Compared with David Letterman and Jay Leno (and Jimmy Fallon in a few months) Kimmel is the bad boy of latenight -- and it's clearly a role he relishes.
Kanye West (they made up on the show), angered Asian advocacy orgs with a segment in which a child suggested killing Chinese people as a way to solve the national debt crisis, and raised the ire of child-rearing experts with a stunt involving parents lying to kids about eating all their Halloween candy. Amid all this, Kimmel and his staffers managed to dupe hundreds of news outlets with a fake YouTube vid featuring a young woman who sets herself on fire after a twerking mishap.
"Thank you for helping us to deceive the world," Kimmel said with a mischievous grin on the Sept. 8 edition of "Jimmy Kimmel Live" when he revealed that the twerking vid had been produced by the show with a stuntwoman.
Kimmel's critics say he has a habit of crossing the line separating comedy from cruelty, such as the Oct. 16 installment of his "Kids Table" segment, in which he discusses complex issues with young children. A discussion of the debt crisis led one kid to suggest that the U.S. "kill everyone in China."
The backlash was quick and fierce, forcing an on-air apology from Kimmel and written mea culpas from ABC execs. The segment has been yanked off the Web and removed from any future reruns. Some orgs are still protesting the show and ABC, and even the White House is due to respond to an anti-Kimmel petition that gathered more than 100,000 signatures in a matter of days. (Despite the public apologies and the show's promise to drop the Kids Table segment entirely, hundreds of anti-Kimmel protestors gathered outside ABC's headquarters in Burbank on Nov. 9, and smaller demonstrations were held in Phoenix, Boston and other cities).
But in a world where no press is bad press, Kimmel is a master at pulling levers to keep his show high on the pop culture buzz meter and differentiated from his competition.
"This stuff can be Viagra for a career," says Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com and a veteran Hollywood image-maker. "Jimmy has a very good sense of self and what it is that makes his show different from the competition. The (viral) videos and the controversies -- that's just gold for a demographic that isn't even watching the show in real time, but more likely watching clips on their smartphone."
Kimmel, who turns 46 on Nov. 13, has definitely grown up on air since "Jimmy Kimmel Live" bowed on Jan. 26, 2003, after ABC's telecast of the Super Bowl.
It's hard to reconcile the svelte man sitting on his office sofa, red tie slightly askew and suit jacket open, with the doughy guy who once gleefully offered gratuitous slow-motion shots of women jumping on trampolines on the Comedy Central series "The Man Show."
These days, the newly married Kimmel has learned to love the suit-and-tie uniform of latenight, watches his weight and spends a lot of time raising money for causes close to this heart.
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After a decade on the air, "Jimmy Kimmel Live" has become a potent franchise for ABC. So much so that Kimmel's upgrade to the 11:35 p.m. slot in January made NBC nervous enough to accelerate the Leno-Fallon handoff at "The Tonight Show," now set for February.
"I don't really know how any of this happened," says Kimmel of his longevity at ABC. "I just stumbled from radio to TV, then I became a talkshow host."
He likens his trajectory to the period when his father went from being a short-order cook to an executive at IBM.
"I guess you just grow up and put on the suit," Kimmel says.
Kimmel loves playing within established talkshow guidelines, which he compares to Italian restaurants. The aesthetics might be the same, but the challenge is to be unique within the guidelines of a general recipe.