Jimmy Kimmel, sauntering along Hollywood Boulevard in a red
T-shirt, walking right over the bronzed star on the sidewalk
engraved with the name Pee Wee Hunt. At this point, Kimmel is
only marginally better known than Pee Wee (a Dixieland trombonist
of the 1940's), but that's going to change. In January, on Super
Bowl Sunday, ABC will introduce Jimmy Kimmel as the next star
of late-night television, the network's hot young hope to take
on Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Craig Kilborn,
the stars of NBC and CBS. Kimmel's show will start at 12:05,
right between the other networks' 11:35 and 12:35 shows, so
he'll be competing with all of them.
has brought his posse with him today: his mother, his father,
his close friend and producer, Daniel Kellison, and Bill Simmons,
a sports columnist whom Kimmel is courting to join the new show's
writing staff. Lloyd Braun, the ABC Entertainment boss who found
and championed Kimmel for this job, is on hand, too. Kimmel
introduces Simmons to Braun, who lets the would-be comedy writer
know, ''More people have come up to me and asked me for jobs
on this show than any show we have.''
than 'According to Jim'?'' Kimmel deadpans, referring to the
rather pedestrian sitcom. ''I heard that was No. 1.''
has turned up at what will be the site of Kimmel's show: a huge
former Masonic temple, which ABC's parent, the Walt
Disney Company, acquired along with the grandly refurbished
Capitain Theater next door. Grauman's Chinese Theater is across
the street, along with the new Kodak Theater, home of the Oscars.
According to Braun, who is just a bit passionate about it, this
address is ''the most spectacular location imaginable for a
late-night show.'' As if to punctuate his point, a guy dressed
in an eight-foot-tall Frankenstein costume is walking by across
the street. ''How great is that?'' Braun says, pointing to the
guy. ''This is why we're going to do this show live.''
the breaking news. In a throwback to Steve Allen and the earliest
days of late-night TV, Kimmel's show is going to be broadcast
live every weeknight (at least in the Eastern and Central time
zones), which means taping begins at 9:05 p.m. in Los Angeles.
The other late-night shows tape in the evening, around 5:30,
allowing them to edit out flaws, not to mention unfunny bits.
was Braun's idea, but Kimmel was more than willing. ''I think
live will give it an intangible electricity,'' he says. ''On
Letterman and Leno, it always bothers me when they go outside
the studio and it's daytime. That's one thing I won't have to
deal with. And I think it's going to be a good thing for Los
Angeles, if it goes well. The 'Tonight' show is not a Los Angeles
show. It's a show for America.''
it as a neutral observation, but he has already tipped off his
views on that late-night institution, and its host, Jay Leno.
Kimmel told TV Guide, ''I want to do the comedy version of the
'Tonight' show.'' ''Jay called my publicist,'' Kimmel says.
''He said he didn't understand why I would say anything bad,
that he thought I was a friend of the show.'' He makes a pained
face. ''Jay, I was just goofing around.''
a goofball, all right, but he's a smart, ambitious, tough-minded
goofball. He seems untroubled by how many doubters Jay Leno
has swatted away in his eight years of ratings dominance. Nor
is he backing down on his assessment. ''Leno was so great when
he was a guest on Letterman,'' Kimmel says. ''Great, great.
I just think he's worked it too hard. I think he turned comedy
into factory work -- and it comes across.'' As for the phone
call, Kimmel says, ''It's just amazing how insecure he is.''
the temple, Kimmel extends his arms and says, ''We're going
to set up a full bar and serve cocktails.'' That's not a joke.
''The Man Show,'' his testosterone derby of a variety show on
Comedy Central, regularly served beer to audience members --
mostly beefy guys in beefy T-shirts. ''It had pluses and minuses,''
he says. ''The minus was they were drunk and unruly; the plus
was we didn't ever have to buy an audience.''
plants himself on the proscenium and asks me: ''Do I have to
wear a tie? I know there are, like, 12 rules for late night:
a desk, a band. Will people take me seriously if I don't wear
reason to wonder. There does seem to be a roster of unwritten
but unwavering rules about the look and format of a late-night
show: Wear a suit; open with at least four jokes; hire as writers
20 or 30 young guys who specialized in college in delivering
put-down lines; don't put on a music act until after the last
commercial. On the tie issue, Kellison is willing to break one
rule. ''No way should he wear a tie,'' Kellison says. ''You've
never seen anyone more uncomfortable in a jacket and tie. Jimmy's
never going to be a fashion plate. This is a guy who buys everything
at Costco.'' At an audition a few years ago, Kimmel wore his
father-in-law's sport jacket. It did not match his pants. One
network executive at the audition speculated that Kimmel was
overtly trying to suggest the look of a clown.
says it wasn't deliberate. He did not own a jacket, and besides,
he's mostly colorblind. He is also narcoleptic, but that's another
point in his career, nobody has cared about Jimmy Kimmel's wardrobe.
The relaxed-fit look has been perfectly tailored to the Kimmel
persona: a 34-year-old blue-collar everyguy, who plays his humor
crass and loose.
have one criticism of the other late-night shows,'' Kimmel says,
''it's that they're almost entirely scripted. Hopefully people
will notice our show is looser.'' As for his previous show's
lewd and crude humor, he says: ''I'll figure out where my comfort
area is. I don't really need to be dirty to be funny.'' But,
he adds, ''I think the show will be dirtier than the others,
wants to blow up as many of the late-night rules as he can,
and for the moment at least, ABC says it will let him. The plan
is for him to drop the stand-up monologue, opening the show
directly from his desk. And instead of a constant sidekick,
Kimmel is leaning toward using weekly co-hosts. Kellison is
particularly excited about what can happen in the deep parking
lot outside the studio. ''There's so much square footage to
do crazy stuff,'' says Kellison, who, as a segment producer,
once helped stage stunts for another late-night show, in New
York: divers jumping off roofs, Formula 1 drivers racing taxicabs
down Broadway. ''I really want to use this location the way
we used 53rd Street on Letterman,'' he says.
knows this plan will play well with his star. Kimmel's devotion
to David Letterman goes beyond professional admiration and all
the way to lifetime fan-club membership. ''Did he tell you about
the lifelong-dream element to getting this job?'' Kellison asks
me. ''Did he tell you about the 'Late Night' cake his mother
baked him for his birthday, or the 'Late Night With David Letterman'
jacket she had made for him?''
admits to all of it and adds that in high school, his license
plate read: ''L8 NITE.'' ''Really, the reason I got into show
business is I wanted to be David Letterman's friend,'' he says.
''There are kids in high school, and this guy's a baseball player,
this guy's on the wrestling team, this guy is really smart.
I was the guy who watched David Letterman.''
In a time
before VCR's reached ubiquity, Jimmy Kimmel, living in Las Vegas,
stayed up till 1:30 every night watching David Letterman, whose
show was still in the 12:30 slot and still on NBC. ''I watched
every night on a little black-and-white TV at my desk. I wanted
to be an artist at that point, so I'd draw and watch the show
of course, Letterman has left the very late shift for the more
desirable 11:35 slot, and he left NBC, the network that passed
him over for the ''Tonight'' show, in favor of the more solicitous
CBS. In March, ABC tried to lure him away, offering him the
same time slot, even more money and the promise of bigger audiences
delivered from their local stations. That would have meant displacing
Ted Koppel and ''Nightline,'' a prospect that horrified many
news viewers and made ABC's news division apoplectic. The ensuing
media furor, and Letterman's ultimate decision to turn down
the offer, left ABC divided and deflated.
it must qualify as coincidence on a classic scale that, seeking
to rebound from a lost love affair with Letterman, ABC would
turn to Kimmel, who has been suffering from just the same starry-eyed
obsession for the last 20 years.
After the letterman letdown, Lloyd Braun allowed himself a week
to decompress. Then, toward the end of March, he got back to
work. He knew ABC had to refocus its plans on the midnight hour,
following the now sacrosanct ''Nightline.'' All the publicity
had put the show that occupied that slot, ''Politically Incorrect
With Bill Maher,'' in an untenable position.
to assemble a list of potential late-night hosts -- mostly,
by his definition, ''the usual suspects.'' At the top of that
list was Jon Stewart, the critically celebrated host of ''The
Daily Show'' on Comedy Central.
talked to Stewart before; now hotter than ever, he expressed
a strong interest in the late-night opening. Braun had always
been enormously impressed with Stewart. But Braun had the nagging
feeling that there might be someone else out there.
thing, he worried that any ''usual suspect'' would forever be
branded as a second choice, the person ABC turned to when Letterman
said no. For another, he knew that the prime audience for a
new late-night entry would be young men, who tend to stay up
late, often drifting all around the cable dial. He also knew
that television does best when it makes new stars. Could ABC
could find an unknown who appealed to that target audience?
Someone young enough to be a star on the network for 20 years
March, Braun met his friend Michael Davies for a round of golf
at the Riviera Country Club. Davies, a former ABC executive,
had hit it big as the executive producer of ''Who Wants to Be
a Millionaire.'' Walking to the green from the ninth fairway,
Braun asked Davies's advice. ''Knowing it could be anyone,''
he said, ''someone I've never heard of, someone without a name,
and knowing I have the luxury of offering the midnight show,
if you could pick anyone, anyone, who would it be?''
the guy,'' Davies said. ''Jimmy Kimmel.''
Braun responded. The name meant nothing to him. It wasn't on
his master list. Davies began describing him. ''You mean the
guy who does the football stuff for Fox?'' Braun asked.
earlier, Davies hired Kimmel to be the co-host of the Comedy
Central game show ''Win Ben Stein's Money.'' Davies told Braun:
''The thing that separates Jimmy Kimmel from everybody else
is that he is, in his heart and soul, a broadcaster. He has
trained his entire life to do this, and he is as smart and funny
as anyone wanting to do this.''
time Braun reached his office, Davies had hand-delivered a cassette
featuring a particularly apt clip: a Kimmel appearance on ''Late
Show With David Letterman.'' Braun slammed it into his machine.
There on the screen was this outgoing, hefty-department sort
of a guy sitting as Dave's lead guest. Bantering with Dave about
how much the Fox football guys hated him, Kimmel struck Braun
as not at all the wiseacre sports guy, and even less the ''Man
Show'' sexist. Instead he was self-deprecating and respectful,
even charming. As Braun pushed the eject button on his VCR,
he said out loud, ''I think this is going to be the guy.''
to learn as much as possible about Kimmel, but his research
was hampered by an unfortunate coincidence. Kimmel's agent,
James Dixon, was also Jon Stewart's agent. And as far as Dixon
knew, he was moving toward closing a deal for Stewart.
to get a stack of videotapes of Kimmel's other shows. Some of
the early material seemed completely raw. The most egregious
stuff Kimmel was doing on ''The Man Show,'' like the signature
bit, girls bouncing on trampolines, might seem to have disqualified
him from ever appearing on a network show. But Braun noticed
something else: Kimmel seemed far smarter than that material,
and he was steadily getting better.
1 a.m. show, to follow Stewart, as the implied bait, Braun invited
Kimmel to lunch, and came away even more impressed -- convinced,
from both his quick wit and his thorough analysis of what worked
in late night, that the comic was ''wicked smart.''
pressing, Braun took a pile of tapes home. He watched 15 minutes
of Jon Stewart followed by 15 minutes of Jimmy Kimmel. Then
back to Stewart. On and on, for much of the night. He was leaning
toward Kimmel, who seemed as if he might be able to take late-night
in a new direction: one based in the in-your-face extreme comedy
that young male viewers seemed to flock to, with enough wit
to attract more sophisticated and female viewers.
more important, Kimmel's comic voice had a classic blue-collar
timbre. Nothing is deeper in the DNA of ABC television than
blue-collar comedy. From ''Laverne and Shirley'' through ''Roseanne,''
''Home Improvement'' and the current ''My Wife and Kids,'' most
of the comedy hits on ABC have been about middle-American, working-class
folks. Braun knew the high price the network had paid for moving
away from that heritage toward yuppiecentric NBC-style shows
in the late 1990's.
Stewart's topical commentary, but he was not sure how broadly
it would play, and how it would fit the ABC comedy brand. Still,
he asked himself, ''Am I really going to say no to Jon Stewart?''
Braun brought in Kimmel and gave him the news.
totally blindsided,'' Kimmel says. Then Braun called Jon Stewart,
who expressed his displeasure, mainly at the way ABC handled
the situation, keeping him hanging as they explored other options.
But Stewart had only good things to say about Kimmel. ''I really
like Jimmy,'' he says today. ''I respect his talent. I'm very
happy for him on a human level, even though I was disappointed
six weeks later, Jimmy Kimmel had his first assignment as ABC's
new man in late night. The setting was the New Amsterdam Theater
in New York, where the network was introducing its fall lineup
of shows in the annual ritual known as the ''upfronts.'' The
assignment was to walk out onstage, stand alone in front of
hundreds of advertising executives (who knew him, if at all,
as a misogynist ''Man Show'' neanderthal), and, in comedy terms,
has never been a professional stand-up comic; never stood behind
a mike in a hundred smoky clubs and honed the skill of pacing
a routine, drawing out a laugh. And this was a considerably
larger room. In front of a huge ABC logo, Kimmel ambled out,
wearing a gray suit that matched and even fitted O.K. He got
right into it: ''Please don't breathe a word of this to Ted
Koppel. We all saw what happened the last time a talk-show thing
came up, and nobody wants to go through that again.''
the jokes out with authority, even though he was rocking side
to side on his feet like a man having a conversation on a cruise
ship. His self-deprecating theme was playing well. Referring
to ABC's announcement regarding a dusty relic of the 50's, Kimmel
said: ''This is your plan to resurrect the network? 'Dragnet'
and me?'' As far as that previous talent search, he noted: ''It
looked like David Letterman was coming to ABC and instead you
got me. . . . This is not a step in the right direction.''
left the building talking about him. ''Jimmy's performance was
nothing short of spectacular,'' Braun says. ''He was our story
coming out of the upfront.''
Kimmel's house is perched on one of the winding hills above
Los Angeles, with panoramic views of brown, desert brush in
every direction. It is very much a guy house: cluttered garage,
disarray here and there, a projection-screen TV so big it might
have previously served a drive-in theater. In a first floor
bathroom, an R. Crumb poster with some crude suggestions about
proper use of toilet tissue hangs in a position of honor.
kind of symbolic,'' Kimmel says. ''I was married for 14 and
a half years, and my wife would not allow me to hang that in
the house.'' The marriage broke up last winter. Kimmel has two
children, an anomaly among the current late-night comics, none
of whom have any. As a result, perhaps, his off-screen persona
seems more grown-up than his comedy. But that's not the reason
for his perpetually sleepy look, which tends to mask his fire-at-will
wit. He sometimes stops midconversation to take a pill to counter
the effects of narcolepsy. So far it has had little impact on
his career, though he says he has on occasion nodded off in
his car, as well as in afternoon writers' meetings -- ''not
the best way to make people feel good about their material,''
he grants. And he acknowledges that ''Jimmy Kimmel, the narcoleptic
late-night host'' has a certain weird, circus-sideshow ring
spent his earliest years in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn.
When he was 8, a teacher told him he should be a comedian. In
high school, he disrupted classes so much that one teacher limited
him to one joke a week. ''I knew I had to get off a good line
with that one,'' he says. His family expected him to pursue
his talent in art. But Kimmel had read in a Playboy interview
that Letterman had worked in radio. ''So I thought I should
start in radio,'' he says. He took a series of jobs in places
like Seattle, Tampa, Palm Springs -- where his sidekick was
Carson Daly, now the host of ''TRL'' on MTV -- and eventually
Los Angeles, where he began auditioning, not entirely successfully,
for television. He still rankles at the memory of every slight.
Show'' arose out of one producer's comment that he wouldn't
appeal to women. So why can't a show appeal to just guys? he
wondered. He and his friend Adam Carolla pitched the idea to
several ABC executives, including Michael Davies, who loved
it. The overarching concept was the ''anti-Oprah show,'' with
a heavy emphasis on midgets, explosions and beer. They shot
the pilot and sent it to the network. ''It was the most poorly
received pilot ever,'' Davies recalls. ''The Standards and Practices
guys said they could never put it on.'' But within days of the
rejection, seven cable networks were bidding on the show, and
Comedy Central won.
the unapologetic buffoonery of his ''Man Show'' character, Kimmel
says: ''That is definitely one element of my persona. If I'm
out drinking with my buddies, that's when it comes out. But
I'll be totally different at other times, depending on the situation.
'The Man Show' -- I knew what that was. I gave them what they
he's been trying to do that for Fox Sports. Kimmel tapes a comedy
sketch each week in the apartment of his producer, making picks
on games and poking fun at the occasional pomposity of the N.F.L.
Fox aren't laughing. Kimmel's weekly bit is routinely derided
by his castmates on the Fox pregame show. ''Keep in mind, I
have a sterling ratings track record for Fox,'' he notes, dropping
the usual self-effacing humor for a more telling dose of self-promotion.
''You can isolate a ratings bump to the day I started and the
quarter-hour that I'm on.''
sports success, he did get a meeting with Fox's senior entertainment
management, but it did not go well. They suggested that he could
start a late-night talk show at a Fox station in Minnesota and
maybe expand to other local stations from there. Kimmel called
the idea ''ridiculous and insulting.'' ''We're going, 'Are you
insane?' '' he says, his extremely healthy ego flaring up in
response to yet another perceived snub. ''Do you know I've been
offered sitcoms and all kinds of stuff?''
left him with a very dim view of that network's late-night prospects.
Earlier this year, Conan O'Brien declined Fox's offer to sign
on for an 11 p.m. show, even though the proposed salary of more
than $20 million dwarfs the $8 million O'Brien took to stay
at NBC -- to say nothing of the $1.75 million Kimmel will be
getting at ABC. ''If Conan turned down even $25 million, he
was smart,'' Kimmel says. ''Fox isn't going to be successful
in the talk arena as long as the present administration is in
to break into late night now, it would take ''an ironclad contract
with a big, can't-miss star,'' says one executive who has been
involved in the effort. ''Jimmy Kimmel may be a lot of things,
but that, he ain't.''
Opening up his laptop, Kimmel reads out the letter he sent as
an invitation to be the first ever guest on his late-night show:
''Dear Dave: Please be my first guest. Thanks in advance, Jimmy.
P. S.: Let's not be childish about this.'' Kimmel sent the note
on some Lionel Richie stationery he had acquired. Letterman
sent back a polite no.
feelings about Letterman, you might think Kimmel is headed for
some deep soul-searching conflict. He is, after all, being set
up to draw away some of Letterman's viewers. But he has a rationalization
he can live with. ''I really would feel badly if I cut into
David Letterman,'' he says. ''But I figure this: The people
who like Leno are largely the stupid group. The people who root
for Letterman are the smarter group. The people who like me?
Also stupid. I figure I cut into the dummies.''
annals of what Leno calls the late-night wars, such provocative
rhetoric has often backfired -- most memorably in the case of
Arsenio Hall, who promised rather colorfully to dethrone Jay
Leno but who lost his show and now turns up frequently as Leno's
guest. Still, Kimmel seems unbeholden to the usual niceties.
In fact, he seems entirely unfamiliar with the established show-business
poses. Even his put-downs do not come across as nasty or venomous;
they're just a straightforward dose of what he thinks.
As in his
take on the competition. He calls the ''Tonight'' show ''the
McDonald's of comedy.''
Of Craig Kilborn, he says: ''I almost feel sorry for him. The
guests are horrible. He has to pretend to be interested in them.''
Conan O'Brien, he says, he admires for his exceptional comedic
mind. ''When Conan first came on, I thought, This guy is going
to be great. A lot of silly and smart stuff. I thought, When
this guy smoothes out, he's going to be real good.'' But, he
adds, ''he never smoothed out.''
knows he will get his own share of slams soon enough, and his
candid remarks won't endear him to devoted fans of the other
shows. Even now, Kimmel doubters are not hard to find. One longtime
senior network executive says of ABC's gamble: ''To me this
guy is the David Spade of late night. This is someone who is
the fourth or fifth guy on a sitcom, who walks into a room,
hits one line out of the park and leaves. I just don't feel
he's a guy you want to spend an hour with every night.''
grants that that assessment might prove to be right, though
he would advise his doubters to check with the guys who like
midgets, explosions and beer. He notes that the average audience
age for the two big guys in late night has been creeping higher
and higher. Kimmel will be the youngest late-night host on network
television and, he intends, the freshest.
why I think I'm going to do well,'' he says. ''Ultimately the
show is going to be my vision. And I'm lucky enough to have
a boss, Lloyd, who wants that, which I think is pretty rare.''
Still, there is reason to resist being overconfident: David
Letterman, the man he idolized is, after all, not the No. 1
man in late night. ''It's insane that America votes for Jay,''
Kimmel says. ''It's my biggest fear. Everybody says it's going
to be great; everybody is positive. But in a world where Jay
Leno beats David Letterman every night, you can't be sure of
anything. You really can't.''
Carter, the author of ''The Late Shift,'' covers television
for The Times.