Jimmy Kimmel on Battling Politicians, His Future in Late Night and His Unexpectedly Tumultuous Year

Plus, how his show has changed and his annual upfront roast

Kimmel spoke with Adweek about hosting the Oscars again and turning 50. Photography by Scott Witter for Adweek
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Since launching his ABC late-night talk show in 2003, Jimmy Kimmel has never had a year like this. Two major events, both very personal to the comedian, unexpectedly turned Kimmel into the conscience of late night—if not the entire country. In April, his son Billy was born with a heart disease that required emergency open-heart surgery at just 3 days old, which prompted him to urge Jimmy Kimmel Live viewers to contact their member of Congress and urge them to uphold the Affordable Care Act. He returned to the topic with a vengeance in mid-September, spending three straight nights criticizing the healthcare bill that Republicans were trying to rush through Congress. Two weeks later, in the wake of the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, where he grew up, he admonished Washington for failing to take meaningful action on gun control.

“It has been a year of much anxiety and tumult,” says Kimmel. Yet despite it all, the host is in great spirits. He reports that Billy, now 6 and a half months, is doing “very well.” And his entrée into the national conversation about healthcare and gun control has jolted Jimmy Kimmel Live’s ratings: last month’s weeklong visit to his hometown of Brooklyn was the show’s most-watched week in a year and a half, and put him on top for the week in both total viewers and adults 18-49. On several Mondays this fall, he has beaten his 11:30 p.m. rivals Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert in the 18-49 demo.

Kimmel spoke with Adweek about how his show has changed in the past six months, why he loves his annual ABC upfronts roast (yes, he’ll be back in May), hosting the Oscars again and turning 50.

Adweek: After Billy’s heart surgery, was it a tough decision to go on your show and let everybody know what had happened?
Jimmy Kimmel: You might be surprised by how little thought I give to major decisions. [laughs] I have to make so many decisions every day because of the nature of my job, that I make them quickly. Sometimes they aren’t even really decisions; I just start moving forward. I knew I was going to have to say something. I’d been on the air for the past seven months talking about the fact that my wife was pregnant. So I was hoping that this would be a run-of-the-mill, happy announcement with a cute baby picture at the end. Instead, it turned into something much more.

Obviously, you had more important things to focus on at the time, but did you get a sense of how deeply that monologue resonated with people?
Absolutely. Hearing directly from thousands of families who rely so desperately on the Affordable Care Act, who did not have healthcare before it and now do, and face these difficult situations where they have preexisting conditions and sometimes lifetime caps on their health insurance—that really made it feel real for me.

You were back at it again in September, speaking out against the Graham-Cassidy bill.
Senator Cassidy, as you know, coined the term, “The Kimmel Test.” I wanted to discuss that with him and make sure that if my name was on something, that I supported it. We talked about it and it seemed like we made a reasonable agreement. Then, when it came down to a vote, I didn’t feel like any of what they were suggesting passed the so-called Kimmel Test. And I just wanted to make it clear that the Kimmel in the test gave it an F.

Then, shortly after that, you had another heartfelt, eloquent monologue following the Las Vegas shooting. How much of that was mapped out in advance as opposed to being more or less off the cuff?
That happened the night before, so you don’t get much time to prepare. In fact, I went to sleep early that night, so I didn’t know what had happened until I woke up in the morning. A lot of that was just me speaking from the heart.

In the wake of all these big moments, do you feel like the show has changed in some way? Are you still making the same show now as you were six months ago?
It depends on what night it is, and what’s going on. We were in Brooklyn and the show was largely politics-free. Nothing too major happened, so it was mostly about Brooklyn and light subjects. The news really dictates how political the show will or won’t be. My philosophy, if there is one, is to comment on the news of the day.

Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger told The New York Times that he appreciated your passion but you should “be careful.” Did he or anyone at the network ever ask you to tone anything down or rein anything in during the past couple months?
No, quite the contrary. Everyone was very supportive. And I got nothing but good feedback from the network.

You had your highest ratings in a year and a half during your October week of Brooklyn shows, which felt like the topper to this roller coaster year of yours. You’ve been to Brooklyn two times before, but did it feel different this time around?
It did. I definitely ran into a lot of people who thanked me for saying something, which is not something I’ve experienced before in my life. And it just reinforces how serious this issue is and how directly it affects people’s lives and their children’s lives and the lives of people that they are close to. Health insurance is something people rely on to stay alive. It’s one thing to be funny and then it’s another thing to speak for a group that feels like it isn’t being heard.

Jimmy Kimmel Live’s weeklong return to his hometown gave the show its biggest ratings in more than a year.

Your annual appearance at the ABC upfront is one of the highlights during upfronts week, and you’ve been doing them since you started at ABC. But at what point did you start roasting your own network, and the other ones?
I’ll tell you, the first year, I had no idea what the upfront was. And I will say even into the third year, I still wasn’t quite sure about what it was. I was told that I needed to go on stage, and I wrote a bunch of jokes. Right before I went onstage, one of the executives said, “This needs to be a home run.” [laughs] That’s not what you say to somebody as they walk onto a stage trying to be funny! But I didn’t know much of anything about what I was doing and, in fact, no one looked at my script before I went out there. One of the executives at ABC, [then ABC president] Alex Wallau, who I love, said to me after it, “That was great. If you had showed me the script beforehand, I would not have let you do it. I’m glad I didn’t see it.”

What happened after that?
It was so well received that they expected it the next year. People can be very, very careful, especially when it comes to money and advertising dollars. If my remarks had been properly vetted, I don’t know if they would have been permitted. If you go back and watch a tape of that event, I’m nervous, I’m rocking back and forth on stage. I’d not done anything like that before. And I learned that, with all the bullshit that the ad-marketing people have to eat that week, putting a pin in it was a welcome event.

Kimmel celebrates his 50th birthday this week.
Photography: Scott Witter; Grooming: Stephanie Fowler

Are your upfront jokes vetted now?
They’re lightly vetted, but for the most part nobody makes me change anything. They just want to see what’s coming.

How do you put together your upfront monologue?
My writers are always working on it, and I have a tendency to stay up all night the night before, because I don’t know what NBC and Fox have up their sleeves until they reveal it. So there’s a lot of last-minute writing that goes on. Usually, I’ll stay up most of the night the night before, rewriting and coming up with new stuff. I almost always find that a joke that I come up with at 4 a.m. just before I collapse, turns out to be one of the highlight jokes of the night.

You skipped this year’s upfronts to be with your family after Billy’s surgery. You had a lot going on, but was there a part of you that missed not being out there?
Weirdly, I absolutely missed it. As a comedian, when you see joke opportunities that you weren’t able to capitalize on, it makes you feel kind of sad. It’s been a part of my year, every year. It’s like going over to someone’s house for Christmas every year, and then one year you don’t. I did feel left out.

Does that mean we should expect you back onstage in May?
Yes, barring some unforeseen circumstance, I am planning to come back. In fact, even in the years when I’m not working on ABC or in television at all, I’m planning to come anyway. I’ll be out in Central Park, doing jokes about the new Fox fall season.

Beyond your upfront appearances, you’ve always embraced working with advertisers, and did a different integration each night in Brooklyn. Was that something you were always open to?
Not only was I open to it, it was 100 percent my idea to do it. It happened in an almost ridiculous way: I got the Larry Sanders Show [DVD] box set when it came out and I decided to rewatch the show. Larry did an episode where the network executive forced him to do an ad for the Garden Weasel. He was very much against it and they had a huge fight about it, and finally he gave in and did it. And the audience loved it and it was funny. I just thought, you know what? I liked it when Doc Severinsen or Ed McMahon would do a commercial on The Tonight Show. It’s better than your standard recorded commercials. So I decided that we could make something fun out of it and it would actually be fun for the viewers, instead of something you’d fast-forward through.

An old Larry Sanders Show episode inspired Kimmel to embrace in-show partnerships with brands like Google Home Mini.

Generally, what are and aren’t you comfortable with when it comes to integrations?
I play each one by ear. Some things I say no, I’m not interested in that. If it seems to be cheap or lowbrow, I probably won’t participate in it. But most of the products are regular stuff you want to use, and we can find a funny angle for almost anything.

Given everything that’s happened in your life since then, I’m sure it feels like the Oscars were five years ago, but you actually hosted the show earlier this year.
Holy shit. [laughs] You’re totally right!

So how do you think you did for your first time?
Well, they asked me to host it again the day after the Oscars, [laughs] so I’ll let them decide how well I did. Other than mixing up the envelopes, I think it went swimmingly.

How do you feel about the show being defined by that snafu?
I’d rather it didn’t happen. It took all of the attention away from what I thought was a pretty great show. With that said, I think it will add interest for the show this year, so maybe there will be some upside to it. But if I had to go back and do it all over again, that’s not necessarily the story I wanted coming out of the Oscars the next day.

Hosting the Oscars is always described as one of the most thankless jobs in show business, so why was it something you wanted to do, and are now doing a second time?
I don’t really know the answer to that question. All I know is I’m not somebody who loves a challenge. [laughs] I’m not one of these people that goes, “I am going to train to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.” But there are certain things as a comedian, as a talk show host, that you can’t say no to. If you want to have this job, you have to say yes to challenges like that. There’s only so many feathers you can put in your cap. Hosting the Oscars is certainly one of them. Hosting the Emmys is another. Hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner, which I did when they still had a White House Correspondents Dinner, was another. The only one left—which is something that because I’m on ABC I don’t think will ever happen—is hosting Saturday Night Live.

Are there any films that you hope get Oscar nominations, just for their comedy potential on the show?
Personally, I hope Matt Damon never gets nominated for an Oscar again, but professionally, if he were to be nominated for that movie where he plays a tiny little person [Downsizing], that would definitely present some comedy opportunities.

Kimmel, who will host the Oscars again next year, wishes the Best Picture envelope snafu hadn’t overshadowed “a pretty great show.”
Getty Images

You’re signed on Jimmy Kimmel Live through the beginning of 2020, and earlier this year, you contemplated whether that might be it for you. Have the events of the last six months changed your feelings about what you may want to do when this contract is up?
I’m very up and down, mood-wise. Sometimes I feel like hey, we’re on a roll, this is great, and sometimes I feel like I need to be put on an ice floe and just released into the ocean. So I guess I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Is there anything else you haven’t done yet that you want to try at some point?
My nose is barely above water at all times with the responsibilities I have now. Not just at work, but at home with two little kids at the house. So I don’t necessarily have my eye on anything other than what are we going to do tomorrow. There are two questions I ask myself every day: What are we going to do tonight? And, what are we going to do tomorrow? And then, repeat.

You had your best ratings in a year and a half during your Brooklyn visit, and have been first in total viewers or the demo a couple of nights in recent months. How much does it mean to you to have those big moments?
From a PR and perception standpoint it’s nice, but the reality is that everyone is focused on these Nielsen ratings and it’s very silly. [The other] week we had 37 million views on YouTube. So we’re all so focused on these Nielsen ratings for some old-fashioned reason, and obviously it means something when it comes to advertising. But if you’re talking about how many people are watching the show, late-night television overall has never been more popular. I don’t know when the rest of the world is going to come around and pay attention to that, but that’s the reality.

Given that, what’s your personal measure of success?
It has nothing to do with how many people watch something or even the response I get from the audience. For me, I take personal pride in some things more than others and some nights some bits I’ll think are not so great and they get a big response. And then there are some things that I think are pretty great and they get not much response. And I just try to remain balanced and it’s not like baseball, where it’s clear when you hit a home run, and there’s some room for interpretation there. And so for me it’s just kind of how I feel at the end of each night. How well I performed as the host of the show or as a writer on the show. And some nights I feel good and some nights I don’t. And the nights you feel good are the nights where you feel like you could keep doing it forever, and the nights where you feel you don’t you just want to take the next day off.

You’re developing a Fox comedy, The Nepotist, with your brother Jonathan. Have you been looking to get back into more TV projects beyond Jimmy Kimmel Live?
My brother came up with the idea and he asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. A lot of it’s based on our family, so I’m the ideal partner for him, but this is something that he conceived and wrote.

So if all goes well, that means we might see you at two upfronts in May.
Wouldn’t that be funny? [laughs] My goal is to do all the upfronts!

This story is coming out on Nov. 13, your 50th birthday. How are you feeling about turning 50?
Well, since I was probably 8 years old, I made myself a promise: on the day I turn 50 I would be profiled by Adweek. I didn’t even know what Adweek was. I just had it in my head and like Oprah, I visualized it and it happened. I think it’s a great lesson for young people: dreams do come true!

This story first appeared in the Nov. 13, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.