The culmination of Kimmel's decade-long evolution arrives this month: On January 8th, ABC is moving Jimmy Kimmel Live! forward to 11:35 p.m., putting him in direct competition with Jay Leno and David Letterman. This milestone comes after a smash 2012. There was the White House Correspondents' Dinner, which Kimmel hosted in April, getting big laughs by making fun of Rush Limbaugh ("that slut"), Kim Kardashian ("the greatest threat to America today") and, for the policy wonks, Peter Orszag; President Obama gave Kimmel a high-five at the end. There were the Emmys, which Kimmel hosted in September, where he punked the format in novel ways like running an "In Memoriam" segment set to stirring Josh Grobanaccompaniment and devoted entirely to clips of Kimmel himself. And during the 2011-2012 season, the Live! audience increased by three percent, making it the only late-night talk show to post a year-to-year increase. In terms of weekly ratings, Kimmel has beaten Leno once and Letterman twice with coveted 18- to 49-year-olds, and Jimmy Fallon – who doesn't go on till 12:30, but is seen as Kimmel's closest counterpart – over and over.
For Kimmel, ever-broader success comes with built-in tensions. What's been consistent throughout his career is a winningly unaffected everydude appeal. "He's not show business; he's not Hollywood," says Michael Davies, a former ABC executive who helped get Kimmel the late-show gig. "He's a much more raw, blue-collar guy than has ever sat in that seat and done that show." Jill Leiderman, a Live! executive producer who used to work for Letterman, says that "as a viewer, watching Late Show, you aspire to be Dave's friend: He seems untouchable, like a king," but "watching JKL, you feel as if you already are Jimmy's friend." That sort of relatable, down-to-earth aura becomes harder to maintain, though, when you command an annual salary reported at $6 million, and when a network bets big on you, as ABC is doing with Kimmel's new time slot: The stakes rise precipitously in terms of your public image, to the point that you might worry about, say, getting stoned out of your brain with a magazine writer.
"Ah, fuck it," Kimmel says, passing me the one-hitter, grabbing two shot glasses and uncorking a jug of corn whiskey his friend made. "Write about the weed."
With the sun slipping behind the Pacific, Kimmel suggests that the two of us take a walk. At first he doesn't seem high – he's speaking animatedly, in precise sentences – but halfway into a story about attending a mixed-martialarts bout with his pal Dax Shepard, he chuckles and says, "What was I just talking about?" He apologizes: "I haven't smoked weed in, like, a week." We tromp onto the sand and curve back to the street, where three guys on beach cruisers roll by, looking tough. "Some of the dudes around here are hard," Kimmel says. "They will slash your throat with a fucking toenail."
Back at the house we decide on Mexican for dinner. Food is Kimmel's obsession. He has numerous celebrity buddies – Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who both make frequent appearances in comedy videos on Live!), Howard Stern, John Krasinski – but the names he drops most frequently are those of chefs he's befriended: Italian don Mario Batali, pizza savant Chris Bianco, BBQ hero Adam Perry Lang. On the patio at Kimmel's Hollywood home, near a fire pit, pool and miniature waterfall, he's installed a Renato pizza oven. It sits beside a smoker, a Viking grill, a tandoor oven and a paella grill. Kimmel grows fresh herbs in little white tubs, and he makes his own vinegar. He recently bought the house next door and knocked it down, intending to build a little farm and raise chickens.
Before we leave, Kimmel puts his weed baggie into a sous-vide-cooking vacuum sealer, locking in the freshness in an impressive display of pothead-gourmand ingenuity. "This way," he says, "it won't stink up the whole house." We get into Kimmel's BMW SUV downstairs. In the back seat is a case of harmonicas, which he likes to play on long drives. "He's good at 'Piano Man,'" McNearney, riding shotgun, says.
On our way to dinner we pass a venue called the Comedy & Magic Club. "Leno's probably here tonight," Kimmel says. "He comes here every Sunday and does a stand-up set." For decades, he explains, Leno has used the club to audition jokes for The Tonight Show. "We'll know he's here if one of his cars is out front," Kimmel says, referencing Leno's storied fleet of classic vehicles. Kimmel slows down, scoping out the scene, but Leno doesn't seem to be here yet. I ask if Leno's sets are any good. "Leno hasn't been a good stand-up in 20 years," he replies.
Since 2010, Kimmel has been a card-carrying member of the Hate Jay Club, a council of talk-show luminaries that famously includes Stern, Letterman and Conan O'Brien. Kimmel's scorn for Leno sprang, initially, from a love of Letterman, who seemed set to inherit Johnny Carson's seat in 1992, when Leno outmaneuvered him: "Remember, he stole The Tonight Show from Dave, his friend," Kimmel says. He watched Letterman's Late Night religiously in the Eighties, on a black-and-white TV in his bedroom. "His show was just so weird and different," Kimmel recalls. "I'd never seen anything like it. I didn't know anyone who had a sense of humor like that."
Kimmel grew up in a big, boisterous Italian-Irish-German family, but he was in certain respects a solitary kid: He'd spend hours writing, drawing and hand-coloring his own superhero comics, losing himself in private, imagined worlds. "I had a lot of girlfriends back then," he says today, deadpanning. Kimmel and his best friend, Cleto Escobedo (now the bandleader on Live!), would play pranks together, forging a sense of humor based on getting the best of others. Their schemes ranged from ring-and-runs to planting explosive cigarettes among Kimmel's aunt's Marlboros to more elaborate plots: Once, Escobedo, pretending to be a woman, initiated a romance over the phone with a man they'd found in the phone book. "It got to the point where we'd set up meets with this guy, then show up to watch him waiting around," Kimmel recalls, chuckling heartily. "Eventually we felt guilty and let him know we were actually teenage boys. Maybe there was some element of sadism there, but I don't think there was anything deeper than that we thought it was funny." (Kimmel remains an inveterate prankster – a few years ago he sent out a Christmas card on behalf of his agent, James Dixon, featuring an oil portrait of Dixon splayed naked on its cover.)
Kimmel was raised Catholic, and he's still religious. ("I don't understand atheism," he says. "I don't know how anyone could be sure there isn't a God.") But when he discovered Late Night, it seemed like he'd discovered another, secret congregation: "I felt like Letterman was doing the show specifically for me," he says. In high school, Kimmel put L8 NITE vanity plates on his Isuzu, turning the car into a rolling billboard for his infatuation. Following in Letterman's footsteps, Kimmel studied broadcasting, first at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and then at Arizona State. After school, he had excellent luck landing radio jobs – holding on to them was another story. He was laid off in Phoenix, fired in Seattle and Tampa, hired in Palm Springs, lured away to Tucson, and fired from there in under a year. The same quality that made him initially attractive to a station, he says, would ultimately lead to his undoing: "They'd tell me they wanted the show to be edgy, but they didn't actually want to get phone calls from people complaining, and from sponsors canceling," he says. He'd mouth off constantly, both in his bosses' offices and on the air, where he'd make offcolor remarks and produce scathing parody songs assailing public figures: He got people listening, but he also made people angry. He finally held on to a position doing sports roundups on Los Angeles' behemoth KROQ, which helped him score his breakthrough TV job in 1997, on Comedy Central, co-hosting Win Ben Stein's Money – he was 29 with two kids, earning just "$500 an episode," Kimmel says, but the buzz Ben Stein generated helped him sell Comedy Central on The Man Show, and by the end of its three-season run he was pulling down $40,000 an episode.
When Kimmel first got Live!, he said he intended to do "the comedy version of The Tonight Show," his first major swipe at Leno, who called him for an explanation. Leno and Kimmel hashed it out, and for a few years they enjoyed a friendly relationship. In 2008, as Leno was plotting a jump from NBC to ABC, he started calling Kimmel "three times a week," Kimmel says. Leno intended to do an hourlong ABC show at 11:30, which meant persuading Kimmel to move back a half-hour, to 12:30. "He needed me to be OK with it, because my time slot is written into my contract," Kimmel says. "If they move me out of my slot, I become a free agent – and I had tons of interest from other networks at the time." When Leno's ABC deal evaporated, however, Kimmel says, Leno's calls abruptly ceased, giving the lie to what had seemed like a burgeoning friendship. Kimmel's feelings were hurt. "That made me feel stupid," he says.
Kimmel got his revenge in 2010, after NBC announced it was restoring Leno, who'd failed at 10 p.m., to 11:35, effectively taking back the keys to The Tonight Show from O'Brien. That January, Kimmel hosted an episode of Live! imitating Leno, wearing a fake gray bouffant and prosthetic chin and issuing high-pitched, rimshot-punctuated groaner after groaner. "As a comedian, you can't not have disdain for what he's done: He totally sold out," Kimmel says today. "He was a master chef who opened a Burger King." Leno called Kimmel the day after, saying, sportingly, that he'd enjoyed the impression, and inviting Kimmel onto his show for a satellite interview. When he learned that Leno planned a milquetoast Q&A rather than a discussion of the Conan fracas, Kimmel decided to turn the segment into a blitz. After Leno asked, "What's the best prank you ever pulled?" Kimmel replied, "I told a guy that five years from now I'm gonna give you my show, and then when the five years came, I gave it to him and then I took it back almost instantly." It was one of several digs at Leno's character; Leno, stung, later described Kimmel's appearance as a "sucker punch."
To those who only knew Kimmel from Live!, it may have been a shock to see his teeth bared and gnashing, out for blood – but to those who know him well, the interview was a flare-up of the caustic streak Kimmel had learned over the years to suppress. Howard Stern, who describes Kimmel as a playful, openhearted "dear friend," says that, offscreen, Kimmel's sense of humor "can be sarcastic and biting and sometimes edgy almost to the point of cruel." On Live!, Kimmel restrains himself with guests he might tear into under other circumstances: pretty faces shilling mediocre projects, Dancing With the Stars rejects that ABC forces him to interview, Mama and Honey Boo-Boo. "I know that he sits there with lines in his head and just bites his tongue, because he'll look like an asshole if he doesn't," McNearney says.
For Kimmel, the attack on Leno was a slingshot salvo against late night's Goliath, but it was also a canny career move: Overnight, he went from sideline-sitter to player in the Tonight Show controversy. "Look, it was just jokes – it's not like I said anything that bad," he says. Still, Kimmel and Leno haven't spoken since that encounter. "He's the one who owes me the phone calls," is how Kimmel sees it. Leno declined to respond publicly to Kimmel for this story; an NBC representative told me that "Jay doesn't necessarily feel he has a feud with Jimmy," and denounced Kimmel's comments as "bullying," "infantile rants" meant to drum up publicity.
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