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.
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.