LOS ANGELES - After watching the Flaming Lips whip his audience into a frenzy, Jimmy Kimmel quietly headed upstairs to his office above Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre, twisted open a Diet Snapple and took his favorite seat - right on the carpet.
As he chatted about the show, two of his cousins burst in with cookies, babbling with enthusiasm over how well things had gone. In the hubbub, one spilled Kimmel’s drink all over the shag. After a few wisecracks, Kimmel calmly ushered them out, then, in mock anger, slammed the door in their faces.
What made the bit even funnier is that Kimmel has done everything but shut out his family in the three years since his debut as a talk-show host.
His willingness to embrace - and employ - relatives and old friends is a key reason that “Jimmy Kimmel Live” has developed into the coziest, most welcoming hour in late-night TV, as more and more people are discovering. “Live” now reaches about 1.5 million viewers, a far cry from Jay Leno’s 4 million fans but a spike of nearly 20 percent from a year ago, making Kimmel by far the biggest winner among the late-night crowd.
As a vote of confidence, ABC recently gave him a prime-time special, signed him to host a game show, “Set for Life,” set to premiere this season, and extended his contract through 2008. He also will be host of the American Music Awards for the third time on Nov. 21.
Along for the ride are some of the most unlikely TV regulars since the Munsters, including Uncle Frank, a “security guard” who knows nothing about showbiz, except that he loves the camera, and Cousin Sal, who still thinks it’s hilarious when someone pulls his finger. The show’s band leader is Kimmel’s closest childhood friend, Cleto Escobedo, who, in turn, hired his dad to play horns.
“It blows my mind to see Uncle Frank on the red carpet, tugging on James Gandolfini’s sleeve,” said Kimmel from his office, which includes bunk beds for his two kids, minutes after taping a show that celebrated National Cousins Day. “I don’t know why. I just get a kick out of seeing them do things.”
Whether deliberate or accidental, that family-friendly vibe has slowly but surely helped Kimmel distance himself from the crass persona he had created in the decade before, ogling women on trampolines for “The Man Show,” harassing helpless phone operators on the prank-call show “Crank Yankers” and mercilessly ridiculing Terry Bradshaw on Fox’s NFL pregame show.
In person, he’s one of the most congenial guys in show business.
Last summer he spent two hours stationed at a grill in 100-plus heat, flipping burgers for a gathering of TV critics (almost all of whom agreed that his efforts were far superior to Rachael Ray’s earlier in the week.)
To celebrate the birthday of his girlfriend, comic Sarah Silverman, he got the recipe for her favorite popovers from a New York bakery, fabricating the raspberry butter from scratch.
“He’s kind of a `Will & Grace’ type,” said head writer Steve O’Donnell, referring to his boss’ feminine side.
The transition from pig to populist may be best exemplified by Kimmel’s relationship with the city of Detroit.
In 2004, he joked that the city would burn if the Pistons won the NBA finals, but that “it wasn’t worth it.” Detroit went into an uproar, and the local ABC affiliate briefly yanked him from its schedule. Kimmel immediately apologized, but the sore feelings didn’t really dissipate until he brought his show to the Motor City last winter during Super Bowl week.
“It turned into this weird bonding thing with the city,” Kimmel said. “Now people think I’m actually from Detroit.”
The show is way more mainstream than when it debuted.
Kimmel has taken some of the sting out of his taped bits, adopted a more standard opening monologue and even sprinkles in political jokes - something he once swore he’d never do. The program no longer is shown live, allowing for a few precious hours to smooth out the edges in the editing room.
Gone is much of the spontaneity and unpredictable nature of the first year, and that’s just fine with him.
“I look back at early shows, and the show was all over the place. It was a madhouse,‘“he said. “Sometimes it was great. Sometimes it was an absolute disaster. It’s like being a drug addict. There were high highs and low lows. You can’t live like that. There has to be middle ground.”
To get to that place, Kimmel heeded advice from network suits. Andrea Wong, ABC’s executive vice president for late night, convinced him to do a stand-up routine at the start of the show instead of rushing to his desk. Former Disney chief Michael Eisner and ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson talked him into wearing a tie, although he shucks it as soon as the cameras go cold.
“I recently learned how to tie one myself,” said Kimmel, who turns 39 on Monday. “I would have a tie in a knot and never quite undo them all the way, so they would just hang in a loop for years. I still have knots from junior high school.”
He knew all along, deep down, that he’d eventually have to embrace more tried-and-true traditions, he said. After all, he’d been preparing for this job for years.
O’Donnell remembers when he was head writer for David Letterman, and that show broadcast from Las Vegas for a week. After the final taping, two local teenagers stayed behind and approached him. They were Kimmel and Escobedo.
“If someone recognizes writers from shows, you know right away that they’re lunatic fans,” O’Donnell said. “Jimmy expressed a desire to look around backstage, which you would normally never do, but I liked him well enough, so I showed him around. He named all his favorite bits, which seemed to be ours, as well.”
Executive producer Jill Leiderman, another former member of the Letterman team, said that Kimmel reminds her a lot of her former boss.
“Dave was committed to the art and day-to-day grunt work of being a talk-show host. He lived it and breathed it. Jimmy does the same thing,” said Leiderman, who took the job last April. “He’s up at ungodly hours scouring the Internet, looking for clips. It’s an unending job. From the first time I met him, I felt how badly he wanted it.”
Kimmel, the late-night pupil, knows that the next step is moving up to a more respectable hour of the night, something that competitor Conan O’Brien will be doing when Jay Leno hands over “The Tonight Show” to him in 2009. But he also knows that he’s fortunate to be thriving and smart enough to take a moment and enjoy it.
“It would be exciting to get the opportunity that Letterman had to switch networks to get and that Conan has waited so long to get, but it’s not the worst thing to be on when we are,” he said. “The important thing is to try and do a good job night after night and, maybe, after years and years, people will kind of give you credit for it and rely on you to be funny.”
Jan. 26, 2003 - “Jimmy Kimmel Live” premieres with guests George Clooney and Coldplay.
March 6, 2003 - Andy Milonakis makes his first appearance, via web video, with the song “The Super Bowl Is Gay.” Kimmel helps the bizarre comic get an MTV show.
March 31, 2003 - Mike Tyson co-hosts for a week. He returns two years later to sing “Monster Mash” with Bobby Brown.
April 21, 2004 - Quentin Tarantino directs an episode featuring Steven Wright, Laura Herring and his signature camera shots. J.J. Abrams helms an episode in May 2006.
July 15, 2005 - Kimmel premieres the first of the five-part video “Trapped in the Closet, The Pizza,” a parody of the R. Kelly hit.
Nov. 15, 2005 - In a TV farewell, Destiny’s Child performs “Survivor” and “Stand Up For Love.”
Jan. 31, 2006 - After insulting Detroit, Kimmel does his show from Motown for Super Bowl week.
May 15, 2006 - In a tribute to “Grey’s Anatomy,” the entire show is staged in a fake hospital ward.
Sept. 13, 2006 - Kimmel, who had been signing off by apologizing to Matt Damon for having to bump him, finally has the Oscar winner on - and then tells him they’ve run out of time.