The train horn blares as it approaches. A young, mustached man stands by the track and offers a goofy grin. He is in pursuit of the ultimate millennial thrill, safety be damned. The quest for the perfect selfie.
Jimmy Kimmel, wearing jeans and chewing gum on a Wednesday morning, watches the action on a monitor from the set of the El Capitan Theatre. He’s joined by 30 or so staffers. Their task is to decide which clips work for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” This has potential. As the train rumbles into the frame, it slams into the man’s arm — duh, he’s standing too close to the track — and the video dissolves into blurry, blue nothingness.
The staffers shout, groan, nervously laugh. The host remains silent, his head bowed from behind his desk.
‘Edge of Fame’ podcast: Jimmy Kimmel
The old Jimmy, the chubby “Man Show” dude with floppy, white sneakers, would likely take the easy road, cashing in a stranger’s misery for a cheap chuckle. But what about the new Jimmy, the passionate, eloquent GQ man who has taken on health care, immigration, and gun control in recent months, the veteran host who CNN recently called “America’s conscience?”
“Do we know anything about what just happened there?” Kimmel finally asks.
Not sure, somebody tells him.
“Did he live?”
They believe so, though they will have to check.
And then Kimmel pitches an idea.
“Let’s do a fake interview,” he says, suggesting his sidekick Guillermo be heavily bandaged and in a hospital bed. “We’ll make it look like he has no arms and no legs and, like, a little body now.”
The bit is about as sensitive as a keg stand and, for longtime fans of Kimmel’s show, should offer some comfort. Even as his priorities expand to senatorial races in the Deep South, there’s room for tasteless fun. A joke that even Molly McNearney, his wife and the show’s co-head writer, mocks him for.
“See you in hell,” she writes when she emails Kimmel a script for the piece.
It is quite a time to be Jimmy Kimmel. Sunday night, he’ll return to host the Oscars with a growing profile. For years, Kimmel was a kind of also-ran in the late-night battle between NBC’s “The Tonight Show” and CBS’s “The Late Show,” the third wheel to Jay Leno and David Letterman, and later Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert. Then last April, Kimmel and McNearney’s newborn son was born with a heart defect and had to undergo emergency surgery. When Kimmel returned to the air to tell his audience about Billy, millions of viewers were moved by something rarely, if ever, seen on late night television: Vulnerability.
Billy would be okay, he assured everyone, but it was tough going. Over the course of 13 minutes, Kimmel cried, made a few self-deprecating jokes and then took a tactical pivot. He connected Billy’s battle with a larger issue at hand, namely President Trump’s attempts to cut the National Institutes of Health. Suddenly, Kimmel was being discussed on the op-ed pages.
“You can’t not remember that night,” says Ellen DeGeneres, a longtime friend. “The fact that you’re seeing a really strong, smart funny man cry is beautiful. He’s not trying to be tough. He’s not trying to pretend. He’s not trying to act like a talk-show host. And it wasn’t salacious. It wasn’t to get ratings. It was just raw, and you don’t see that on television that much.”
In the good, old days — say, before Nov. 8, 2016 — Kimmel didn’t have the slightest interest in lobbying for health-care legislation. He had studied late-night TV since he was a kid. Political advocacy seemed like a bad play.
“You never knew what Dave was, you never knew what Jay Leno was, you never knew what Johnny Carson was,” he said in his office on a recent afternoon. “I didn’t want my jokes to be tainted. I wanted my jokes to be taken as jokes.”
He was more than careful. Kimmel masked his political giving by donating everything he and McNearney gave under her name. In the past two years, that ranged from $100 to $2,700 donations to candidates across the country as well as former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s gun-control campaign.
“He was very pointedly not political,” says comedian Sarah Silverman, a longtime friend whom he dated for years. “He didn’t want to lose audience. I remember he forwarded me something to host for Katie Couric for gun control because he didn’t want to get political, and I was like, gun control?”
Then Trump won.
“This sounds romantic,” Kimmel says. “But I’ve never felt this way about a president before.”
After his passionate monologue about Billy, he gave up trying to pretend. He even sent $2,700 to Doug Jones, the Democrat who was running against Republican Roy Moore in Alabama — under his own name.
He also found it almost impossible to keep his emotions in check.
Take his response, in February, to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Kimmel’s voice quivered at times. But the message was clear. He demanded gun reform and aimed his words directly at Trump.
“If you don’t think we need to do something about it,” Kimmel said, “you’re obviously mentally ill.”
In his office after a recent taping, Kimmel shared a secret about Billy. Actually, it’s about more than Billy. It’s about the family he started with McNearney.
At one point, Kimmel thought he was done having children. His first marriage, which ended in 2002, had brought him Kevin and Katie, who were teenagers by the time McNearney and Kimmel began dating in 2009.
McNearney is 11 years younger. For years, they were colleagues. Kimmel had a long-term relationship with Silverman and McNearney had a boyfriend. And, of course, there was that haircut.
“We nicknamed it the cotton candy clamshell,” says McNearney. “And I told him that one night: That hair has got to go.”
Eventually, they started dating, though McNearney didn’t think it would last. She tried to dump Kimmel repeatedly.
“I said I definitely want kids and I don’t think you should have kids again; like, you’re in the great spot in your life right now. Don’t add another 20 years of messes, and noise, and chaos, and soccer games. Go, be free. And he wouldn’t have it, he did not want to break up. He said, ‘I’m open to it.’ ”
Open to it?
“She’s not easily tricked,” says Kimmel. “She needed to know that I really wanted to do this.”
So Kimmel went to see a psychiatrist. The sessions helped him realize that he, indeed, wanted to take the leap. He and McNearney were married in 2013. Daughter Jane came the following summer.
“You know how it is, kids get to a certain age and you’re like, ‘Whew, okay, I did it,’ ” he says. “And then the kid comes and it’s, ‘Oh yeah, of course, this is fantastic. When am I having grandchildren?’ ”
It’s no surprise Kimmel finds it easy to talk about family. His personal and professional life are virtually inseparable.
“In the first year or two when I was working with Jimmy, I kept thinking it was like a hardware store or a lumberyard,” says Steve O’Donnell, the show’s original head writer. “Because he had cousins and uncles and aunts all working on the show in that way.”
Cousin Micki Marseglia is the talent relations director, and brother Jon has worked as a field director. There is also a bust of his beloved, late grandfather Sal on a table and a portrait on the wall of Uncle Frank, who served as an on-camera foil until his death in 2011. (Frank’s ex-wife, Kimmel’s Aunt “Chippy,” remains a frequent target of hidden camera pranks.)
At Kimmel and McNearney’s wedding in 2013, comedian Jeff Ross suggested they were getting married because the host couldn’t stand having someone on the staff he wasn’t related to.
Still, not even McNearney understood what was going to take place on the night of May 1, when Kimmel returned to Hollywood Boulevard a week after baby Billy’s heart surgery.
Choking back tears from the start, he told the story of a family in the hospital so thrilled as they held this little, brand new boy. And of an attentive nurse, noticing the color in Billy’s face wasn’t quite right, hustling him back into an examination room. Kimmel showed his TV audience a heartbreaking photograph of a tiny baby wrapped in tubes and wearing an oxygen mask.
A week after Billy’s second surgery, in December, Kimmel brought his son onto the show and, for the third time in 2017 — he had lost it after the mass shooting in Las Vegas Oct. 1 — he cried on air. His openness may have connected with millions of viewers. But he says he’s still embarrassed.
“When I see a screen grab of me that night, I was talking about my son, or I was talking about Las Vegas, and my face is all red and I have tears in my eyes, I can’t browse away from it quickly enough.”
Radio jock to Fox target
“I guess the question is, what kind of dinosaur is Barney?” Kimmel asks.
He’s sitting at his computer, his Adidas sneakers off.
“He’s a Tyrannosaurus,” says Josh Halloway, the show’s monologue writer.
There’s a long pause.
“He is? Really?”
News has broken that Barney, or the man who wore the purple suit on the popular children’s show, David Joyner, is now a Tantra sex therapist. The skit involves Barney giving a woman a massage. There will be spurting lotion involved.
Strangely enough, Kimmel also learns news that morning about another purple, children’s show character. Simon Shelton Barnes, who played Tinky Winky on the Teletubbies, died in London of hypothermia. It’s not clear whether there’s a joke in that.
During the day, the dominant sound in Kimmel’s office is no sound, occasionally broken by a keyboard run or a quick exchange with Halloway, who sits in a desk to Kimmel’s right. The host nibbles on apple slices or pinches salt over a bowl of cottage cheese. He’s down to 185 pounds, in the midst of what McNearney calls a pre-Oscars starvation diet.
As much as Kimmel’s reputation has morphed in the past year, his show remains largely the same. It’s driven by a comic sensibility that’s rooted in the crank-call generation.
The show punks our collective ignorance with “Lie Witness News” and pokes at the cowardly bravado of the Internet with “Mean Tweets.” Kimmel also offers blow-by-blow updates of “The Bachelor,” which, Channing Dungey, ABC’s entertainment president, particularly appreciates.
“Even when he’s poking fun at something,” she says, “he’s doing it in a way that feels playful and not mean-spirited.”
With his public, political awakening, Kimmel has taken great pleasure in taunting opponents on Twitter — his exchange with Donald Trump Jr. is a highlight — and even sent a comedian to pose as a crazed, Roy Moore supporter. His only real frustration is when he gets attacked for being part of the “Hollywood elite.”
“That’s not how I think of myself, certainly, and I don’t come from a show business family,” Kimmel says. “I just wound up getting into local radio and just stumbled into this.”
He points out that he never graduated college, quitting Arizona State in 1989 for a series of short-lived morning radio gigs. It wasn’t until 1999 that he really broke through, emerging on Comedy Central’s “The Man Show.” And even that has caused him grief. In recent months, conservatives have employed the show as a point of attack, with Fox News doing a piece meant to out Kimmel as a “vulgar comic” for such bits as “Guess What’s In My Pants.”
Kimmel was not ABC’s first choice for late night. That was David Letterman. But Letterman decided to stay with CBS. The stakes were somewhat lower: Kimmel’s $1.75 million starting salary paled in comparison to that of Letterman ($31 million) and Leno ($16 million) and his contract allowed the network to cut ties at the end of each year. But ABC chairman Lloyd Braun told Kimmel not to worry. He would have time to grow.
“You do that when everybody believes in the talent,” Braun says today.
“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” premiered on Jan. 26, 2003.
The host didn’t do a monologue or wear a tie. He offered the crowd drinks and took full advantage of the open bar, leading to his own drunken performance four shows in. The intelligentsia was not impressed. “Helpless, alone, rejected by female guests except for Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Kimmel drifts toward the ninth-circle of talk show hell,” Salon wrote.
Except that he didn’t.
ABC closed the bar after that first week and decided to tape the show each afternoon in 2004 after actor Thomas Jane swore on air. Kimmel put on a tie and slowly, steadily built his audience. (Kimmel averages 2.3 million viewers and, like the top-rated Colbert, has seen his audience grow since Trump took office. He has closed the gap some with Fallon, who has been running second.)
What’s more, Kimmel has earned the respect of his broadcasting heroes Letterman and Howard Stern. They praise him for something you can’t cook up in a writer’s room. His personality and desk manner. Letterman, since retiring from CBS in 2015, has appeared twice on Kimmel but never on Fallon or Colbert.
“He’s very kind of pleasant and in control but doesn’t throw himself over the desk,” says Letterman. “It reminds me a little bit of the mechanism of Carson. Where Carson knew he was coming back the next night. If things were great, fine, I’ll be back tomorrow night. If things are not great, fine, I’ll be back tomorrow night. And I’ve found, to endure, you have to have the same resiliency. He’s a little removed, aloof, but very pleasant, and the lack of the frenzy makes him very easy to watch.”
Stern, who is now a close enough friend to go on vacations with Kimmel, says it took him years to learn what seems to come naturally for the late-night host.
“He really does listen,” he says. “Not everybody has that ability to let someone else shine. It seems obvious, but a lot of people let their own ego get in the way.”
Actor Will Arnett says that Kimmel’s gift is making the most contrived moments — the timed celebrity chit-chats — feel so natural.
“For any show, you do a pre-interview,” he says. “They have to sort of vet the guest and figure out what direction to go, but I would say, nine times out of 10, the mark of a good interviewer is how much they can deviate from that script. And Jimmy had an ability to actually be in the moment and have a conversation.”
Tonight, for Tinky Winky
There are days, even now, when he contemplates walking away from the grind. He loves painting, fishing and cooking. Even on show days, he’ll make elaborate pancakes for Jane, 3, using plastic squeeze bottles to craft Charlie Brown, Lightning McQueen or Minnie Mouse, complete with a polka-dot, red bow.
“I think about it all the time,” Kimmel says. “Sometimes when I’m really stressed and overwhelmed, I will go on a real estate website in Idaho or Montana or Wyoming, and I’ll look at ranches there and just kind of fantasize for a little bit. And then I’ll go back to work.”
The Barney sketch is playing on a monitor in his office as showtime approaches. In the bit, a man in a purple suit emerges to encounter a woman, on a massage table. Her back is exposed.
Then the lotion, which the fake Barney spurts all over her back. Blech.
“And always remember,” Barney says, “Tantra is an art of love. I love you, you love me. This is sensuality.”
“Well, it’s stupid,” he says, sounding more resigned than amused. “I don’t know if it’s funny.”
In the end, the piece won’t run. They also won’t do anything on Tinky Winky. But late that afternoon, when Kimmel and his team huddle in his office for their pre-show ritual — their pep chant — the Teletubby tragedy is properly memorialized.
“Tonight,” somebody shouts from the huddle, “let’s do it for Tinky Winky.”
They slide into their standard mantra, the volume slowly rising.
“Best Show Ever. Best Show Ever. Best Show Ever. Best Show Ever.”
With a fist-bump, Kimmel springs out of the door, down the hall and onto the stage to do another show.