Surrounded by reporters, he tries to play the surprised savant, the smart-aleck wisecracker who somehow lucked into one of the best jobs in television.
But when I caught up with Jimmy Kimmel in Los Angeles this summer — weeks before ABC would cement his superstar status by kicking Nightline to 12:35 a.m. for his show — you could see it in his eyes as journalists lobbed questions.
Occasionally, a hint of satisfaction flashed around the edges. A few times, he'd allow a bemused smirk for those who still asked if he felt ready to compete against Jay Leno and David Letterman.
Yeah, I'm ready, he seemed to say without saying. What took you so long to notice?
"I'm sure there are people in this room who doubted I'd be on (the air) this long, including me," said Kimmel, reflecting on his late-night show's 10th anniversary, which officially falls on Jan. 26.
"I think the Number One reason talk shows fail is the host doesn't know how much work they are," he added. "A lot of people go in with a lot of arrogance, thinking they're going to be able to show up at 3 o'clock and chit-chat with some people . . . and its not that easy. You have to really pour yourself into it to do it right."
Kimmel, who credits early work in radio (including a short stint at WRBQ-FM in Tampa) with his crushing work ethic, has poured himself into the best year of his career.
It started with hosting the White House Correspondents' Dinner in April, where he high-fived the president and suggested he cover his ears — "if that's physically possible."
Then, in August, ABC announced his Jimmy Kimmel Live would move to 11:35 p.m. on Jan. 8, placing him in direct competition with Leno on NBC and Letterman on CBS. (Journalism fans also noticed that meant the newsmagazine Nightline would air at 12:35 a.m., endangering its survival.)
And tonight Kimmel hosts the TV industry's sprawling valentine to itself, the Emmy awards, a show everyone from Glee co-star Jane Lynch to NBC host Jimmy Fallon has hosted before him.
Which leads to a simple question for Kimmel: Does it feel like you've finally arrived?
"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. "I think it's just attrition more than anything. If you hang in there long enough, eventually you're part of the group."
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's 11:35 p.m. time slot when NBC moved him off the Tonight Show for Conan O'Brien.
Kimmel was one of the unheralded winners in the Leno/O'Brien debacle. First, he proved his program could do better than an O'Brien-hosted Tonight Show. Later he iced the cake by needling Leno during an appearance on his short-lived 10 p.m. series, as its tanking ratings were killing NBC's schedule.
Kimmel has 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.
Viral videos helped, spreading his show's comedy to audiences who might not stay up past midnight but loved seeing Ben Affleck and Damon cut up in comedy clips.
Now he has pushed ABC to give him a time slot Nightline has held since the end of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, as his hourlong show pulls in more than 2.5 times the ad revenue of the 25-minute Nightline, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Kimmel still jokes about getting nauseous before the correspondents' dinner and his surprise at how much his staff celebrated their first Emmy nomination as best variety series. ("We started to feel like the Bad News Bears," Kimmel said of the preceding decade with no honors.)
But ask if he is surprised that he's hosting the Emmys now — the last time ABC had the broadcast, four nominees for best reality show hosted to near-universal raspberries from critics — and his face flashes that expression again.
"I don't think it was a given . . . (but) I won't say I was surprised to have been asked," he said, laughing a little. "I would have been very angry if I hadn't been asked, so maybe that's why they asked me."
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ERIC'S BIG EMMY PICKS
It's always great fun to see how badly I can screw up Emmy predictions, given how the academy can be spot-on hip one year and so clueless you wonder if they own televisions in the next.
Still, here are my prognostications for the big categories.
Drama Series: Boardwalk Empire, HBO; Breaking Bad, AMC; Downton Abbey, PBS; Game of Thrones, HBO; Homeland, Showtime; Mad Men, AMC.
Should win: Breaking Bad. It's, hands down, the best show too many people still have never seen on TV, showcasing an ex-high school teacher's slow slide into life as a ruthless methamphetamine manufacturer.
Will win: Mad Men. Because its season this year was almost as good as Breaking Bad's and it has won this award four times before — every year it has been eligible.
Comedy Series: The Big Bang Theory, CBS; Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO; Girls, HBO; Modern Family, ABC; 30 Rock, NBC; Veep, HBO.
Should win: Girls. Not just because it's the shiny, new kid on the block. HBO's comedy captures the voice of the Great Recession generation in a singular way, in a TV season when many of the other nominees were off their game.
Will win: Modern Family. Because the academy loves this comedy almost as much as it loves Mad Men.
Actor, Drama Series: Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire, HBO; Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad, AMC; Michael C. Hall, Dexter, Showtime; Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey, PBS; Damian Lewis, Homeland, Showtime; Jon Hamm, Mad Men, AMC.
Should win: Lewis or Hamm. I'm cheating here; Lewis' take as an American P.O.W.-turned-terrorist was mind-boggling. But it's a crime Hamm has been a bridesmaid in this category so many times. He needs to win one.
Will win: Cranston. Because the academy seems to make up for snubbing Breaking Bad as a series by handing awards to its star.
Actress, Drama Series: Glenn Close, Damages, DirecTV; Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey, PBS; Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife, CBS; Kathy Bates, Harry's Law, NBC; Claire Danes, Homeland, Showtime; Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men, AMC.
Should win: Danes. Because her take on a secretly schizophrenic CIA agent who guesses Lewis' secret and forgets it after electroshock therapy is the only performance on that show better than Lewis'.
Will win: Close. She's a movie star vying for the award on a canceled show in the last year she will be eligible.
Actor, Comedy Series: Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory, CBS; Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO; Don Cheadle, House of Lies, Showtime; Louis C.K., Louie, FX Networks; Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock, NBC; Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men, CBS.
Should win: Louis C.K. Yeah, I'm on the bandwagon for the New York comic's creative, compelling indie comedy. If Woody Allen was an overweight, ginger-haired guy 20 years younger working in TV, he'd be making Louie.
Will win: Parsons. See his three past nominations and two past wins.
Actress, Comedy Series: Lena Dunham, Girls, HBO; Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly, CBS; Zooey Deschanel, New Girl, Fox; Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie, Showtime; Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation, NBC; Tina Fey, 30 Rock, NBC; Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep, HBO.
Should and will win: Louis-Dreyfus. Because her performance pretty much is Veep, and the academy loves her as much as anyone.
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Miniseries or TV Movie: American Horror Story, FX; Game Change, HBO; Hatfields & McCoys, History; Hemingway & Gellhorn, HBO; Luther, BBC America; Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia (Masterpiece), PBS.
Reality Program: Antiques Roadshow, PBS; Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, ABC; MythBusters, Discovery Channel; Shark Tank, ABC; Undercover Boss, CBS; Who Do You Think You Are? NBC.
Reality-Competition Program: The Amazing Race, CBS; Dancing With the Stars, ABC; Project Runway, Lifetime; So You Think You Can Dance, Fox; Top Chef, Bravo; The Voice, NBC.
Variety, Music or Comedy Series: The Colbert Report, Comedy Central; The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Comedy Central; Jimmy Kimmel Live, ABC; Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, NBC; Real Time With Bill Maher, HBO; Saturday Night Live, NBC.
Supporting Actor, Drama Series: Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad, AMC; Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad, AMC; Brendan Coyle, Downton Abbey, PBS; Jim Carter, Downton Abbey, PBS; Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones, HBO; Jared Harris, Mad Men, AMC.
Supporting Actress, Drama Series: Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad, AMC; Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey, PBS; Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey, PBS; Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife, CBS; Christine Baranski, The Good Wife, CBS; Christina Hendricks, Mad Men, AMC.
Supporting Actor, Comedy Series: Ed O'Neill, Modern Family, ABC; Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family, ABC; Ty Burrell, Modern Family, ABC; Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family, ABC; Max Greenfield, New Girl, Fox; Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live, NBC.
Supporting Actress, Comedy Series: Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory, CBS; Kathryn Joosten, Desperate Housewives, ABC; Julie Bowen, Modern Family, ABC; Sofia Vergara, Modern Family, ABC; Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie, Showtime; Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live, NBC.
Actor, Miniseries or Movie: Woody Harrelson, Game Change, HBO; Kevin Costner, Hatfields & McCoys, History; Bill Paxton, Hatfields & McCoys, History; Clive Owen, Hemingway & Gellhorn, HBO; Idris Elba, Luther, BBC America; Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia (Masterpiece), PBS.
Actress, Miniseries or Movie: Connie Britton, American Horror Story, FX Networks; Julianne Moore, Game Change, HBO; Nicole Kidman, Hemingway & Gellhorn, HBO; Ashley Judd, Missing, ABC; Emma Thompson, The Song of Lunch (Masterpiece), PBS.