-and-tie uniform of latenight, watches his weight and spends a lot of time raising money for causes close to this heart.

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After a decade on the air, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” has become a potent franchise for ABC. So much so that Kimmel’s upgrade to the 11:35 p.m. slot in January made NBC nervous enough to accelerate the Leno-Fallon handoff at “The Tonight Show,” now set for February.

“I don’t really know how any of this happened,” says Kimmel of his longevity at ABC. “I just stumbled from radio to TV, then I became a talkshow host.”

He likens his trajectory to the period when his father went from being a short-order cook to an executive at IBM.

“I guess you just grow up and put on the suit,” Kimmel says.

Kimmel loves playing within established talkshow guidelines, which he compares to Italian restaurants. The aesthetics might be the same, but the challenge is to be unique within the guidelines of a general recipe.

Early on, Kimmel plucked family members and show staffers to spotlight on the program, making stars of his late Uncle Frank and former parking lot security guard Guillermo Rodriguez. And the show revels in long scripted comedy bits. The “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” video, produced with Kimmel’s former girlfriend Sarah Silverman, remains the gold standard of latenight can’t-miss YouTube vids. The impact of the bit was enhanced by more than a year of on-air carping from Kimmel about how Damon would not deign to come on his show.

The stealthy twerking video stunt is classic Kimmel. He was surprised by the huffing and puffing that ensued when it was outed as a hoax.

“I thought that was an interesting way of putting your show on the air before you put your show on the air,” Kimmel explains. “I think people got a kick out of it, but a few people were annoyed by it, which I really don’t understand. People complain they want something different, but then complain when they get it.”

New York Times TV reporter and “Late Shift” author Bill Carter credits Kimmel with helping to reshape both latenight talk and his frat-guy persona. Yet “he still has enough edge to bring a bit of danger to his show,” Carter says.

SEE ALSO: Charity Causes Feed Jimmy Kimmel’s Appetite for Activism

Kimmel is an acknowledged workaholic who spends hours in his man-cave office on the top floor of Hollywood’s El Capitan theater, where “Jimmy Kimmel Live” is shot. There’s a bar in the foyer, and back in his well-used office he has his own kitchenette, replete with two SousVide Supreme water ovens that heat the vacuum-sealed home-cooked meals made by the passionate foodie — along with a treadmill to work it all off.

His desk is strewn with notes and hot sauce bottles, as Kimmel and showrunner Jill Leiderman devote many a brainstorming session to generating ideas to keep the show fresh.

“A lot of things don’t go as planned, while others not that great turn out huge,” Kimmel admits. “I never thought Unnecessary Censorship would be on every single week for 11 years.”

Kimmel’s move in January to the 11:35 slot, after 10 years at midnight, is on track to make him even more valuable to ABC. According to ad tracking firm Kantar Media, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” generated $49.9 million in advertising revenue in the fi rst half of this year, compared with $111 million for all of 2012.

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Although the TV biz is focused on the changing of the guard when Fallon assumes “The Tonight Show” throne in February, Kimmel thinks the focus on the activity of three networks is misguided in today’s multiplatform world.

“I see the future as both bright and bleak. There will be less money to be made, but there will be hundreds of talkshows coming from the Internet, cable and other sources,” Kimmel says. “And I think that’s kind of great that kids coming up will have more opportunities to try more things. They will never make the $30 million a year like Leno, but they might make $100,000 and have a pretty fun and rewarding life.”

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)