Dozens of crew members took to the streets today around the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House, wheeling in lumber, chairs, even a Roland synthesizer, all part of the effort of building the set for what will, Monday night, launch what has become a semi-regular jaunt to this borough by ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.
But these carpenters and technicians are also constructing something else: the newest platform to carry Kimmel’s words to an increasingly interested audience.
Kimmel isn’t known for being a political firebrand in the same way that Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers or Samantha Bee are, but that perception is shifting. He has over the last few weeks gained notice for weighing in on the nation’s healthcare debate, inspired by the birth of his son Billy, who is afflicted with a heart defect. That sparked some emotional monologues in which the host took on U.S. Senators over multiple nights. He has also tackled gun control and told voters for President Trump that “you know you picked the wrong guy.”
If the remarks are offending people, it hasn’t showed up in the recent ratings. During the week of October 2, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” saw its audience soar 11% over the year-earlier period and eke out a 1% gain among viewers between 18 and 49 – the demographic most coveted by advertisers. “JKL” has also made some gains in recent weeks on NBC’s “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” though Fallon’s program and Colbert’s “Late Show” typically lead the 11:30 time slot in which they are all broadcast.
“One thing we’ve seen since President Trump was elected is that Americans increasingly expect public figures and organizations to take stances on political and social issues — whether they’re late night talk show hosts or department stores,” says Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University. “Kimmel’s willingness to enter the political fray is what has made him so popular lately.”
The host says he’s mindful of not going overboard. “If anything, I’d like to do less of it,” Kimmel says of the political monologues, during an interview Sunday with Variety. But at this moment, he says, he simply can’t.
“I don’t know why I feel this way, but I feel like things need to be reframed and put in perspective every night,” he says during a relaxed conversation in an alcove at the Opera House. “I do feel like there’s a certain portion of the United States that does get their news from late-night television, and I think it’s important for me and for all these other hosts to make a spectacle of the ridiculous, because if you don’t treat these ridiculous things in that way, they could become normal, and that would be the worst thing that could happen.”
Kimmel says he’s a little puzzled by chatter that he’s suddenly shifted his gaze to national affairs. “It seems like that’s a narrative that people have seized on, and it’s not at all true,” he says. “I’ve been talking about Trump to death for the last 18 months, and the idea that I’m just now talking about politics just indicated that whoever writes that or says that hasn’t been watching the show.”
Yet he acknowledges people may not expect to hear such stuff from him on a regular basis. He is, after all, better known for cutting a figure as late-night’s rogue. This is the guy who regularly highlights “mean tweets” and has parried with actor Matt Damon in a fake feud for years. Besides, the default position for late-night hosts in earlier decades was to not talk about the political. The nation’s most popular late-night host, Johnny Carson, always kept such stuff close to the vest.
“I think you have to strike a balance, because it would become boring. I think that the reason for my monologues have some impact is because I don’t do [politics] every night. It’s coming from a person you would not expect it from,” says Kimmel. “But I also believe if Johnny Carson had a Donald Trump, then Johnny Carson would have some things to say about it.”
Key to the matter is Kimmel’s personal stake in certain debates. His son’s condition – which he has discussed a handful of times in a very emotional manner on the show – could give him more license to talk about the issue without alienating part of his audience (Kimmel says his son is doing well, and though he will have to face surgeries, people are “optimistic” about his condition).
And then there’s the matter of how the growing popularity of new ways to watch video entertainment is shaping late night. The many hosts “are all responding to the same incentives that come with an increasingly fragmented audience,” says David O’Connell, who teaches on the politics of American pop culture at Dickinson College. Carson had to be mindful of pleasing a gigantic crowd every evening. In 2017, says O’Connell, “a host that can develop a small, but stable, audience with clear demographics can be quite appealing.”
ABC’s parent company, Walt Disney, is in the midst of navigating how its many popular personalities speak about controversial issues in public. At ESPN, one of the company’s biggest assets, sports broadcaster Jemele Hill has been suspended after making remarks on Twitter that suggested sports fans boycott advertisers supporting the Dallas Cowboys if they disagreed with team owner Jerry Jones, who said he would bench players who took a knee to protest during future playings of “The Star-Spangled Banner” during NFL games.
Kimmel noted the situation is a tough one, but said Disney executives have not tried to tell him what to say on the show. “Not only have they not told me to reel it in – not that I would have listened if they had – not only have they told me not to reel it in, but they have been very supportive and encouraging.”
Still, he understands that “I’m not Rachel Maddow. I don’t want to turn it into MSNBC. And the truth of the matter is that the majority of my show is light comedy.”
He doesn’t take social-media comments too much to heart. Anonymity on many social venues makes people feel empowered to lash out, he says, whether the subject is gun control, healthcare or something decidedly less dire. “Do you remember how mad everyone was that there was going to be a female ‘Ghostbusters’ movie?” he asks. “I guess you have to just remember that and that puts this in perspective.”
Nor does he spend too much time analyzing the linear late-night TV ratings. “I think our focus on traditional Nielsen ratings is kind of silly. The fact of the matter is ten times as many people are watching our shows online. The idea that we are focused on the few remaining people who are finding it on their television sets, it doesn’t make sense at all,” says Kimmel. “Someone needs to get in the business of adding up all the views – on YouTube, on Facebook, and television and ABC.com, NBC.com, whatever – and presenting it in that way. That’s the only measuring stick. These tenths of a ratings point that everyone is so interested in aren’t so interesting when you really add it up.”
Returning to Brooklyn gives Kimmel the chance to burnish something that makes his program distinctive from the others. During his week-long stay, he will interview Howard Stern, Billy Joel, Amy Schumer and Tracy Morgan.
“We just love coming here. It’s a field trip for the staff and for us,” he says, noting that he breaks free of his regular eating regimen while visiting to sample New York barbecue, deli and pizza. He was born in Brooklyn, so doing the show from the borough has plenty of meaning for him, but it also serves to lend an edge of difference to his efforts despite the fact so many other late-night programs tape just several miles away in Manhattan. “A lot happens in New York City,” he says. “We just thought [Brooklyn] would be more special.” Depending on what he says this week, it may be even more so.