When Jimmy Kimmel takes the stage on Tuesday for ABC’s Upfront presentation at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the comedian not only will be scorching the network’s annual ad-sales shindig for the 14th time, but he also will be making his first appearance as late-night’s senior statesman. Since the 2012 Emmy host moved from 12:05 AM to 11:35 PM in early 2013, he has seen Jimmy Fallon take over NBC’s time-slot rival The Tonight Show last year and now Stephen Colbert is poised to slip behind the desk on CBS’ Late Show this fall. That’s a far cry from Kimmel’s first Upfronts back in May 2002, a full eight months before Jimmy Kimmel Live! premiered after the Super Bowl.
“I really hope David Letterman gets nominated this year. I can’t think of anyone more influential when it comes to comedy in America from my generation. This kind of absurdist comedy…when he was doing it, he was doing it better than anybody.”
“I was so nervous,” he says now, laughing in his memorabilia-loaded office above the Jimmy Kimmel Live! studio on Hollywood Boulevard. “I was swaying back and forth on stage and I didn’t know who I was talking to,” he says, looking to the ceiling and revealing that back then he had been given just four days’ notice that his new network wanted him to be their Upfronts court jester. And the kings of the castle were right there watching. “All I knew was that Michael Eisner and Bob Iger were sitting right in the front, and they’d made the mistake of hiring me, and no one gave me any input on what to do,” Kimmel laughs, shaking his head. “The only input I got was right before I went on stage, one of the executives said, ‘This has to be a home run.’ I went, ‘What do you mean?’ I would have been happy with a double and now I’m worried about a home run,” the longtime baseball fan says. “I’ve learned a lot since then. I think the key is to just be very specific and say what everybody is thinking.”
Jump ahead more than a decade and the price of that education, and some crystal balling about what likely sucks among the new shows season after season has paid off — even though it all comes together much faster than fans and foes might think. “We prepare for it for a couple of weeks leading up to it, and then I stay up almost all night working on it the night before,” Kimmel says of his and the JKL! writing staff’s Upfronts boot camp. “It’s a lot of last-minute jokes because other networks (such as NBC and Fox) will announce their shows the day before, and then I’m on,” he says. “Also, sometimes the other networks will send a comedian up, and I don’t want to do anything that’s similar to anything that they did or said, so you have to factor that in.”
“You have to keep in mind, I’m commenting on the one-liner about these shows,” Kimmel says of the blunt reality of the process behind his approximately 10-minute presentation. “I don’t know anything about them. I’m sure there are shows that have become huge hits that I made fun of and there are probably a lot more that were just as bad as we anticipated,” he laughs. He name-checks Fox’s Gotham and ABC’s now cancelled Selfie — both of which he skewered last year, along with now-departed Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney and ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee, to name a few.
ABC’s execs took the hits, of course, but Kimmel admits he has been asked to tone it down on occasion by the network. “Yeah, but the fact is, at the end of the week, I usually have 200 jokes to choose from, so I can always find something else,” he says, while at the same time challenging any notion he’d ever take a dive. “If I love the joke, I’ll just do it, and I’m at the point now where (the executives) understand what I’m going to do,” the comedian says. He’ll often change the routine on the fly onstage depending on how the crowd is reacting to the jabs and stabs. And he doesn’t waste his firepower where it won’t get the best laugh. “Typically, the networks that are doing well don’t get as much sh*t as those that aren’t.”
To that end, the host teases a small preview of his May 12 targets: “One thing that I think is funny this year is how excited we all are at ABC about the fact that we’re now No. 3 instead of No. 4. It’s like, ‘Now we’re really, really psyched about the fact that we’re No. 3.’ ” And Kimmel knows full well it’s lines like this that ABC both fears from him and prays he’ll deliver — hopefully more about other nets. “After I did the first year one of the ABC executives told me, ‘That was great, but if I’d known you were going to say all that stuff, I never would’ve allowed it.’ “
One thing Kimmel does take very seriously is the upcoming Emmy race and where the prize in his category, Outstanding Variety Series, should go. “I really hope David Letterman gets nominated this year,” he says of Late Show With David Letterman, which hasn’t been nominated since 2009. “I think that would be the least we could do for him… I would like to see Letterman win the Emmy, absolutely. I can’t think of anyone more influential when it comes to comedy in America from my generation. This kind of absurdist comedy that Letterman taught us, (younger people) don’t realize where it came from. It came from him, and when he was doing it, he was doing it better than anybody.”
With the recent split of the variety series category into Variety Talk Show and Variety Sketch, Kimmel — who himself took home a trophy in 2001 for Outstanding Game Show host (for Comedy Central’s Ben Stein’s Money) but whose own JKL! has picked up several Outstanding Variety Series nominations over the years but no wins — believes the change finally has addressed a long-festering sore point. “I’m very glad they did it,” he says. “The idea that our show, or the idea that any of the talk shows where we’re on five nights a week would be compared to a half-hour show that does 10 episodes a year makes no sense at all.”
In fact, Kimmel believes the TV Academy didn’t go far enough in its evolution in the variety category and has a suggestion for Academy chairman Bruce Rosenblum and crew. “If there’s a reality host category, there should certainly be a talk-show host (category),” he advocates. “If Heidi Klum is getting nominated for an Emmy, Jon Stewart should be getting nominated for an Emmy also.”
Kimmel is serious, but right now, besides fronting his late-night show, the priority is getting in gear for the Upfronts, even though he can envision not doing them eventually — or at least skipping a year. “I keep hoping ABC will ask me to stay home, and then everyone can miss me for a year, because it’s hard to top yourself, or even match yourself year after year,” he says. Even with over a dozen Upfront presentations notched on his comedic belt among many other benchmarks, Kimmel isn’t really ready to exit that stage just yet — he enjoys it too much.
“In a funny way, it was one of those first years, when I used high school to describe the networks, that was one of the best for me despite how nervous I was,” Kimmel recalls. “I don’t remember which network was which, but one of the networks was the cool kid, and ABC was the fat kid who eats paste. I think most of the audience probably looked at me and thought, ‘Well, what a perfect representative for the network. That is the fat kid who eats paste.’ ”
And the late-night host who chews them all up year after year.