Jimmy Kimmel on His First Hollywood Job and How He Got Into TV

Emmy Host Jimmy Kimmel on His
illustration: michael Hoeweler; photo reference: katie jones/wwd/shutterstock

Jimmy Kimmel got his start while in high school, with a cheeky radio show on KUNV in Las Vegas. After that, he worked as a radio-show sidekick in various cities before landing his debut solo show in Palm Springs, Calif. He was first mentioned in Variety on May 8, 1997, when he was the sports reporter on the “Kevin & Bean” show on L.A.’s KROQ. His big (and surprising) TV break came when he was hired as co-host of “Win Ben Stein’s Money” — a gig that resulted in a Daytime Emmy.

Since then, he has received multiple Emmy nominations for his late-night ABC show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” now in its 13th season. He hosted the Emmys in 2012, the last time the awards show was on ABC, and will host the 68th annual awards on Sept. 18.

What was your first showbiz job?

I was in high school and a kid I knew at Miller’s Outpost said, “You should be on the radio.” My Uncle Vinny had been sending me tapes of Howard Stern, which at that time was a local radio show. And in a Playboy interview, David Letterman said he’d begun in radio. So that started me thinking.

I started doing a half-hour Sunday-night talk show on college radio station KUNV. That excited me more than anything I’d ever done. I went through the Yellow Pages to find people who seemed interesting. I’d goof on these people, but they were so excited to be on the radio that they didn’t even notice. One guy called himself “the hairstylist to the stars.” I think the only star he’d styled was John Davidson. So I interviewed him and local characters who did local commercials.

Did you have any mentors?

Yes, Garry Wall, who hired me — reluctantly — at a radio station in Tampa. He was vice president of the company and was not your typical executive. He would make crazy suggestions and encourage me to do crazy things. Later, I did my own show for the first time at a tiny station in Palm Springs. Every week, I sent him a week’s work of tapes, and he would give me notes. I appreciated it then and even more now. I’m still grateful.

What was the best advice he gave you?

He said, “Don’t jerk yourself off.” At one point, he said, “You’re not communicating with the audience; you might think it’s funny, but they don’t know what you’re talking about.” It’s a great note to remember throughout your career. I think 80% of broadcasters and writers still don’t get that; they don’t set something up and explain it.

How did you get into TV?

It never was my plan to get into television. Kevin & Bean were on-air announcers for Fox, doing comedy back and forth. I used to write for them; we’d go to Taco Bell and hash out a week of scripts. I wasn’t paid. Jeff Talman at Fox was involved in promotion; he called and said, “Want to do promos for us?” He sent a script for the promo of “Party of Five,” which was brand-new. He wanted my thoughts, I assumed, as a writer. I said, “I think this is pretty good and you should leave it as is.” He said, “OK, come in tomorrow.” Then I got a call asking for my clothing sizes. I thought maybe they were going to give me some free T-shirts. I went in, and they started putting makeup on me; I didn’t realize I was to be the on-air promo guy. They weren’t being secretive, they were just bad at communicating. I’m glad I didn’t know, or I would have been nervous. But I shot it, and the first thing I did for them got a “Cheers!” in TV Guide.

What other early TV work did you do?

Fred Silverman hired me as a writer for a game show in development called “Pop Quiz.” I was hosting the run-throughs while they were looking for a host. I was hoping they would ask me, but the producer had no interest in me. So after three weeks, Fred walked in and watched a run-through. I know it sounds like something from a movie, but he said, “Cancel the host auditions! He’s the host!”

Your first mention in Variety was 1997. That was just before “Win Ben Stein’s Money.”

Various TV people would hear me on radio. Producer Michael Davies — who did “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” — offered me a TV show, but I turned it down. I wasn’t negotiating: It just didn’t sound like a good idea. Then he offered me another show and I said “No thanks” again. When I heard about “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” I thought OK, that sounds like a good idea. I was the only one who auditioned for that show. “Ben Stein’s Money” was definitely the breakthrough. Many years later, Michael Davies was playing golf with (then-ABC Entertainment chairman) Lloyd Braun and called me and said “Make a tape for Lloyd Braun!” I sent a tape to Lloyd at ABC and a week later, I got “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”