With Jimmy Kimmel's move to 11:35 p.m. on ABC, the class clown takes over the schoolyard
When Jimmy Kimmel first got his late night gig on ABC, hosting an hourlong Jimmy Kimmel Live airing at 12:05 p.m., I remember hanging out with him and joking at a press reception about his brief time as a producer on Tampa's WRBQ-FM many years ago.
Back then, around 2004 or so, he was still a guy who looked surprised to be on network TV; a smart alecky TV presence with a resume including shows like MTV's Win Ben Stein's Money (sidekick/host to deadpan character actor Stein), Comedy Central's Crank Yankers (prank calls acted out by puppets) and The Man Show (purposefully misogynistic comedy show featuring bodacious female dancers jumping on trampolines).
Kimmel was an outsider drafted to top a comedy show which replaced Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect when comments about the 9/11 hijackers got Maher fired from the network. Few expected Kimmel to do much beyond create a cheeky home for young male eyeballs after Nightline with his show, which originally aired live (a producer once suggested I could go on as a guest during one trip to Los Angeles; I think he was joking).
Which is why ABC's announcement today that Kimmel's show will switch places with the network's venerated late-night news show Nightline on Jan. 8, felt like watching the class clown take over the schoolyard.
Because in a decade or so, Kimmel has matured into an incisive voice who has earned his spot as ABC's face of comedy in late night, ready to compete with NBC's Jay Leno and CBS' David Letterman at a time when he'll face more viewers.
Just this year, Kimmel has hosted the White House Correspondent's Dinner, continued a longstanding tradition of lampooning his own network during their upfront presentations to advertisers in New York and will host the Emmy awards next month.
"It’s more like the sad kid sitting outside of the house where the party is happening, and (people) finally go, 'All right. Come in and have a drink,'" Kimmel said when I asked whether he felt the world had come around to his style of humor during a Los Angeles press conference last month. "I don’t know that the world has come closer to my humor, but I think it’s just attrition more than anything. I think if you hang in there long enough, eventually you’re part of the group."
Kimmel, facing a roomful of TV critics, was being a bit modest. In truth, his rise at ABC has been a long slog, from convincing the network last year to clip five minutes from Nightline so his show could start at midnight, to surviving rumors in 2008 that Leno would jump ship to ABC when NBC moved him off the Tonight Show for Conan O'Brien. The TVNewser site says both timeslot upgrades for Kimmel came from demands he made in negotiating new contracts. (Journalists note the move also may spell the death of Nightline, which gets a 9 p.m show Fridays in March, but must now draw a crowd with news at 12:35 p.m.)
(After Leno held up a newspaper predicting his move to ABC on the Tonight Show, Kimmel popped up at an ABC press conference, posing as a reporter from the Sarasota Herald Banner, to jokingly ask the network's entertainment president "are you at all worried if you were to replace Jimmy Kimmel he might do something to you or your car?")
As I said back then, Kimmel was one of the unheralded winners in the Leno/O'Brien debacle, first by proving his show could do better than an O'Brien-hosted Tonight Show, and next by needling Leno on the short-lived 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show, as its tanking ratings were killing NBC's schedule.
He's accomplished it all by refining his comedy style and doing the unexpected -- from making hilariously profane comedy videos about then-girlfriend Sarah Silverman having sex with Matt Damon, to settling his feud with Oprah Winfrey and lampooning ABC hits such as Dancing with the Stars while inviting people from the shows on his own program.
Now he's convinced ABC to give him a timeslot Nightline has held since the end of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. The Los Angeles Times notes that Kimmel's show now pulls in more than twice the ad revenue of the 25-minute Nightline, earning $100 million last year compared to Nightline's $40 million.
(the original version of this post incorrectly listed the radio station Jimmy Kimmel worked for in Tampa.)