Sprawled wearily on the couch in his Hollywood office last week, his hair mussed, Jimmy Kimmel looked like he should have a TV remote in his hands. Or a beer. Or both.
Wearing jeans, a T-shirt and white athletic socks, he looked, in other words, a lot like his prototypical viewer-which is both part of his appeal and part of the challenge faced by his underdog late-night ABC talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
The Emmy voters who have yet to nominate his program, he said, dismiss him as “a meathead.” Network censors, with whom he battles daily, tell him he’s too vulgar.
But his fans are increasing.
“Kimmel” is up 17 percent among adults 18 to 49 over last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Meanwhile, NBC’s “The Tonight Show” is flat, “Late Show with David Letterman” is down 7 percent and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” is up 10 percent.
In turn, the gains have upped ABC’s appreciation of Mr. Kimmel. The network is set to announce that, for a second consecutive year, Mr. Kimmel will host a special to air after the Academy Awards telecast. Plus the network is preparing to schedule his midseason game show “Set for Life.”
“In late-night, being comfortable with people is a big deal,” said Tim Brooks, executive VP of research for Lifetime. “You’re watching in your jammies. Kimmel has grown on people, though it’s taken him awhile. There was a slow erosion the first three years and now they’ve turned it around to have their best year yet.”
ABC is top-ranked this fall among the broadcast networks, but is still down 2 percent in prime time season to date among adults 18 to 49. So “Kimmel’s” growth is likely due to the program itself, which critics say has improved this season as Mr. Kimmel has grown into his talk show host role.
One turning point for the show was when Mr. Kimmel gained national attention bringing his show to Detroit, 19 months after angering the city with a joke about sports fans burning down the town should they lose an NBA game. A couple months later, the show also hired a new executive producer, “Late Show” veteran Jill Leiderman, who has helped give polish to the series that has attracted higher-caliber guests.
When his show launched in 2003, Mr. Kimmel wanted to shake up the late-night format. He had a live show, with a different co-host every week. He dressed relatively casually and performed a politics-free monologue from his chair, among other talk show taboos.
Gradually, he realized such innovations were alienating viewers and guests. The show stopped being aired live (though kept the “Live” moniker) and ceased adding guest hosts, which proved logistically difficult as well.
“You’re not gonna book an Oscar-nominated actress six weeks in advance when you don’t know who the guest host is going to be,” he said.
Mr. Kimmel started dressing more conservatively as well, even agreeing to wear a tie. He moved his monologue to the edge of the stage.
“We’ve come closer and closer to doing it the way everyone else does it,” he said. “You just learn that certain things work and you shouldn’t screw with them.”
Mr. Kimmel has also added some political jokes, but otherwise remains protective of his show’s sense of humor. Though he said he has a good relationship with ABC, he said he constantly battles with network censors.
“Every day there’s something that we’re told we can’t do,” he said. “For standards and practices people, it’s not to their advantage to let things go. It’s all about covering your ass.”
For example, he said, “You can’t say `goddamn,’ which is ridiculous to me. You can’t say `Jesus.’ You can say `asshole’ if you’re referring to someone as jerk, but you can’t say `asshole’ if you’re referring to your actual asshole. It’s so stupid.”
Interest in pushing boundaries hasn’t endeared him to Emmy voters, who have yet to nominate the program.
Mr. Kimmel first gained national attention as co-host of Comedy Central’s raunchy “The Man Show.” Winning an award for “Kimmel” “would be great,” he said, “but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.”
“People have a perception of you, and they’re gonna stick with that perception for a long time,” he said. “I can’t go back in time to `The Man Show’ and change that.”
‘Not Tempted’ to Defect
With increased ratings have come some speculation that ABC could lose Mr. Kimmel when his contract expires in 2008. Conan O’Brien will replace Jay Leno as host of “The Tonight Show” in 2009, leaving a vacancy in Mr. Conan’s current slot. But Mr. Kimmel dismissed the idea of moving.
“No, that would not be tempting to me,” he said. “I like working here. I don’t look that far ahead.”
That isn’t to say others might not be interested in him.
A successful late-night talk show is a broadcast cash machine-inexpensive, daily programming that still draws healthy ad revenue. “The Tonight Show” accounts for 15 percent of NBC’s advertising revenue. But grooming a host can take years. It’s one of the few on-camera entertainment positions where age and experience beat youth and guile. Being the most funny will not win the night-critics argue Jay Leno hasn’t been funny in years, and he’s seen by 5.7 million viewers compared with Mr. Kimmel’s 1.8 million and Mr. O’Brien’s 2.6 million.
Fox has long been in the market for a late-night host, and Mr. Kimmel is on-brand for the network. Asked whether he’d be interested in gaining Mr. Kimmel, Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori simply asked, “Who wouldn’t be a fan of Jimmy Kimmel?”
But as Mr. Kimmel said, he doesn’t plan that far ahead.
Though lounging on his office couch he looks as laid-back as his fans, the moment his TelevisionWeek interview ends he’ll be diving into his cramped schedule with a perfectionist’s zeal.
“I have six segments to shoot today,” he said. “What are the odds that all of them are going to be good? And wouldn’t most people be happy with five out of six? But I won’t be happy. I’ll be bummed that one out of six went horribly.”