Ten years after ABC began making trouble when it tried to pinch late-night stars from CBS and NBC to replace “Nightline,” the network will finally move homegrown talent Jimmy Kimmel into the time slot Tuesday.
When Kimmel takes his spot at 11:35 p.m., he’ll take on two towering figures — and the two men ABC tried to steal within the past decade: CBS’s David Letterman and NBC’s Jay Leno.
For ABC suits who’ve long thought they could make more money in the time period with competitive entertainment programming rather than with news, it’s the culmination of a dream of breaking into the late-night talk-show big league.
But that’s a blink of an eye compared with the 30-some years Kimmel has been working his way toward Tuesday.
“I know moving from midnight to 11:35 might not sound like a big deal — it’s only 25 minutes — but it’s probably the most important 25 minutes of my life, since the first 14 times I had sex,” Kimmel told his audience in August, on the day ABC announced “Jimmy Kimmel Live’s” promotion.
Jay and Dave, meanwhile, have reacted in a very big way to TV’s biggest move of the first quarter.
Leno’s starting his show one minute earlier — at 11:34 p.m. — during Kimmel’s first week in the earlier start time, in hopes of getting a jump on his new competition.
Letterman, on the other hand, paid a visit to Kimmel’s show in the days leading up to the promotion to wish him the best.
Kimmel’s move has been ABC-parent Disney’s best-choreographed debut since “The Lion King” opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway in the late ’90s.
Leading up to the auspicious occasion, Kimmel has been thrust into the spotlight repeatedly for a solid year of star-making.
●In February, he kissed and made up with the longtime object of his ridicule, Oprah Winfrey, on his seventh annual “After the Academy Awards” special, scoring the second-largest crowd in the show’s history — more than 5 million viewers.
●In April, he hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
●In July, his show received its very first Primetime Emmy Award nomination.
●In September, Kimmel hosted the Emmy Awards for the first time and got mostly rave reviews.
●In October, Kimmel — who’s been obsessed with Letterman since he was a youngster and says he only got into TV in hopes of becoming Dave’s friend — took his show to his home town of Brooklyn to kiss Letterman’s ring and wound up staring down Hurricane Sandy from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For keeping the date, Letterman gave Kimmel his blessing: “I want to wish you the best of luck when you move the show. . . . I couldn’t be happier to have you in the running.”
●In December, Kimmel joined Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Ray Romano to pay homage to Letterman at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony.
On Tuesday, “JKL” will have a shiny new set but will still be located at the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard — its sidewalk chockablock with Frankensteins, Chewbaccas and other adults who have cast aside dignity — the perfect backdrop for Kimmel’s popular man-on-the-street video bits. A handful of new features have been added to the rotation in the weeks leading up to the show’s return from holiday break. Other than that, Kimmel says, they will be “pretty much doing the same show that we’ve been doing.”
He dismisses as “a little bit out of date” suggestions that ABC will want him to “broaden the show, or make it more wholesome, or something like that” once it starts airing earlier.
“Things have become so fragmented that you can continue doing the show that you’ve been doing and have . . . success at 11:35 — although I could be wrong,” he says.
Kimmel has worked hard to placate ABC in the years since the network plucked him from Comedy Central’s celebration of male loutishness, “The Man Show,” to headline a talk show in the hour after “Nightline.” “The Man Show” was billed as the “anti-Oprah” and featured the Juggy Dance Squad, Girls on Trampolines, midget gags and a liquored-up studio audience. In short, it appealed to young male viewers. Advertisers especially love young male viewers. Networks love advertisers.
And yet, almost immediately, ABC began to tinker.
When “Jimmy Kimmel Live” debuted Jan. 26, 2003, the rumpled, sallow-skinned couch potato eschewed opening monologues, refused to wear a suit or tie, and had been heard to say, “I would kill myself if I was forced to interview C-level celebrities and pretend to be interested in them.” Members of the studio audience were served alcohol, but ABC 86’d the booze after a woman in the audience vomited during the premiere.
In 2004, when a guest swore and the ABC Decency Police failed to catch it in time, the network insisted the show be taped early in the evening like other late-night broadcasts. The show’s name became ironic.
Other things have changed, too. Kimmel is considerably slimmed down and gets his bald spot covered up by a makeup artist before every show. He wears dapper suits and ties to interview “Dancing With the Stars” rejects and openly declares his admiration of Oprah. His show has become very much a traditional late-night talk show – only hipper around the edges.
Kimmel’s “figured it out, and his producer has figured out, and the network was really smart and nurtured it,” says Lloyd Braun, who was ABC Entertainment boss at the time the network hired Kimmel. “They’ve been great, getting Jimmy out from behind the desk — even the way he dresses.”
Kimmel, who lacks the corniness of Leno but also the dry wit of Letterman, continues to be the best deadpan cipher in the business. But he’s also unabashedly sentimental. The show’s bandleader, Cleto Escobedo III, is a childhood pal, and his Aunt Chippy is a regular. He’s got relatives writing, directing and booking guests; Uncle Frank was a fixture on the show until his death in 2011.
But what really put Kimmel’s show on the map was the January 2008 appearance of his then-girlfriend Sarah Silverman, who surprised him with a birthday gift — a video called “I’m F------ Matt Damon,” in which she and Damon sang a duet about all the places they were supposedly having sex behind Kimmel’s back.
The video went viral, and Kimmel had the good sense to follow it, a month later, with his own response video, “I’m F------ Ben Affleck,” which was jammed with celebrity cameos. That September, Silverman won a Creative Arts Emmy for writing the first song, and Kimmel was a made man.
In his new time slot, Kimmel’s taking on two guys in their 60s with a couple of years left on what could be their final contracts. Letterman will have broken Johnny Carson’s 30-year record on late-night TV, and there’s speculation NBC will let Leno go at the end of his deal and give “Tonight” to Jimmy Fallon.
Both “Leno” and “Letterman” are trending down ratings-wise. Less than a decade ago, Letterman was attracting more than 7 million viewers and Leno more than 5 million. This season to date, Letterman’s averaging about 3.1 million viewers, and Leno 3.6 million. Meanwhile, Kimmel’s been averaging about 2 million viewers — his biggest-ever audience through this point in any of his seasons.
Kimmel said recently that he does not expect to beat Jay or Dave when he moves to 11:35 but does expect his numbers to go up substantially, if only for the reason that a lot more people are watching TV then than at midnight.
The shadow of Letterman looms large, as Kimmel has made a career of obsessing over his idol. And it’s been great for business.
There’s no reticence about Kimmel when it comes to Letterman. He’s like one of those Arthurian knights who used to jump up on the Round Table and break into a song about how much he loved his girlfriend.
It can be a little creepy.
“JKL” executive producer Jill Leiderman who, not coincidentally, was a producer for Letterman, says the two men have a lot in common.
“Thoroughbred,” is how she describes them, saying that they are creatures of habit, have “excellent work ethic” and always are well-prepared guests when they appear on interview programs. Both men “engender tremendous loyalty among their staff,” she said.
When Letterman visited “JKL” recently, out came the photos of his old L8 NITE license plate and a childhood birthday “Late Night” sheet cake.
“It might be pathetic to say, but it was probably one of the most meaningful moments of my life,” Kimmel said of Dave’s first visit to his show.
Part and parcel with idolizing Letterman comes hating Leno, though Letterman last month told journalist Charlie Rose that the period of his life when he was lashing out at losing “Tonight” to Leno was “some of the worst behavior of my life.”
Kimmel’s not listening.
“Everyone is better than Leno,” he told New York magazine recently as part of his walk-up to his new time slot.
On a conference call with reporters to plug the time change, Kimmel warned the press: “Never count Jay out. He’s like Jason in ‘Friday the 13th.’ He seems to pop up just when you think he’s dead — he comes alive, and he’s got a hatchet.”
But when asked how he can position himself to take down Letterman in the ratings, Kimmel’s got a ready answer:
“It’s like if Nolan Ryan is pitching to you. You still have to try to hit the ball, no matter how many baseball cards you might have in your bedroom or posters of him on the wall.”
(One hour) returns Tuesday at 11:35 p.m. on ABC.