Nearly 14 years after the launch of his late night talk show, a slim and trim Jimmy Kimmel is in the best physical shape of his life. Nonetheless, the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” host admits that these days, he feels a bit more like an “old, grizzled veteran.”
The hosts that Kimmel competed against for more than a decade are now mostly retired. And the late night wars are pretty much a thing of the past, now that most viewers are watching highlight clips the next morning on social media. (How peaceful is it now? Kimmel is even executive producing the ABC game show “Big Fan,” hosted by competitor Conan O’Brien’s sidekick, Andy Richter.)
Of course, Kimmel has felt a bit like that “old, grizzled veteran” since the moment his show launched in 2003. “It was nothing like I expected it would be,” he recently reflected in his Hollywood office, after taping his show one evening a few weeks ago. “It was murderously difficult. We had no guests. Imagine doing a talk show, and it’s Wednesday, and it’s 5:30, and the show starts in three hours, and you don’t have a guest yet. You’re calling people that you kind of know yourself, asking them to be on the show. That adds a layer of pressure that I don’t think any of the newer hosts have had to experience.”
At that time, facing off with David Letterman and Jay Leno, “we were an alien force that had been dropped into the mix. I was coming off ‘The Man Show.’ Most publicists were terrified of me, and most of the celebrities had no idea who I was, so I was forced to rely on a small, core group of celebrity and semi-celebrity friends over, and over, and over again.”
Much, of course, has changed in the course of nearly a decade and a half. Not only has Kimmel become a mainstay in late night, but he has hosted many major events over the years – including the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and the Primetime Emmy Awards in 2012. Now, as he prepares to host the Emmys for a second time next Sunday, Kimmel spoke at length with IndieWire about how much late night has changed, covering this absurd presidential campaign (including his role in “Picklegate”), his desire to host the Oscars, and how much longer he’d like to host “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” An edited transcript follows.
We saw this big shift in the last few years, with virtually every show changing hands, both on cable and on network. Did you see that as an opportunity for you?
I never really saw it as an opportunity. The truth of the matter is, in the past, you had a choice. You could watch NBC at 11:30 or you could watch CBS at 11:30, and then we came on the air, and you could watch ABC. But now no one ever has to make that choice anymore. Everything’s on the Internet. We compete for the same guests, but that’s primarily where the competition ends. There are many people who manage to watch everything they want from all of these shows. They can have everything, and no one is forced to choose between our show, and Fallon, and Colbert.
So much of it is about viral clips, and started that whole viral thing way, way back.
Accidentally. I take zero credit for that, but it did start really with the Matt Damon video that my ex-girlfriend Sarah Silverman did. Then we followed it with a Ben Affleck video.
And that was right around when YouTube was just starting and people finally actually could watch video online.
At the time, we didn’t even have a YouTube channel. Everybody was posting it on their own YouTube channels, and it was bothering me, because some of them were blurry, some people were shooting the video with their video cameras on their TV sets. The reason that I decided we should consolidate and have our own YouTube channel was because I wanted the quality of the videos to be good. I wanted to make sure the intro was on a video, if it needed it. I just wanted to make sure it was presented in the right way, and now it’s become something that will probably wind up cannibalizing our show, and maybe even our network.
Does that concern you? At some point, does that cannibalize the show?
Oh, yeah. The fact of the matter is, television ratings are just going to get smaller, and the Internet is not. I’m OK with it, because I’m 14 years in. If I was in my second year, I would be concerned about the long-term prospects of a job like this, and being able to keep a big staff, and to be able to put on a top quality show. As the revenue gets smaller, you’re really going to have to give something up.
Do you ever get nervous as a host anymore?
Almost never. When I’m outside of my comfort zone, yes. I’ll get nervous about giving a toast at a wedding. I’ll get nervous certainly hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Anything where I’m not in my studio, I will probably get nervous, but I’m in my studio, it’s pretty rare.
So even if you have, say, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, it’s still in your studio, so there’s still a comfort level.
Yeah, there’s more pressure, but I wouldn’t say I get nervous.
Speaking of Hillary Clinton, you had her on a couple weeks ago, and infamously had her open up a pickle jar. The next night, you commented on the conspiracy theorists out there, questioning what actually happened. Is it harder to even make jokes, or discuss politics, without a portion of the audience coming at you?
You could take one of two approaches. You could try to anticipate every complaint anyone might have. Everything gets chopped into tiny little pieces, and examined. Or you can just go, “hell with it.” People are going to tear it apart. You might as well have some fun with it. A lot of times, it creates material. I say something on the air. Hillary Clinton opens a pickle jar. People don’t hear the pop. People go on their shows saying this is a conspiracy. I then play the clips of those people saying there was a conspiracy. They then play the clips of me talking about them. It’s just this never-ending back and forth. It doesn’t bother me. I kind of get a kick out of it.
It also, it does give you some perspective on conspiracy theories and theorists. Because I know what happened. We didn’t tamper with that pickle jar. The idea that I’m somehow in league with someone who might be President of the United States kind of delights me, because that makes me a lot more important than I actually am.
With the absurdity of this campaign, is it easier to make fun of what’s going on, or harder?
It’s been great. The way in which it is harder is that everyone’s talking about the same thing, so you really have to find an angle that you feel like hasn’t been milked. But the fact of the matter is it’s almost like saying to a baseball player, “Pitchers are only throwing 80 miles an hour now. Is that a bummer for you?”
A President Trump might be very good for the talk show industry.
Yeah. Probably in certain respects, yes.
How political do you want to get?
I can go however the wild blows. Some nights, I will get very serious. I did a piece on global warming, that I took very seriously, and I wanted it to make some kind of an impact. I did something about vaccination once. [Then] you have nights where the focus is on Donald Trump’s hair. I like to mix it up. My show is not “The Daily Show.” I’m not Jon Stewart. I have a broader area of interest. We touch on more things. That’s part of our show, but it’s, so are sports, and so is entertainment.
How tough are the nights where there’s been some sort of tragedy in the world, like a mass shooting?
That’s very difficult, and I think now there is an expectation that every late-night host needs to speak on every tragedy. Unfortunately, there seem to be more tragedies, and I sometimes wonder if that is my job. When you talk about one thing, then people get upset you didn’t talk about something else, and I just kind of go with my emotion. If I feel like I have to talk about something, if I feel like I don’t have any other choice, I will, but I don’t feel like I have to give a little speech about everything that happens.
That does seem to be the expectation now, and I don’t know exactly how I feel about it. It’s tricky, because you don’t want to get in a situation where you’re competing with other people to see who’s going to be most insightful. It just feels kind of gross to me.
What are you going to do when you are elected Vice President?
I have a lot of plans. The first thing I wanted to work on, I’ve already solved, which was making CVS receipts shorter. I beat that drum so many times that they decided to come on my show and announce that they were shortening their receipts, and I considered that to be a real triumph.
Does any of the man-on-the-street stuff that you do, like “Lie Witness News,” depress you?
I love to watch people lie. I realize that people will say almost anything if you put a microphone in front of their face, and one thing people do not want to seem like is that they’re uninformed.
What’s the relationship like with ABC these days? Do they keep you alone for the most part?
I have a very good relationship with them. We bumped heads at the beginning, and there are times always that we have disagreements, or we don’t feel like we’re getting enough attention, but for the most part, we figured out where their line is, and they figured out where our line is, and we just kind of stay between those lines.
You’ve been a good corporate citizen over the years, too. In promoting Shondaland and other Disney/ABC properties.
I will only get involved in the shows that actually interest me. I was obsessed with Lost, and I talked a lot about that. My wife and I get very involved in “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” and I actually gamble on “Dancing with the Stars.” If you bet on “Dancing with the Stars,” it makes it a whole lot more interesting, and I’ve won more money on “Dancing with the Stars” than I ever won off of sports.
You’re locked in at ABC now until 2019. But you’re still a young guy. Could see doing this for, say, another decade, another 15 years?
No, no, no, no way. Not that long. I don’t know. I have three years coming up on my latest contract, and maybe the last year I’ll see how I feel about it. I just want to go fishing, and I don’t want to work 11 hours a day, so I think about it a lot. I want to buy a house in like Wyoming, or Montana, and just go there and hang out. I have almost no free time, but this little voice in the back of my head goes, “Once you stop doing this, you’ll miss it.” It’ll be the worst of both worlds for me, because it’ll be a lot of work, and I’ll slog through it while I’m doing it, and then I’ll have this false memory of it being wonderful all the time, and I’ll feel bad that I’m not on television anymore.
Could you see yourself maybe doing a different kind of show?
Maybe, or producing shows, writing, that kind of thing. I don’t like putting makeup on. It’s emasculating.
Let’s jump to the Emmys – obviously you’ve done this before. What did you take from your past hosting experiences that you might apply this time?
It’s funny. You really do learn. I hosted the American Music Awards five times, and each time was better than the last because I figured the audience out. I think I now understand the Emmy audience. Half of them are celebrities, and most of them just want to know if they won or not, so they can relax, and either win and go onstage, and get that out of the way, and lose, and go drink, or go home.
It’s such a thankless job. Why do it?
I don’t think it’s a thankless job necessarily. You have to do a great job for people to give you any kind of credit, but there is something fun about it. All the TV stars are there in one room, and there is a world of possibilities. As far as speeches and presenters go, it’s the best show, because you have people who do this for a living in that room, and you get to see Steve Carrell on stage, or a guy like Ty Burrell, who gives the greatest speeches every time he wins. You don’t necessarily get that at other awards.
Is there much preparing that goes into hosting the Emmys?
There’s a tremendous amount of preparation that goes into it, and I have all my writers from the show working on the Emmy show. The hard part is figuring out which jokes will really play because a group of comedy writers might have a different mentality than America. You have to figure out the mood.
I assume you’re doing pre-tapes for the Emmys, while at the same time still doing stuff for your regular show.
I just try to jam it into the weekends, and before and after the show. We’re pre-taping something that I think is very good, and I think people will like it.
You’re nominated as well. It’s an interesting year for the variety talk category, which has been dominated by Comedy Central shows for many years. Those shows aren’t nominated this year. Are you feeling different about the category now?
No. I don’t have any expectation that we’re going to win. I won’t be disappointed when we don’t win. I shouldn’t even say if we don’t win. I think that it’s nice that “The Daily Show”/”The Colbert Report” death grip has been released. But in a way, it was also kind of comforting, because you never felt any pressure to win.
Did you ever write a speech?
Never, nor will I this year.
Do you have much time to watch much TV outside of the show?
Oh, yeah. I make time for television, even if it comes at the expense of my child. It’s become a bit of a burden because there are too many good shows. I know “Narcos” back, and that’s going to set me back. I actually had hostility toward Netflix for putting Narcos on before I host the Emmys. Couldn’t they wait until the Emmys were over, so I can focus on this job that I have to do?
Is there anything else that you’ve enjoyed recently, like “The Night of” or “Stranger Things”?
“Stranger Things” is great. It is one of those shows that people beat me into submission to watch. Finally I just watched it so they would stop telling me to watch it! And it was great.
Isn’t it about time that Jimmy Kimmel hosted the Oscars?
Not according to them, it isn’t.
You’re always on the short list.
I know. I’m always on the short list. Maybe they do that just so I don’t feel bad about myself, but I never felt that there was any real, serious consideration.
If asked, you would serve?
Yes. If asked, I would do it. That’s not to say I wouldn’t immediately regret saying yes, as I do with almost everything I agree to. The Oscars really does seem like a no-win situation, but in a way that makes you want to win. It’s a challenge, and nobody’s ever happy with the host.
Are you ever amazed at how much your life has changed over the past 14 years? Now you really are buddies with so many A-listers. In one bit, for example, Rihanna showed up to your house in the middle of the night while you were sleeping!
Yeah. I wouldn’t say Rihanna and I are friends… “lovers” is I think a better term to use.
Nonetheless, this is a life that you could’ve obviously never predicted.
It’s funny though, because people are so focused on that, but they don’t realize that almost all my friends from high school are regularly in my life. These people that I grew up with are now mixed in with celebrities. Doing a talk show is like speed dating. You meet three or four celebrities every single night, and inevitably, as it goes with human beings, you’re going to say, “Oh, that guy … ” Especially if you’re meeting some funny people. Then maybe you spot them at a dinner, or at a party, or something, and you exchange information. As a result, I’ve wound up with celebrity friends. It’s kind of embarrassing because I don’t think of myself as a guy who has celebrity friends.
You have somehow managed to balance the old school with the new school.
If you’re not in the top 400 on IMDB, you’re not allowed in my home. It’s as simple as that.
Are you exhausted after 14 years?
I was exhausted at the beginning, but I have a two-year-old daughter now, so it makes it even more exhausting. This job is a job that you start working on when you wake up, and then you stop working on it when you go to sleep, and then every once in a while, you wake up in the middle of the night, and write something down on a Post-It, so you don’t even necessarily stop working on it when you go to sleep.
Have your hours at least improved over the years?
They have. We kept the title “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” but the show isn’t actually live anymore. We used to be on at 9:05PM every night. That was really bad, because we didn’t get home until earliest, maybe 10:30, 11:00. As the staff started having children, they said, “Hey, I’d like to see them every once in a while.” Now we tape at 5:00. It’s more humane.
Do you ever miss radio?
I still love it. There’s nothing better than radio. In radio, you apologize afterwards. In television, you get shot down before something goes on the air. [Radio has] the immediacy, it’s just more casual, and I think it’s more intimate.
Do you see some of your radio roots come out now, as a TV host?
In radio, you don’t have a staff typically. So you do everything yourself. That is something that I have a hard time with, giving that up, and not just doing everything. There’s so many times when I’ll ask, “Hey, find out what the elevation of Mount McKinley is,” and by the time I’m finished asking him the question, I’ve already typed it, and found out the answer. Then I pretend when he tells me that I don’t know, just so he doesn’t feel like a jerk. I have a hard time letting go of every little thing.
You seem still open to any idea, any possibility, and that feels like a very radio thing, too.
I am. Maybe I shouldn’t be. There is so much variety when it comes to television. You can put on a five-minute bit that took you three weeks to shoot, and a week and a half to write, and maybe two months to book, and it eats up a certain amount of time, or you can just go on the air, and tell a story about your cousin. Ultimately to the audience, there’s not a huge difference, but the fact that those two things exist on the same show, I think, is unique to late-night television.
The Jimmy Kimmel origin story is all about you growing up with a love for David Letterman. You finally had Mr. Letterman on your show a couple years ago. Now that he’s off the air, what has that meant for you, that he’s no longer in the game? What did you think of his farewell?
It feels like another step closer to death, it really does. I saw the movie “Sully,” and there’s a scene where they go on the Letterman show. It reminded me of how much I missed seeing him, and having him on TV. For me, it was my identity as a junior high and high school student. I had a little group of friends who also loved David Letterman. One of them is my bandleader now, Cleto, and we’d talk about the show every day at school.
What was that like, going up against your idol, as a competitor?
I think I somehow put that out of my head. I know that that is true, but almost like a hooker, I managed to disassociate from that. It’s clear to me now that, yeah, I was a competitor to Dave, but to me, Dave was like a mountain or something. This is not something that I could ever put myself on any kind of equal playing field with.
In some ways, does it feel like the baton was passed?
It feels like the baton was passed over, and I got hit in the head with it on the way! I’ve been on for a very long time. I don’t know how much longer I’ll do this job, and I almost feel like Dave, Jay, and I were the old guard or something.
So there’s been a lot of conversation over the past year or two about your beard.
Oh, yeah. It’s trending.
It’s so rare midway through to see a host change their look. I remember when Letterman started wearing glasses.
Letterman changed his looked a lot. You remember, there was a time where he just ditched the suit entirely, and was wearing rugby shirts and khaki pants. There was the wrestling shoes era, where he’d wear the Adidas lace-up wrestling shoes instead of dress shoes. There was the time of the tasseled shoe for Dave Letterman, where he wore those kind of slip-on loafers with the tassels, and then white socks I think was his final act of rage against the fashion industry.
You are truly a student of David Letterman.
The beard I grew on vacation, and my wife begged me not to shave it, and so I left it on, and then a lot of people said they liked it. Then some people at ABC said they didn’t like it, and that’s really all I need to hear.
How’s Oprah? Have you talked to her recently?
Oprah was on the show in June, and from time to time, I will. I don’t know how she learned Oprah’s name, but my daughter, who was only saying maybe five or six words at the time, somehow pointed to the [Oprah] magazine and said, “Oprah!” I don’t know if it was born in her, or she heard us talking about Oprah, or what, but we sent the little video of my daughter Jane saying “Oprah,” to the magazine, and Oprah at least pretended to be delighted.
What would you say is the biggest change over the 14 years, for you, and for the show?
I think confidence is probably the biggest change. I was so nervous when we were on the air live, and we were putting D-level guests on the show, that I would sometimes forget the guests’ names during an interview. Things that you do when you’re nervous, and feeling rushed, and having to watch the clock, because you have to hit the commercial breaks at the right time. Now I understand: Sometimes we’ll have good shows, and sometimes the shows won’t be so great, and you just have to accept that. Of course, you try to have great shows every night, if you can. I don’t feel like it’s the end of the world when I don’t have a great one, and I feel confident every night that we can at least put a decent show on.
Listen to excerpts of our interview with Kimmel on this week’s episode of KCRW’s “The Business” here. (Thanks to producer Kaitlin Parker.) The 68th Emmy Awards airs live on Sunday, Sept. 18 at 8pm ET/ 5 pm PT on ABC.