Jimmy Kimmel, reluctant American firebrand and until recently the third person mentioned in any conversation about the crowded field of late-night talk show hosts, has nevertheless found and tentatively occupied the space that remains stubbornly vacant since the back-to-back retirements of David Letterman and Jon Stewart in 2015.
Following a curious evolution process that turned late-night hosts into the nation's moral conscience, Kimmel's words are hitting viewers in a way that vaults over the many thousands of urgent words from pundits, columnists, journalists and others who talk about complicated issues for a living. Without saying anything new, Kimmel is saying everything right.
Leading with his heart instead of his cheesy grin, and letting the nation see a grown man care enough about something to cry, he has spoken movingly on his ABC show, "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," about the potential cruelty contained in Republican proposals to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act; and, in a 10-minute monologue Monday night about the shooting massacre that killed 59 people and wounded more than 500 at an outdoor concert in his home town of Las Vegas, he called out the National Rifle Association's ability to prevent the sort of gun-control laws a majority of voters say they want.
"It's the kind of thing that makes you want to throw up or give up, it's too much to even process," Kimmel said.
Three times now, in a media landscape that tends to celebrate the know-it-all, Kimmel has shown an appealingly naive yet skeptical grace in his outrage. It's less Howard Beale (the famously unhinged anchorman in the 1976 film "Network") and more akin to Kimmel's lifetime idol, Letterman, who perfected an everyman ability to say, Wait a minute, this isn't right, and would, on occasion, deploy his sharpened stick against those in power.
"I've been reading comments from people who say, 'This is terrible, but there's nothing we can do about it.' " Kimmel said Monday. "But I disagree with that intensely. Because of course there's [a] lot of things we can do about it. But we don't, which is interesting. Because when someone with a beard attacks us, we tap phones, we invoke travel bans, we build walls, we take every possible precaution to make sure it doesn't happen again. But when an American buys a gun and kills other Americans, then there's nothing we can do about that."
During the rest of the monologue, Kimmel hit several eloquent and necessary notes: He talked of victims and anguish, of brave first responders and how society lets itself become inured to mass shootings. But mostly he focused on policy and lawmakers, at one point showing a screenful of faces of 56 senators who voted, not long after the 2016 shooting deaths of 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, against background checks for guns that are sold online, privately or at gun shows.
"White House press secretary Sarah [Huckabee] Sanders said this is not the time . . . for political debate," Kimmel said. "I don't know, we have 59 innocent people dead, it wasn't their time either, so I think now is the time for political debate."
He followed that with a litany of facts and rationales that any gun-control advocate has long been talking about, but, as with his impassioned pleas for affordable health care, Kimmel's emotional delivery might reach and affect viewers in a way that other advocates and politicians and survivors somehow haven't. (Trickier still in the D.C. market, where Kimmel's monologue was preempted because of a late-running football game between Washington and Kansas City.)
Proximity, of course, has helped Kimmel find this new voice. There's something about watching a celebrity like him encounter and process his own fresh rage on hot-button issues. His health-care monologues in May and September came about because his infant son needed open-heart surgeries, and Kimmel, insured and well able to cover the costs, realized that not everyone in America has access to comprehensive care — especially if a new law limits their access to good insurance. It was here that Kimmel got a firsthand taste of politics, being assured of one thing by a lawmaker, only to discover that it was an empty promise, followed by a sickening amount of spin.
Closer still, the Las Vegas shooting occasioned Kimmel's boyhood memories, included in Monday night's monologue, of two deadly hotel fires in the 1980s that killed dozens. "I was 13 years old, I'll never forget it. A man jumped out the window, it was a terrible thing to see. Then a few months later there was another fire [and] five people died. So you know what they did? They changed the laws. . . . Why would we approach this differently? It's a public safety issue, and something needs to be done already."
Eyes brimming with tears, but his voice and delivery steady, he's speaking common sense — and on the gun stuff, he's in line with the feelings of most Americans. Yet he is also sacrificing some of his celebrity capital, a funnyman who stands a risk of alienating an audience who, by design, looks to him for escape.
"I want this to be a comedy show," Kimmel said, in a genuine plea. "I hate talking about stuff like this. I just want to laugh about things every night, but that [is] becoming increasingly difficult lately. It feels like someone has opened a window into hell."
Our network late-night hosts in the 11:30 slot would indeed be better off if they only had to tell jokes, satirically riff off the news, pull pranks, play games and interview other celebrities. More than ever, they are each viewed as important cogs in the network promotion wheel, agents of synergy, welcoming the stars of their respective networks' new shows or the parent company's big new movie. That we look to them to somehow also be the voices of reason amid so much chaos may be asking too much, yet that need is terribly real. Lacking leaders, we look to class clowns to guide us.
Jimmy Kimmel Live! (one hour) airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. on ABC.