In a new cover story for Variety, Jimmy Kimmel talks about his rise up the late night ranks, from his beginnings on ABC to his recent promotion to the coveted and competitive 11:35 p.m. slot and his reputation for stunts and sketches that are often hilarious as they are controversial.
“I don’t really know how any of this happened,” Kimmel said. “I just stumbled from radio to TV, then I became a talk show host.” Comparing his own rise to his dad’s sudden jump from a short-order cook to an IBM executive, the comedian added: “I guess you just grow up and put on the suit.”
Kimmel’s rise was huge for ABC, a network that had yet to score a big hit with a late night show before Live!, and he achieved it with a bad boy edge distinct to the world of late night television. He works closely, and constantly, with show runner Jill Leiderman on fresh ideas for the show, though admits it’s an imperfect process: “A lot of things don’t go as planned, while others not that great turn out huge. I never thought Unnecessary Censorship would be on every single week for 11 years.”
Many of their ideas though, have made Kimmel a lightning rod for controversy, with the past few months being no exception. Along with a Twitter feud with Kanye West that was later resolved on air, he aroused ire after an installment of the “Kids Table” segment featured one child suggest that the U.S. debt crisis could be solved “kill[ing] everyone in China” (the segment has since been completely dropped from the show). He also ran afoul with some people after a stunt where a woman set herself on fire in a bizarre twerking accident.
“I thought that was an interesting way of putting your show on the air before you put your show on the air,” Kimmel said of the twerking hoax. “I think people got a kick out of it, but a few people were annoyed by it, which I really don’t understand. People complain they want something different, but then complain when they get it.”
Still, it’s these antics that have helped make Jimmy Kimmel Live! such a hot late night commodity (it generated $49.9 million in advertising revenue in the first of 2013); and Kimmel’s recent promotion to 11:35 p.m. – where he would go head-to-head with institutions like The Tonight Show and Late Show With David Letterman – even prompted NBC to fast-track The Tonight Show host swap from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon, which is now set for February.