When Jimmy Kimmel Live! launched in 2003, George W. Bush was still in his first term as president. Now on the verge of 50, Kimmel has inherited the mantle of late-night master from his hero, David Letterman; has become one of President Trump’s most relentless comedic critics, albeit with a grin; and on February 26th, he’ll face his largest audience to date when he hosts the Oscars. “Who the hell knows what’s going to be going on that weekend?” he says in regards to his awards-show preparation. “I could be something that happened that morning that needs to be addressed. You really have to be very nimble.” The comedian fills us in on his problem with social media, the criticism he faced after joking about Kim Kardashian being robbed and why his most extravagant purchase was a futuristic toilet.
You once tweeted that your hobbies include updating software. Were you kidding?
I do do that. But I’m more focused on charging electronic devices. And not just my own. If I see somebody’s phone sitting there and it’s down at, like, 40 percent, it gives me a little bit of agita and, if I can, I’ll plug it in. People are always a little bit confused, but they appreciate it. It’s like people who never let the gas in their car get below half. I’m one of those people too. It says I need to chill out. I need to be medicated is probably what it says.
How has social media impacted your job?
It used to be you were only competing with other television shows for jokes. Now you have to compete with Twitter. Before you go on the air, you have to scour the Internet to make sure 25 people haven’t already tweeted a version of a joke you’re going to do. And people don’t understand that we tape the show at 5:00 and it airs at 11:30. They’ll go, “You stole that joke from me.” And I say, “I was in bed by the time you made that joke.”
You love to cook. What does that have in common with comedy?
Maybe I just like positive feedback. Maybe there’s some neediness in me. Maybe my mother gave me too much attention as a kid and I need to keep filling that bucket.
What’s the most indulgent purchase you ever made?
I have a very expensive toilet that warms up and fires a very powerful stream of water up my ass. It’s a couple of thousand dollars, but it’ll change your life in a very positive way. I’ve gotten used to it, and now I feel like the toilet is being rude when I walk into a bathroom and it doesn’t rise for me.
Who are your heroes?
The first name that comes to mind is Howard Stern. I started in radio, and Howard wasn’t always this successful multi-millionaire. He was just another guy with a family trying to hang on to a low-paying radio job. It would’ve been easy for him to play ball and do what his general manager told him to do. But he didn’t do that. He jumped right into uncomfortable situations, even if they complicated his life. And 99.9 percent of people wouldn’t have the spine to do that.
You’re one of the few people who’s interviewed Axl Rose lately. What was that like?
I actually hung out with him after the show – we went to the hotel next door and talked for a long time. He’s a very engaging guy, which I would not have guessed would be the case. You could have a real deep conversation with him. No matter what issues he’s had with Slash and the rest of the gang, he loves them and just wanted to talk about it with someone. He was telling me his side of the story. I don’t want to violate his confidence, but I got the sense they would eventually get back together.
What was your favorite book as a kid, and what did it say about you?
I loved The Catcher in the Rye. It was a little maroon-covered paperback, and as ridiculous as it might sound, the reason I picked it off the shelf in the first place is because I played catcher on my little league team. I’m not sure I knew what a phony was before I read that book – but after I did, I just knew I didn’t want to be one.
What’s the best part of success?
Meeting the people you admire. I got to spend last weekend with Bill Murray and David Letterman when they gave Bill the Mark Twain Prize. We had dinner in the Supreme Court building in D.C. Sonia Sotomayor came right up to me and chatted. I had to stop and take stock of the fact that I was talking to a Supreme Court justice. But, honestly, the best thing is I get to hire everybody. I work with a relentlessly funny group of people every day, including my cousin Sal. My brother and my wife work here too. My best friend since I was nine-years-old is my bandleader.
And the worst part of success?
The way success affects your relationships with family and friends. Sometimes there are expectations that are impossible to meet for a variety of reasons. There’s a lot of focus on you, and sometimes you just want to be a member of the family. And it’s hard to just be that. The one place you don’t want to be treated differently is when you’re at a family birthday party. I go overboard trying to be considerate and to help where I can, because I never want anyone to think I’ve changed.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
The first good boss I had gave me some good advice. My radio partner and I were doing something dumb that was only funny to us, and he told us, “You’re jerking yourselves off.” I think about it a lot when I’m going through ideas from the writers: They think it’s funny to work my agent’s name into a comedy bit, which always gets a big laugh in rehearsal, and I always think, “Oh, we’re jerking ourselves off.”
My dad told me, “When in doubt, order the hamburger,” which was probably the second-best piece of advice I ever got.
What did you make of the flak you received after joking in your monologue about the Kim Kardashian robbery?
I don’t even remember. What was the joke?
It went, “Somehow these guys found the one moment this decade that this woman wasn’t surrounded by 40 people with cameras.”
Right, I did say that. Oh, fuck those people. People are mad about things they’re not even mad about nowadays. “Find real things to be mad about” is good advice. People attacking Steve Martin for saying Carrie Fisher was beautiful – you’ve got to be kidding me. It’s crazy. Everyone is looking to tear everyone else down constantly.
You and your family moved to Las Vegas when you were about seven. What’s the most Vegas thing about you?
My life is an all-you-can-eat buffet. I’ve never brought home a doggy bag, because I always eat everything given to me unless it’s terrible. Even when I was like a kid, if I had $10, I would eat $10 worth of lunch. I didn’t know any kind of limits: You’re living in a town that has 49-cent shrimp cocktails, and it warps your perception. To this day, when I look at a box of pasta and I realize it’s eight servings – that’s crazy. To me, one box is one serving.
You took on Tim Kaine in a harmonica battle during the run-up to the election. Are you a serious harmonica player?
I have nine of them in front of me right now. The one song I can really play is “Piano Man.” Huey Lewis also played the harmonica, so I got one and kept it in my car and I would play it in there.
Huey Lewis really had an impact on you.
He has been like an older brother or uncle to me. He got me into fly-fishing. His son works here at the show, in the social-media department.
You’re keeping the Huey Lewis legacy going.
Well, somebody has to.