When Conan O’Brien steps aside from nightly hosting duties later this month, Jimmy Kimmel will officially become the Grand Old Man, or as the kids say, the O.G. of Late Night. In the post-Johnny Carson era, this honorific — usually marked by standing ovations and unusual amounts of deference from one’s late-night rivals — belonged to David Letterman for 20 years. When he retired, the mantle was passed to Conan, and pretty soon I think we’ll see people bowing and scraping before Kimmel as well.
Longevity in late-night requires stamina, consistency, and a near-pathological desire to succeed at what is the most relentless grind in television. And in the case of these three men, the O.G. encomium also recognizes the fact that, at least as far as the big prize is concerned, they’ve failed. To be the No. 1-rated network host in late night means that you, like Johnny, are the King of the Night. Dave had his chance in the ’90s, but he frittered away his lead to Jay Leno. Conan was never really given the chance, because the nervous Nellies at NBC rushed the keys to the Tonight Show back to Leno before the first oil change.
Jimmy Kimmel may make it to the Nielsen summit someday. I doubt it, because Stephen Colbert doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere. But here’s the thing about Jimmy Kimmel — I don’t think he ever expected to be the King of the Night. If the biographical lore is to be believed, Kimmel didn’t even want to be on television until his agent talked him into doing Win Ben Stein’s Money. And since that debut as comic foil to a man best known for saying “Bueller?” over and over, Kimmel has seemed to float effortlessly upward.
Kimmel came from radio, where having to fill four hours a day is excellent prep for filling five hours a week of TV. (Since you've read this far, I guarantee you will love this biographical interview Kimmel just did on Andy Richter's podcast.) The genus Deejayus wackius were among civilization’s earliest miners of “found comedy,” and as Letterman did with “Small Town News” (which Leno ripped off), so Kimmel and his writers have taken the art of found material to the next level with segments like Unnecessary Censorship and the crowd-pleasing Mean Tweets.
Like Letterman, Kimmel had a strong "standup" game from the start. My introduction to him was the ABC upfront presentation in 2002. This is an annual hoo-hah for networks to promote their fall TV lineups to advertisers. “I don't know what I'm doing here,” Kimmel cheerfully admitted to the audience at Lincoln Center, shortly after the announcement that he would be hosting the post-Nightline show. “Two months ago it looked like David Letterman was coming to ABC. Instead you got me. This is definitely not a step in the right direction.” Turning to the executives who hired him, Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne, he said, “I want to thank Lloyd and Susan now, because it’s doubtful either of you will be around when the show goes on the air. Better luck next time!”
Kimmel’s yearly takedowns of ABC — burn after burn about shows that bombed, dumb executive moves, and the advertisers sitting right in front of him — became the highlight of upfront season. His easygoing insult-comic routine carved out a space between Letterman’s barely-concealed hostility and O’Brien’s highbrow silliness.
And unlike those other two tormented souls, Kimmel had the freedom to be his own man. At ABC, he stood in no one’s shadow. Spending a decade as the lead-out from Nightline, Kimmel earned his promotion to 11:35 without the sturm und drang that Dave and Conan went through. (Behind the scenes it was a little different — he left his wife of 14 years in 2002, but since Ted Koppel was still the face of ABC late night, few noticed.)
Kimmel has always been reverential toward his O.G. “Everything I learned about doing late night television I learned from watching David Letterman,” he told CNN’s Story of Late Night. But he was just as influenced by Howard Stern, who showed how one could march to one’s own drum and still amass a large and loyal following. (When Kimmel nailed Leno to the wall at the height of the Jay-Conan crisis, I thought that it was the kind of takedown that only Stern could have pulled off.)
Stern has a talent for performing full-body X-rays on his guests and himself. He can take listeners into his confidence, revealing his screwups, his weird tics, his emotions, and how he’s trying to evolve as a privileged white male. It’s rather incredible this is coming from the same guy who once called up Eastern Airlines following a plane crash to inquire about one-way tickets to the 14th Street Bridge.
A similar evolution has defined Kimmel’s 18 years in late night, though with more of an Everyman quality that Stern lacks. He's less neurotic than Howard, and has clearly gotten a kick out of hiring childhood friends and family members to be on his show. And it's not just the Karl Malone blackface sketch — Kimmel seems to find the whole Man Show episode in his life regrettable. More touchingly, and daringly, in 2017 Kimmel used his newborn son’s heart defect, and the delicate surgery it required, to make a passionate plea for universal health insurance, getting on the wrong side of then-president Trump in a very public way.
That was a characteristic bit of triangulation for Kimmel. Stephen Colbert had turned his show around by politicizing his monologue. Kimmel — who delivers the most polished and interesting monologue of any late-night comic — started adding anti-Trump zingers to his routine, and found a lane that neither Colbert nor his new NBC rival Jimmy Fallon could be in.
And look where it’s gotten him. Fallon has fallen into third place and now it’s Kimmel who’s No. 2. And in contrast to his icon Dave, who hated being second to Leno, he seems perfectly happy doing his thing and lording over a growing Disney fiefdom that includes Norman Lear revivals and hosting Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, a show originally offered to him in the ’90s.
Unlike his rivals, who keep a classic New York distance between themselves and their guests, Kimmel is total Hollywood, with some off-camera connection to seemingly half the people who visit his show. (The Jimmy Kimmel Live! set, with its moody backdrop and elevator-door guest entry, feels more like a party room than a TV studio.) He is ABC’s go-to awards host, not unlike Carson back in the day. With Conan’s retirement, L.A. is all his.
It’s not surprising that a Vegas kid so reverential of the old showbiz ways should be host of TV’s most throwback late-night show. His sidekick, Guillermo Rodriguez, even reminds me of Johnny’s sidekick, the chortling and occasionally amusing Ed McMahon. Assuming he wants to keep doing it, Kimmel may even figure out how to take Carson’s crown someday, as not only late night’s elder statesman but as host of its most popular and essential show.
Jimmy Kimmel Live! airs weeknights at 11:35am on ABC
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.