Man of the Year: Jimmy Kimmel on the Emmys, Oprah and Going Head-to-Head With Leno and Letterman
Jimmy Kimmel | Photo Credits: Robert Trachtenberg for TV Guide Magazine
Jimmy Kimmel points to an enormous new treadmill in his office. The Jimmy Kimmel Live! host recently installed the contraption, which sports a large tabletop to conduct business while exercising, and has taken to walking on it while working. "I read somewhere that sitting all day can cut 15 or 20 years off your life," he explains. "It's worse than smoking. We weren't meant to sit this much."
Photo Gallery: Jimmy Kimmel channels the Emmy nominees for Best Drama Series
It's hard to believe that Kimmel has much time to sit down anyway — or eat or sleep, for that matter. The ABC late-night host is in the middle of the biggest year of his show, and, quite possibly, his life. So far in 2012, Kimmel has made nice (and become pals!) with Oprah Winfrey; hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner to great reviews (including high marks from the president); was tapped to host the 64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 23; subsequently scored the show's first-ever Emmy nomination for variety series; and even got engaged to girlfriend Molly McNearney, the show's co-head writer, while on vacation in South Africa.
"And," he quips, "I'm pregnant."
Next month, Kimmel takes his show on the road to his native Brooklyn, where his guests will include Kimmel's teenage radio idol, Howard Stern. Then, just in time for JKL's 10th anniversary in January, Kimmel is getting a huge promotion — a move to 11:35 p.m. directly against late night staples The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Show with David Letterman. "The past 12 months have been a hurricane," says The Voice's Carson Daly, a close friend who calls Kimmel "the big brother I never had." "It's been really exciting to watch. It feels like fate. It's all been so natural for him with nothing but hard work."
ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live Gets a Time Slot Upgrade
Kimmel's come a long way from his early days at the network as ABC's unlikely late night savior. In 2002, ABC made a big play to steal David Letterman from CBS — but once that failed, the network set its eyes on Kimmel, then best known for his stints on The Man Show and Win Ben Stein's Money. After just one meeting with Kimmel, they offered him the job. "I was thoroughly confused," he recalls. "I didn't know what was happening, I didn't expect it. The next day we were trying to pick a name for the show and hiring people. It was crazy. I still look back on it and can't believe how little thought and research went into that decision. They invested millions of dollars on a hunch."
That hunch worked out well for Kimmel, who calls the 2012 frenzy "rewarding and terrifying," but "fun, too." With his Emmy stint fast approaching, Kimmel took time out to chat with TV Guide Magazine about how he has become a contender for the late night crown.
TV Guide Magazine: It took ABC 10 years to move you to 11:35. Is part of you wondering what took so long?
Kimmel: I have to say, that definitely has crossed my mind over the years. I felt like, I'm ready to do this. But looking back, I probably wasn't ready. And who knows, maybe I'll look back and realize that I'm not ready now. It's really a win either way for me. I don't expect that we're going to win out of the gate. But we're going to have a bigger audience. You put yourself in a position to be the next dynasty in late night.
TV Guide Magazine: As the ratings climb, has that given you more leverage?
Kimmel: [ABC] was always pretty good in letting us do what we wanted to do. Once in a while, we'll have a fight over whether something is too obscene. One of the dumbest things ever happened about six months ago. There was a stick figure drawing of a naked woman, and there was a dot where each nipple would be, and they made us blur the dots out, which I figured was a little bit much for midnight.
TV Guide Magazine: Four years ago, you were passed over to host the Emmys in favor of five reality hosts — who proceeded to bomb big time. How did that feel?
Kimmel: I didn't want to see those guys fail. The inherent problem was five people hosting an awards show is like five people hosting a talk show. Unless you're The View it isn't going to work. One person needs to be in charge.
TV Guide Magazine: What are your goals for the Emmys?
Kimmel: I know it's a miserable show to sit through if you're in the audience and sometimes it can be a miserable show to sit through if you're at home. My goal is to make the show funny from beginning to end. I'm going to do as much as I can to make that happen.
TV Guide Magazine: Is there only so much you can do though?
Kimmel: There is, because ultimately the awards have to be given out. But to me the Emmys are fun because people really do watch TV, as opposed to if you watch the Academy Awards and maybe you've seen a couple of the movies. There are so many shows that I love that are nominated that it's kind of exciting.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you feel better prepared to host now that you've channeled characters from the six drama nominees at our photo shoot?
Kimmel: Well, a couple of things. Now I know why they need a butler to help them with their clothes in Downton Abbey. As for Khaleesi — I look more like a member of Poison than Khaleesi. I do feel like Walter White. I kinda look like him. It's amazing what a little glue and hair from some unidentified animal will do.
TV Guide Magazine: And coincidentally, it's Jimmy Kimmel Live!'s first major nomination. What did it mean to the show?
Kimmel: It meant a lot to us because it can be disheartening after a while. You work so hard and people seem to like it, but year after year after year you don't make it into the top six. So everybody was really excited. As a matter of fact, people were more excited than I imagined that they would be. We don't expect to win, and I won't prepare any comments because I know we won't win. I know it's a cliché, but it's nice to have been nominated.
TV Guide Magazine: Is this the first step to eventually host the Academy Awards?
Kimmel: I don't look at it like that at all. Yeah, I'd love to host the Oscars, if they wanted me to. But I also like doing our post-Oscar special. It's become a bit of an event on its own, and I don't think I could do both of those things. I was always more interested in television than movies [so] for me, the Emmys is a big deal.
TV Guide Magazine: This year's Oscar special featured Oprah. How did you ever break the ice with her?
Kimmel: That was a big deal for me. We built The Man Show as the anti-Oprah show. I never thought she would do [JKL], and I certainly didn't think she would do it with so much enthusiasm. She's really just a person who lights the whole building up. It kind of amazes me. I was a disgruntled husband and I would come home from work and my wife had seen Oprah and she would yell at me for something I didn't even do, and I would go, 'Who is this Oprah and why is she ruining my marriage, why is she doing this to me?' I got it when she did that shoot with us. She made us feel really good about ourselves and that's not something I'm good at.
TV Guide Magazine: What would circa-1999 Man Show Jimmy Kimmel think of 2012 "Friend of Oprah" Jimmy Kimmel?
Kimmel: I think he'd probably be very confused. That said, it was always my dream to go on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I wanted to walk into that enemy territory and win them over.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you still keep in contact with her?
Kimmel: I do. I love her! I really do. I know I sound like Julia Roberts and John Travolta speaking on her birthday show. But I get it now. I used to think they were being phony, but I feel the same way now. It's hard to describe, and I know most people who were fans of The Man Show will probably be horrified to hear this, but honestly, Oprah is an inspiring person.
TV Guide Magazine: Is it hard to make fun of celebrities once you get to know them?
Kimmel: No, it's easier actually. It's like the way you make fun of your friends as opposed to making fun of a stranger. Which will get you punched in the face.
TV Guide Magazine: The White House Correspondents Dinner seems like the most thankless job. Was it?
Kimmel: I feel like I accomplished what I set to accomplish, which is I think both sides enjoyed it. The right-wingers really enjoyed the jokes I made at the president's expense, and the left-wingers enjoyed the jokes I made at Rush Limbaugh's — or whoever's — expense.
TV Guide Magazine: How important is it to stay politically neutral?
Kimmel: I think for some performers it's important to stay in the middle, but for more of them nowadays it's important to be extremely on one side or the other. And I think that's unfortunately what people respond to. Reason doesn't seem to be an attribute that is admired in most cable and radio hosts. I try to leave my political opinions out of the show because I don't feel like I know enough to speak as an authority on those subjects and it just upsets people. There are certain issues that I think are important enough to pick a side, like same-sex marriage for instance. I think it's ridiculous that people aren't legally allowed to get married and I don't think it has anything to do with religion.
TV Guide Magazine: What do the standards people think of your "This Week In Unnecessary Censorship" segment?
Kimmel: They had a real problem with it at the beginning and almost derailed it. It took a lot of fighting on my part. But I will go to my grave saying these words over and over again, "They are not cursing." Ultimately repeating that over and over again finally sunk in.
TV Guide Magazine: How tough was it for you to do a tribute show to your Uncle Frank, who worked on JKL as a security guard and frequently appeared on camera?
Kimmel: It was hard, that's for sure. I'm getting choked up right now. [Starts to tear up.] It's hard enough to lose a relative. But to have it be somebody that everyone knows and loved so much, which is great, it magnifies the pain in a way. Almost every day somebody says, "Sorry about Uncle Frank." It's nice, but it's upsetting. More than anything, he would have loved that show. That's what was most important to me, which was giving him a fitting "hoology," as he called it. I think he thought it started with an H. I felt a big responsibility to do it properly.
TV Guide Magazine: What does it mean to bring the show to Brooklyn?
Kimmel: It's great to be able to travel with the staff. And the funniest people in America live in Brooklyn. Almost every person I talk to on the street will be funnier than I am. It's just nice to have a homecoming. My family's really excited about it.
TV Guide Magazine: And you also got engaged this year.
Kimmel: That's right, and to a woman this time. Last time it was Adam Carolla. Yes, to Molly, and we get along very well, she's very funny, and she seems to like me.
TV Guide Magazine: What's that like, working on the show together?
Kimmel: We've worked together for a long time. It's great because we are totally immersed in this world, and you have someone to talk to about this stuff who really knows what you're talking about. We're on vacation at the same time, we ride to work, and it's nice. It just seems very normal. Plus, my brother works here, two of my cousins work here and my aunt. I have a lot of close members of my family here, so it's not really odd.
TV Guide Magazine: Will you get married on the show?
Kimmel: No. But it is funny, now that I think about it — when Molly and I get married, we will tie the Bachelor and Bachelorette franchises for the most ABC weddings.
TV Guide Magazine: Given this year, it's hard to remember the days when JKL struggled to stay on the air.
Kimmel: I was hoping that it would be canceled. Because if the network decided to cancel the show, I didn't have to do this anymore and my staff members wouldn't blame me for quitting on them. Believe me, if this show had been canceled, I would have been more relieved than disappointed during those first two years. But I think our big moment was the video that I did with Ben Affleck. And before that, the Matt Damon video. There were so many big celebrities that offered to be a part of a comedy bit that was on our show that I think it sent a strong message.
TV Guide Magazine: Going back 10 years, how did you survive those first few weeks?
Kimmel: Week one was tough. I remember on Friday night being so exhausted, and just physically and emotionally spent, and wondering how I was going to do this 46 weeks a year. There are a lot of jobs in TV, and some of them are unbelievably easy. I'm sure Drew Carey breezes into The Price is Right, he's funny, he heads right home and goes to dinner. But hosting a late night talk show is not one of them. It's all encompassing. And the people who fail are in general the people who are not prepared for that.
TV Guide Magazine: It seems like you almost have to be wired differently to be a late night host.
Kimmel: Every day I have to go on stage and if I'm not funny, it's a very unpleasant feeling. The bit we shot for the Oscars, "Movie: The Movie," was months of preparation, booking, writing and shooting and editing. I don't want to bomb when I get out there, so I spend pretty much every minute of the day trying to avoid that. I think our monologue is — well, at least it used to be -- very different from all the other monologues, showing video clips and highly produced comedy bits. I think I got more comfortable with that every year. I never did standup comedy so I didn't have that seasoning as a performer. I was scared to stand up in front of people. I'd hide behind the desk with my security blanket. I've been able to grow in a lot of ways and hopefully that will continue, but at some point it stops. That's the point where you have to reevaluate whether you should be doing the job or not.
TV Guide Magazine: It seems like the other shows eventually began peppering their monologues with the same kind of clips.
Kimmel: On the one hand it's a little bit annoying, but it's flattering I guess that people think enough of what you're doing to adopt it, some people more blatantly than others.
TV Guide Magazine: You also decided not to be live anymore.
Kimmel: Well, the network decided that. I do miss being live. It was kind of scary, and I like being a little bit scared before the show starts, and now I'm not. The truth is, an actor came out and started cursing on the show and the network wasn't able to bleep it in time, and some of the affiliates got upset. But it is nicer. Doing a show at 9 at night made having any kind of a personal life almost impossible for every member of our staff.
TV Guide Magazine: You've survived several ABC regime changes too.
Kimmel: For that I'm very grateful. It wasn't like they had a huge hit on their hands. They had a show that was shaky at best and causing problems here or there. It would have been easy to throw us off the air and put some syndicated programming on.
TV Guide Magazine: During the writers strike, you and Jay Leno became chummy.
Kimmel: Yeah, we did. I don't think we were treated fairly during that writers strike. I think that exceptions were made for certain shows that weren't made for others, which left us in a very difficult spot. He called me, and we felt we had to present a unified front. Leno was very smart about that stuff. His advice was very good and he was absolutely right, and I was grateful to him for the advice that he gave me.
TV Guide Magazine: But then things changed.
Kimmel: I foolishly thought that we had a real relationship, and to my surprise it turned out we did not. And it's one of those "fool me once, shame on you" type of things that I learned a lesson from.
TV Guide Magazine: What exactly happened?
Kimmel: When there was a chance Jay would come to ABC, he called me all the time, because the truth is ABC would not have been able to hire him unless I agreed willingly to move to 12:30. So he needed me to give him the green light on that. And I realized afterward that he was just negotiating. He never really intended to come over here. He was using me, is what it felt like. Because I never heard from him again once he decided to stay at NBC.
TV Guide Magazine: Would you have been willing to move to 12:30, behind Leno?
Kimmel: I think I would have, at that time. If that was the case now, no way.
TV Guide Magazine: What do you think happens in late night once Leno and Letterman retire?
Kimmel: It mostly depends on who replaces them. It's so different already. People ask if I ever wanted to do a late night talk show and as a kid I never imagined that anyone other than David Letterman and Johnny Carson would do a late night talk show. At that time, Johnny Carson had 20 million people watching his show. That will never happen again. You could add all the shows up and you won't get that number anymore. And I think it's going to continue to fragment.
TV Guide Magazine: Young guys are watching late-night animation on Adult Swim.
Kimmel: At ABC we have a female audience, so that's what we focus on. We don't focus on the young male audience. There's no point in it, they have the Internet. I love David Letterman, but when I was 19 years old if I had to choose between him and pornography, I'm afraid he would have lost that battle.
TV Guide Magazine: Would you ever like to produce a companion show in ABC late night?
Kimmel: The affiliates have that timeslot so it would take a lot to make that happen. But it would be a lot of fun for me, I'd love to do that. I feel like I've learned so much that I would be good at it, and I like producing shows. The daily grind is not as much fun as that excitement of putting things together and hiring people. There are a lot of funny people and that's something I would definitely be interested in.
TV Guide Magazine: As a kid who grew up idolizing Letterman, what's it like to realize you'll now be competing head-to-head?
Kimmel: I know this sounds like a cliché, but I'm honored to even be on against him. He's the greatest ever and my sense of humor wouldn't be what it is were it not for him and that show.
TV Guide Magazine: Did you ever dream about a scenario where you were Letterman's successor on his show?
Kimmel: It wasn't a real possibility, but it's certainly something I fantasized about. It would have been thrilling for me personally. Only with Dave's full blessing. Fortunately I have a good situation at ABC and I've never been in any kind of position to have a real discussion about anything like that.
TV Guide Magazine: Who are some of your favorite guests?
Kimmel: Don Rickles, Mike Tyson, Charles Barkley, Shaq. Dustin Hoffman was a fantastic guest. I didn't know what to expect from him but he was unbelievable. Then there are people like Kathy Griffin and Carolla, who always deliver and who are always there for us. As far as people I don't like or haven't had good experiences, there are some reality stars who sometimes I wonder, "Why are these people on? What am I doing here?" The worst you can get is boring. You want someone who's either really good or a disaster.
TV Guide Magazine: How about some of your favorite moments over the past decade? Kimmel: I always loved when we would send my Aunt Chippy and Uncle Frank out to do things together because I've been watching and been amused by them my whole life. Sucking helium with Mike Tyson was a great moment for me. Oprah being on the show, of course. And we have this character on the show called Jake Byrd who infiltrated a group of Michael Jackson fans once and I don't think I ever laughed harder.
TV Guide Magazine: Who do you hope to still eventually have on the show?
Kimmel: David Letterman probably first and foremost. Bill Murray, Jerry Seinfeld, these are guys that are my comedy idols. Woody Allen — I know that will never happen but would love have him on the show. Madonna actually helped me get through puberty and I'd love to have her on.
TV Guide Magazine: Folks say you haven't changed a bit. Is that true?
Kimmel: I'm pretty much the same. I think a lot of times when people say you've changed, it's because their image of you has changed.
TV Guide Magazine: So 10 years down, 10 more to go?
Kimmel: I would like to do another 10. And that seems like enough. Another 10 seems like plenty. More likely, we'll hit six and they'll say hit the road.
TV Guide Magazine: You just extended your deal two more years, to 2015.
Kimmel: We're one-fifth of the way there.
TV Guide Magazine: But ten years from now you'll only be 54.
Kimmel: Yeah, but probably looking like I'm 74. Talk -show hosts seem to age like presidents.
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