When ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” made its debut in January 2003, it was promoted as something really, really different for network late night television. It was. But, as even its host admits now, not necessarily in the best of ways.
“The first night we did the show - a show I’ve never watched, by the way - I had nothing prepared when I walked out and sat behind the desk,” says Kimmel who was 35 at the time and a graduate of Comedy Central’s school of testosterone-driven, edgy humor.
“I thought that I was going to do just like” daytime talk show host Regis Philbin “does it: Walk out there and just b-s and, hopefully, it would be funny. And sometimes, it was funny but most of the time, it wasn’t.”
A lot has changed on “Kimmel” (12:05 a.m. EST weekdays) since those early, chaotic days when Kimmel was winging it every night on a show televised live in much of the country, the audience being served booze and strictly D-list guests.
Once written off as a sure loser in the late night wars, the show has not only managed to survive for four seasons but has seen a ratings surge over the past year. Its nightly viewership has jumped to more than 1.8 million, up nearly 15 percent in total viewers and (more importantly to the network) up 17 percent in younger viewers. That still puts it behind the competition - “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” the leader, draws 6 million viewers - but it is a vast improvement over the early days.
Tonight, “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” will get another boost with a special Sunday edition (11:30 p.m. EST) after the heavily watched Academy Awards. Kimmel himself is set to get even more exposure when he hosts the prime-time game show, “Set for Life.”
“The show has gone through a great growth, and people are starting to catch on,” says ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson. “It takes time to grow these late-night people, and Jimmy’s a real asset for us and he’s going to be part of our network for a long time.”
Kimmel says there are many reasons for the improvement, “but just like anything, you get better at what you do as you go along. And I’ve always been a person who always takes a little while to grow on you. It’s been that way for me on the radio and on the other TV shows I’ve done.
“Things never really seem to start out with a bang for me. That’s probably why I never had a girlfriend in high school. It takes a good two years before people make their decision on me.”
Still, “Kimmel” is a very different show than it was in the early days when the host and the show’s production staff tried to bring Kimmel’s success and sensibilities on Comedy Central’s “The Man Show” and “Win Ben Stein’s Money” to a major network.
It no longer looks like a cable access show, it’s no longer live and the experiment with booze lasted only a couple of nights. The behind-the-scenes production staff has gone through numerous changes, most notably the hiring last April of Jill Leiderman as the show’s executive producer. An alumna of Letterman’s “Late Show,” she is credited with boosting the star power of the show’s guests.
“Talk shows die so quickly that publicists don’t want to commit their clients to something that might not be around for very long. You’re really on your own for the first couple of years,” says Kimmel.
It also didn’t help that “we did everything last-second. We operated like a D student does his homework: You do the whole book report the night before.”
Even more importantly, Kimmel discovered that the traditional trappings of a late night talk show weren’t necessarily bad things.
“When they asked us to do the show, we didn’t want to do something crazy but we did want to do something different,” he says. That was a mistake in retrospect. In a way, doing a talk show is like playing baseball. Essentially, the basics are the basics.”
So, now, “Kimmel” follows what has been the tried and true format of late night: a monologue from the host who now wears a coat and tie, a few prepared bits and then the guests. “We’ve come closer and closer to doing it the way everyone else does it. You just learn that certain things work and you shouldn’t screw with them,” the host says.
That doesn’t mean the edge has totally gone out of Kimmel’s show. “You never want to walk away from your hard-core fans,” says Kimmel. “The show’s still edgy compared to most late-night shows, I think.”
Kimmel’s humor certainly remains closer to the edge than the more restrained jokes of Jay Leno and David Letterman. The show still has guests and musical acts you won’t see elsewhere. And weird things still happen like a recent hour in which comedian Andy Dick had to be hauled off the stage by the host and security guards after he got a bit too friendly with Ivanka Trump. (“Andy has some problems that I hope he gets help with. That was real,” says Kimmel.)
As for the show’s future, though, late night seems to be more crowded and competitive with each passing year. Not only does Kimmel have to face off with his network rivals but he also competes for viewers with Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert hour and the popular Adult Swim of edgy animation on the Cartoon Network.
And Kimmel knows that even more changes are coming to the late night scene, most notably “The Tonight Show’s” transition from Leno to O’Brien in 2009.
“It’s almost like the situation in the Middle East. You don’t know what the hell is going to happen,” says Kimmel.
“I’m anxious to see how it plays out because it used to be so rare when anything happened in late night television. For all this stuff to happen at once, it has to be related to global warming.”
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!
Airing: 11:30 p.m. EST Sunday (special Academy Awards edition)
Regular time: 12:05 a.m. EST weekdays