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Here's Jimmy Kimmel

Smoking weed, sleeping over and stalking Jay Leno: At home and on the prowl with the man who would be king of late night

March 1, 2013 10:00 AM ET
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Jimmy Kimmel on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

In 24 hours, Jimmy Kimmel will stand up in his office at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, looking less like a talk-show host and more, to use his words, like "a hobo." He'll be wearing baggy mesh Dodgers shorts, a rumpled old Coca-Cola T-shirt and no shoes; his hair will stick out in three directions. As he leaves his desk, where he's been refining jokes since the morning, his transformation into late-night star will begin. After a quick haircut, he'll carry his MacBook to the makeup room, where he'll put the finishing touches on his monologue while a woman named Stephanie puts the finishing touches on his face: powdering his skin, shaping his eyebrows, blackening his hair where it's a bit too gray or a bit too thin for HD. In his private bathroom, he'll change into a crisp white shirt, a colorful Prada tie and slim blue Gucci pants. His wardrobe guy will bring the matching jacket, steamed and lint-rolled and bearing a sticker on its lining that says ABC ASSET above a bar code marking it as network property. "I've got the same bar code tattooed on me," Kimmel will joke. "It used to say ABC LIABILITY, but they changed it when the ratings got good." As he makes his way downstairs – where a 200-strong crowd is waiting for that night's episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! to start – a group of writers, producers and crew will fist-bump Kimmel and chant, as they do before every episode, "Best show ever! Best show ever!" His band will launch into an ecstatic fanfare and Kimmel will stroll out, hit his electrical-taped mark, and fix his eyes on the teleprompter as the audience roars its welcome: showtime.

But that's not for 24 hours. Right now it's Sunday night, Kimmel is at his beach house, and he wants to get high. "If we smoke weed right now," he asks, "is that on the record?"

Kimmel is sitting at a weathered wooden table in his dining room. Blinky and unshaven, hair tousled, he looks like he just woke up from a phenomenal nap. Kimmel's fiancee, Live! co-head writer Molly McNearney, is in the kitchen, drinking fruit punch and tapping on her phone. "I don't know if I want this in the story," Kimmel, 45, says, padding off to retrieve his stash. "My kids are gonna read this. . . ." He returns with a vacuum-sealed baggie bulging with buds the size of baby Brussels sprouts.

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"We know people with dispensary cards," McNearney, 34, says, referring to California's medical-marijuana storefronts. "Jimmy doesn't want to be seen coming out of one of those." Tall and athletic, with dirty-blond hair and a sly smile, McNearney has been romantically involved with Kimmel for three years, and she's worked on his show almost since its 2003 debut. The couple just got back from spending Thanksgiving with McNearney's family in St. Louis, and Kimmel is trying to enjoy the final hours of the long weekend. The holiday wasn't entirely relaxing. Kimmel's an exacting foodie, and when he discovered that McNearney's mother planned to cook a pasta dinner on Friday using jumbo jars of Ragu, he sprang into action, shopping for fresh ingredients and whipping up emergency penne for 30. "I could not let that happen," he says.

Kimmel spends most nights at a vast, ultramodern home he owns in the Hollywood Hills, but he bought this place, an unassuming four-bedroom in Hermosa Beach, in 2004, for weekends. "I like a real beach," he says. "A crowded one, you know? People, towels, umbrellas. I hate those little private strips of sand you see up in Malibu."

The walls and bookshelves are lined with family photos, including several of Kimmel's daughter, Katie, 21, who's in art school, and his son, Kevin, 19, who's studying filmmaking. In one corner, there's a black-and-white picture of 5508 Tilden Avenue, in Brooklyn, where Kimmel was born and where he lived until the age of nine, when his family moved to Las Vegas.

As Kimmel packs pot into a ceramic one-hitter, he offers me a three-word disclaimer regarding its potency – "This is California" – before going on to puff deeply and repeatedly. McNearney abstains, munching some trail mix and grinning. "You can't smoke in front of a reporter and say it's off the record," she tells Kimmel. His head is cocooned in fumes. His eyes, always heavily lidded, narrow even further as he savors the weed and considers McNearney's point.

Ten years ago, Kimmel wouldn't have thought twice about getting high in an interview. In 2002 – fresh from his runaway success as the co-host and co-creator, with his friend Adam Carolla, of the idiotically inspired beer-bros-and-boobies revue The Man Show – ABC picked Kimmel over Jon Stewart to anchor a freshly created 12:05 a.m. comedy vehicle. Kimmel was pitched as an irreverent new breed of host, poised to shake up a staid late-night landscape with his man-child wit and proven appeal with men ages 18-34. In the first two seasons of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which had its debut in January 2003 (and which hasn't actually been live since the first season), Kimmel played the convivial boor crashing the late-show party. He foreswore the standard-issue necktie, scrapped the time-honored opening stand-up segment and served free booze to his audience. His thumb-nosing sensibility was on proud display: filling the show with man-on-the-street pranks, insulting Oprah constantly, hiring Mike Tyson to co-host for a week.

But despite flashes of zany brilliance, the show struggled in the ratings. "I was hired to get male viewers," Kimmel says. "But almost overnight, ABC became a very female network – I think Grey's Anatomy started it – which meant I was suddenly very out of place. So I had to change. I had to dull some of the edges – try to limit the number of times I say the word 'penis' to four times a show instead of eight."

Over the following decade, Live! – and Kimmel – changed. He grew to respect convention more: Hello, neckties and monologues. "If you want to do a talk show on network television, you're probably going to wind up having a desk and a band, wearing a suit and having a sidekick," he says. "Audiences want to feel comfortable." (Kimmel's Sancho Panza is Guillermo Rodriguez, a former parking-lot security guard with an exquisitely unstudied comedic gift.) Kimmel dieted, going from a schlubby 210 to a trimmer 190. He downplayed the more aggressive, acid persona he'd cultivated on The Man Show and Crank Yankers (a frequently brutal prank-call show he co-created) and began showcasing softer sides of himself, like his easy rapport with children. "Instead of a caricature," he says today, "I'm a person." By 2012, he'd had Oprah on as a guest and engaged in a "nice-off" with Ellen DeGeneres, battling to see who could out-compliment whom (Kimmel lost, but it was close).

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