In Hermosa Beach, Kimmel finds a parking spot. A car full of kids screaming his name passes, but he doesn't seem to notice. In the restaurant he's friendly – "How ya doin'? How ya doin'?" – and no one bothers him. He orders tacos pescados, devours them, and starts working on McNearney's plate. When we're walking to the car afterward, he glances down toward the Comedy & Magic Club and says, "I wonder if Jay's there yet." Kimmel has invited me to sleep in a guest room at his home in Hollywood, but before we head there, he wants to swing past the club one more time. "We'll do a drive-by," he says.
We loop around in the SUV, decelerating as we pass the club. There's still no sign of Leno. "It's still a little early," Kimmel says, peering intently through the windshield like a gangster looking for someone who crossed him. "He'll be here. . . ."
At nine the next morning, Kimmel and McNearney emerge from their bedroom with laptops tucked under their arms. Kimmel, in the mesh shorts and T-shirt he'll wear most of the day, makes espresso from a wall-mounted Miele machine and sits down at his kitchen table with some yogurt and granola. He cues up videos of Black Friday shopping scuffles from that weekend – surefire comedy gold – and plays them for McNearney, who's eating a banana. She begins her daily news crawl – the Huffington Post, CNN, Drudge Report, BuzzFeed – for possible monologue material and to "make sure our writers didn't miss anything."
The kitchen is vast and sleek and opens into the living room, where the centerpiece is a flatscreen television the approximate height and length of a stretch Hummer. Contemporary art hangs on the walls – a Banksy graffiti study, Massimo Vitali beach portraits – alongside family photos and art by Kimmel's daughter. (He has been divorced from his kids' mother, whom he married at age 20, and doesn't like discussing publicly, since 2002.) On the second-floor landing is a photo booth, the side of which is covered with snapshots of people who've partied here: family members, Spike Jonze, Johnny Knoxville, Krasinski and Emily Blunt, who is, in one shot, in the early stages of mooning the camera, revealing an abbreviated crescent of Blunt-butt as McNearney guffaws beside her.
Celebrities feel at ease acting ridiculous in Kimmel's company, and their eagerness to act out mirthfully on Live! has become one of the show's hallmarks. In 2008, as a birthday gift for Kimmel, his then-girlfriend, Sarah Silverman (he's always been attracted to funny women, he says), starred in a music video in which she announced to the world that she'd been cheating on him with a movie star. "I'm Fucking Matt Damon" went viral, and it inaugurated a tradition of star-studded Live! bits. Kimmel's response video, "I'm Fucking Ben Affleck," featured Affleck, Brad Pitt, Robin Williams, Cameron Diaz and Harrison Ford. "I owe my life to Jimmy," says Mike Tyson, a frequent guest. "When he let me co-host the show, I was at my worst: I was a pariah, just came out the psycho ward, rehab, still getting high. I bit a nigga ear not too long ago! But Jimmy brought me back. When I'm on his show I'll sing, act goofy: I'm loose with Jimmy. With someone else, I'd be afraid they wanted to exploit me – look at Mike do a gorilla dance. But he's trustworthy, and it's all in good fun."
The Damon bit opened up the A-list floodgates, but not every idea works out. "Last week we were told Brad Pitt wanted to do a bit," Kimmel says, chewing granola. "We came up with a great one for him, where we'd open with footage of people fighting for toys on Black Friday, then have the last guy be Brad Pitt, elbowing people, screaming, 'I got a lotta kids!' His people said they loved it, but then we never heard anything." In crafting bits all but guaranteed to go viral, Kimmel has found a way to keep his show relevant among viewers more accustomed to watching comedy on browsers than televisions, and his YouTube channel boasts 780 million views (Fallon's, by comparison, has 57 million). This bodes well for ABC, which is counting on Kimmel to build a fresher, younger audience than Leno and Letterman and a broader audience than Fallon and O'Brien.
Kimmel and McNearney angle their laptops toward each other, sharing videos and headlines. This is more or less how every workday begins for Kimmel: Blurring the line between domestic life and job life, turning the breakfast table into an extension of the show, making work feel less like a grind and more like hanging out with people he loves. These halves of his life weren't always so well-integrated. When he first got married ("too young," he says), he was forced to grow up in a hurry. The instincts and responsibilities of fatherhood kicked in, and you can read the rowdier excesses of his Man Show persona – doing tequila shots, say, from between women's breasts – as a way for Kimmel to experience some of the wild abandon impossible in his real life. "I think that theory might hold up," Howard Stern says. "I lived out some crazy crap on the air, and I'd hate to speak for Jimmy, but we both got married young and it's something we talk about."
In Kimmel's kitchen, the gears are turning. "We should visit some of these shoppers in the hospital who were injured during Black Friday," he tells McNearney. "Find out what shit they bought."
"'Was it worth it?' They'll totally be back there next year," she replies.
"But they'll be more heavily armed," Kimmel says.
They chuckle, then type together in silence.
By 10:45 a.m., Kimmel is at his office at the El Capitan, walking at a brisk four miles per hour on his treadmill desk. The office is a combination workspace/man cave. There's a photograph of him with Barack Obama on one wall; a portrait of Kimmel that Anna Nicole Smith painted hangs on another. In Kimmel's private bathroom, there is a refrigerator in which he stores salmon steaks and bison burgers, ready to be tossed into sous-vide machines he keeps in his kitchenette. His toilet is equipped with a bulky electronic seat that "sprays water on your asshole when you're done," he says.
At 11:14, Kimmel receives an e-mail from his writers totaling 12 pages – ideas for bits. Working up a sweat on the treadmill, Kimmel opens the file and tears through it: He can decide instantly whether a pitch is funny or not, and he deletes material at lightning speed. One writer suggests that Kimmel, discussing Thanksgiving, pull a drumstick from his suit. Delete. Another envisions a pre-taped bit involving Lindsay Lohan driving recklessly after reading bad reviews of Liz & Dick. Delete. Another proposes a sketch in which Tyson portrays a blaxploitation badass named "Black Friday." Kimmel smirks – it's a keeper.
By the time he's done chopping at 11:36, the file is two and a half pages long. "If you're batting .310 in comedy pitches," he says, "you're Woody Allen." It's fitting that Kimmel uses a treadmill desk – he has a hard time keeping still. "I'm always looking to the next thing," he says. "There are always hurdles, whether it's the White House dinner or hosting charity events or that night's show: Until they're over, I worry, then I move right on to the next thing. It's hard for me to enjoy the moment. I'm just thinking about not failing. It's an anxious way to live, and it makes me feel guilty when I'm relaxing. A friend of mine just took this radioactive iodine pill as part of a cancer treatment, and he has to be isolated for five days – no contact with the world. I told him I'm jealous of him."
Kimmel's friend, sports columnist Bill Simmons, sees a hard-wired ambition. "He's supercompetitive," Simmons says. "He's not the kind of guy who'd go to the Bahamas and reflect on how great the year was. That's why having a late show, five nights a week, is perfect: He's like an NBA athlete playing a season that never ends. There's no title. You just keep going."
For the past four years, Kimmel's been seeing a therapist, but even here his mania for time efficiency rears its head: He recently persuaded the therapist, located far off in Santa Monica, to conduct sessions over Skype to save Kimmel the commute. "I have to make a point of not bringing my laptop when we Skype, because I'll sneak peeks at my e-mail," he says.
Kimmel spends the rest of the day at Live! weighing in on decisions large and microscopic: giving notes on pre-taped bits, approving font colors that appear onscreen for just a few seconds. Danny Ricker, a writer on Live!, says that "every little thing goes through Jimmy first."
Kimmel concedes that his attention to detail can verge on overkill. "I try hard not to repeat myself and not to do material other people are doing," he says. "We transcribe every other late-night show to make sure there's no similarity. There's no doubt in my mind that we're the only ones who do that, because I don't think other people care that much. And they're probably smarter not to, because you'd really have to pay attention to notice. But I notice."
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