“Sometimes there is such low-hanging fruit, you have to choose between 12 jokes on one subject, and picking the right ones is something I obsess over,” Jimmy Kimmel admits about his preparation for his annual sardonic stand-up routine during ABC’s upfront presentation. “Then I’ve found too that, almost inevitably, my best jokes come to me around 3 in the morning when I’m sitting there alone.”
In a room packed with network executives, media, producers and advertisers, Kimmel certainly won’t be alone when he takes the stage at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on Tuesday for his 15th roast of the Disney-owned net and the television industry. This year would actually have been the two-time Oscar frontman and late-night host’s 16th upfront, but Kimmel bowed out in 2017 to stay close to home after his newborn son Billy had to undergo open heart surgery just three days after being born.
The network soldiered on last year without Kimmel, but ABC is clearly glad he is back in the fold again and ready to unleash upon their broadcast rivals in TV’s big money week.
With a current contract that runs until 2019, Kimmel chatted with me about his return to the New York upfront spotlight and taking on Donald Trump and Fox News’ Sean Hannity. The host also spoke about the threats posed by the streaming services to the Big 4, in late-night and beyond. Of course, after the Best Picture Oscar mishap of 2017 and the Time’s Up tone of this year’s Academy Awards, we also talked about whether another Oscar-hosting stint is in the cards.
DEADLINE: Having missed last year, this will actually be your first upfronts of the Trump Era. Having you been saving up a barrelful of barbs for the President and his ongoing big show?
KIMMEL: Oh, wow. Yeah, you know, I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but I guess you’re right. Hopefully it’ll be the last upfront of the Trump era, too. So, I don’t know, I don’t know how much focus there will be on that. I think people have had an ass-full of Donald Trump, and I feel like the upfront is a time to look within and make fun of ourselves.
DEADLINE: So, next week is a Trump-free zone for you?
KIMMEL: Well, I can’t imagine that it will be entirely Trump free, but I’m not planning on that to be my focus. Already I’m seeing a lot of other things to point out, to make fun of. We’re getting all sorts of new terminology that doesn’t seem to last one year to the next. There are initials that I’m trying to decode. I always wonder if the people in the audience even know what some of these things are, so that’s something I want to get into.
KIMMEL: Yeah, it’s really genuinely confusing, the whole thing. I think it took me a full two years to even understand what the upfront was. Now a lot of that was me not really paying attention, but I didn’t really understand what it was for the first couple of times I did it. Even now, I’m just barely kind of grasping it.
DEADLINE: Well, going into to your 16th year and 15th presentation, I think you have a pretty fine grasp of it.
KIMMEL: Well, thanks.
DEADLINE: Having said that, obviously, you didn’t participate in the 2017 upfronts because of Billy’s health issues. So I wondered, and please don’t think I’m a jerk for asking this when you were dealing with a family matter, but did you miss not being there after a decade and a half?
KIMMEL: A little bit, truthfully. Obviously, my focus was elsewhere. You know, my son had an operation, and I wasn’t really thinking about the upfronts. But I will say, that week when you start reading other people’s jokes, I did kind of feel left out. I kind of missed being there, as crazy as it sounds, because it’s a huge pain in my ass.
DEADLINE: How has that huge pain in the ass, as you call it, changed for you over the years?
KIMMEL: Certainly, the Internet wasn’t as active as it is now, and we had no Twitter. I say that because now every joke is evaluated instantly by hundreds of people. I sometimes wonder if people are even listening to the jokes, because they’re transcribing them and reposting them and then weighing in on whether they’re funny or not. I now also have a lot of competition because other hosts will do basically what I do, and I’m not up first.
DEADLINE: This year you follow the NBC and Fox presentations but are ahead of the CBS one on Wednesday at Carnegie Hall, where Colbert or Corden will likely do their thing…
KIMMEL: Exactly — that puts me at a bit of a disadvantage because I have second or third crack at the jokes sometimes. I used to be all alone in this, so I always hope that there’s as little of that as possible. I don’t relish following other comedians who are doing material about the same subject, but for the most part, it’s the same thing. It’s a bunch of people being held prisoner for a week in a series of ballrooms and theaters, and I like to think of myself as a little release valve in an Instant Pot of bulls*t.
DEADLINE: Are you tweaking that Instant Pot right up until you hit the stage?
KIMMEL: Always, Fact is we write about 50 percent of the monologue the night before the upfront. We want it to be current, and we want to react to what the other networks are doing. So, if NBC and Fox go ahead of us, we like to work that stuff in.
DEADLINE: On another topic that may ruffle some parent company feathers, this new Comcast bid for Fox seems a natural for you, especially with the $52 billion Disney takeover of Fox thought to be a done deal…
KIMMEL: I have little doubt, one way or the other, that’s got to be a topic, for sure. Seems like Comcast maybe is trying to jack up the price to screw with Disney, don’t you think?
DEADLINE: I think it is a high stakes stand-off and someone’s got to blink. Which I guess leaves you having to wait until the last minute if events move fast…
KIMMEL: As you know, I really don’t know what I’m going to say at the upfront until about 4 o’clock in the morning of that day. Even then, I make changes right at the last second. So, I go in, I do it, and I get out of there.
DEADLINE: Besides being topical, do you feel it gives you more juice to leave it right until the end, even in front of that well-heeled an audience?
KIMMEL: It’s become a ritual for me, and you know, I’m a little bit superstitious. So, when it works, as it usually does, I tend to stick with that approach. There’s also something that’s kind of fun about being alone in my hotel room with a bunch of index cards trying to figure out the order of the jokes in the morning. Sometimes there is such low-hanging fruit, you have to choose between 12 jokes on one subject, and picking the right ones is something I obsess over. Then I’ve found too that, almost inevitably, my best jokes come to me around 3 in the morning when I’m sitting there alone. Sometimes I get excited and I’ll wake my wife up just to run one by her.
DEADLINE: How does that go over?
KIMMEL: She doesn’t love that, but she does tolerate it.
DEADLINE: On the subject of tolerance, will Sean Hannity be a part of this year’s routine after your very public dust-up?
KIMMEL: (laughs) I don’t think so. I really try to focus on our network competitors and the people who are eating us alive, which would be our competitors in streaming – not the world of cable news and cable.
I like to make the routine kind of like being at a trade show. Give a real industry roast and focus on the dynamic there of the ad buyers trying to get the lowest price they can. It’s really kind of funny because you have these network executives telling you how great everything’s going to go, and then, of course, you know, year after year, it rarely goes great. Even they don’t believe it when they’re saying it, and then everybody pays more anyway.
DEADLINE: It’s a dilemma, to put it mildly and — and this is just me — but what can you say when you get up there in front of a bunch of advertisers who are buying time on a broadcaster who face as their emerging biggest competition an ad-free system like Netflix or Amazon?
KIMMEL: Well, it seems like we’re the only survivors left on the island, and we may have to eat each other to make it. It’s funny because those streaming services certainly are our competition, and especially for late-night.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
KIMMEL: You really see a lot of people binge-watching at night when they used to have no choice but to watch us. There was nothing else on, now there is so much. Look, ultimately, I hope the effect is that it makes television better because you can focus on niche programming even on a network. I don’t know that that is what will happen, but if you’re selling ad time, it’s maybe not great. As on-air talent, or as a writer, a producer, or any kind of creative, it’s nothing but good.
DEADLINE: From Sarah Silverman to Michelle Wolf to Joel McHale, Hulu and Netflix are getting heavy into what is basically the late-night show format, which Chelsea Handler tried for two seasons. So, do you think the future of late-night is on streaming, like everything else on TV today?
KIMMEL: I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect when it comes to a talk show that isn’t day and date. I think we get used to certain things, and there’s a reason why there’s a desk, and a guest, and a band sitting next to the host, and these are just kind of traditions that make us feel comfortable here in the United States.
Now, I know they take different approaches, but I think it’s just it’s an uphill climb for people doing talk shows on streaming services.
KIMMEL: Because the disposable nature of the show is part of its appeal, and they’re just not able to turn things around as quickly as we do.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you don’t see a streaming show in your post-ABC future?
KIMMEL: I could never see myself hosting a show like the one I host now on a streaming service. I just don’t think it would work.
DEADLINE: Does the future include more Oscar hosting for you? I mean, you’ve had two pretty interesting kicks at the Academy can so far, why not go for a third?
KIMMEL: (laughs) God only knows what might happen next year. But, you know, it’s definitely not something I’m thinking about; I think they have a lot of stuff that they’re working on, but I was pretty happy with doing it two years in a row. I would be more than satisfied with that.
DEADLINE: That doesn’t quite sound like a no, but let me ask you this. Do you see an end to your upfronts appearances?
KIMMEL: Here’s the thing. I don’t know how many more years of this show I’ll do. You know, I have a contract, and I intend to honor that. So, we’ll see how I feel as I get closer to the end of that, but I do intend to do the upfront every year until I die, whether I’m on ABC or not.
When the late-night show is a distant memory, I’ll still be up on stage at the upfronts. I’ll be wheeled out onstage making jokes about how old I am as part of the CBS audience.