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new york times - may 27, 2002

A Man for the Men Who Stay Up Late and Watch TV
By Jesse McKinley
New York Times
May 27, 2002

Had you tuned in to the May 19 episode of "The Man Show" on Comedy Central with Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Corolla as hosts, this is what you would have seen: a hypnotized college student chasing a midget in a flesh-colored body suit, a skit featuring two pornography fans attending an adult film fantasy camp and a half-dozen women dancing in bikinis while being cheered on by a rowdy beer-chugging audience.

In short, Johnny Carson it ain't.

But "The Man Show" is also not what ABC executives say you can expect to see in January when Mr. Kimmel rolls out his late-night talk show, in the midnight to 1 a.m. slot, opposite the second half of David Letterman's and Jay Leno's shows and the first half-hour of Conan O'Brien and Craig Kilborn.

It will appear after "Nightline," the venerable nightly news program, which almost never features girls in bikinis.

"I think we were looking for the person who was most compatible with Ted Koppel," Robert A. Iger, the president of Disney, ABC's parent company, said in an interview. "And we found him."

The time slot is about all that ABC knows about Mr. Kimmel's show, which as of yet has no name, no staff and no executive producer.

The one thing it does have, however, is Mr. Kimmel, an affable former radio disk jockey, whose sudden ascendancy from little-known cable guy to potential network star has surprised many people in the business.

Including Mr. Kimmel.

"I think the best word to describe what I felt when they offered me the job is `bewildered,' " he said, speaking from his office in Los Angeles. "I am not surprised that I've been successful in television. I was surprised to get the job at ABC."

It is exactly his success in television, notably among those coveted men, 18 to 35, that ABC is banking on, especially after its botched efforts earlier this spring to lure Mr. Letterman to the network. "The Man Show," which is now filming its fourth season, is one of Comedy Central's highest-rated programs, scoring (not surprisingly) especially well among men. That said, network officials are downplaying how much audience Mr. Kimmel's brand of humor will initially have. "There is no expectation that he'll come out of the gate and topple late-night institutions," said Lloyd Braun, the chairman of ABC Entertainment. "This is someone we want to groom. We don't care if it takes two, three, four years."

After Mr. Letterman rebuffed ABC, network officials said they were still committed to finding another talk show to replace "Politically Incorrect," the comedian Bill Maher's political chat show. (It was canceled after showing lackluster ratings, though it didn't help that Mr. Maher alienated advertisers with some remarks after Sept. 11.)

Mr. Iger said the network flirted with several other ideas for hosts, including Jon Stewart, Garry Shandling and Greg Kinnear, but chose Mr. Kimmel after executives saw a recent appearance he made on "The Late Show With David Letterman."

"There are certain personalities that when they're on camera are very accessible," Mr. Iger said. "Even if Jimmy was behind a desk, there is always a feeling you can touch him."

There is an undeniable teddy bear quality to Mr. Kimmel, who is 34 and whose dominant features are a couch-potato physique and a mischievous smirk. His comedy, like Howard Stern's, mixes the obscene with the ordinary; while he ogles scantily clad women on "The Man Show," he also makes a point to talk about his wife of 14 years, Gina, and their children, Katie, 10, and Kevin, 8.

And while his looks may scream radio, Mr. Kimmel says he has spent his entire adulthood with one goal: to be David Letterman. "The only reason I ever even got into show business was that I might be able to hang out with him someday," Mr. Kimmel said of Mr. Letterman. "He practically invented my sense of humor."

He continued (perhaps to the chagrin of his new bosses): "It's silly for me to think of anyone wanting to watch me instead of Letterman." He paused. "I wouldn't."

Brooklyn-born but raised in Las Vegas, Mr. Kimmel says his fascination with Mr. Letterman manifested itself in high school. His personalized license plate read "L8NITE"; on his 18th birthday, his cake was decorated with the "Late Night" logo.

And when Mr. Kimmel learned that Mr. Letterman had started in radio, he headed there. At 17 he had a weekly show on a college radio station where he'd "find local celebrities and make fun of them," using such time-honored techniques as massive pizza delivery orders.

The show was on KUNV-FM, part of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, which Mr. Kimmel briefly attended. It didn't take.

"I really think college is completely unnecessary for 80 percent of the population," he said. "Had anybody who knew anything talked to me for half an hour they could have saved me a lot of time."

Mr. Kimmel actually took one more stab at school, attending Arizona State University in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, as an English major. Even then, however, he was moonlighting as a call-in guest and part-time writer for an afternoon show.

After two years he followed Mr. Voss to Seattle for his first full-time radio gig, as co-host of a morning show called "The Me and Him Show" on KZOK-FM. It was the first in a series of jobs, and cities. After Seattle (where he was fired), he got a radio job in Tampa, Fla. (fired). That was followed by a morning show in Palm Springs (not fired!) and another stint in Tucson (fired).

Along the way, however, Mr. Kimmel was developing a roster of characters, including Moe the Angry Midget and Jimmy the Sports Guy, a comically rabid sports fan.

It was the Sports Guy persona that brought Mr. Kimmel to the attention of KROQ-FM, the modern rock bulwark in Los Angeles. Once there, Mr. Kimmel distinguished himself, mocking sports figures (except Mike Piazza, whom he loved) and displaying a knack for picking winning bets on games. His shtick soon drew the attention of several television producers who approached him about doing shows. He turned most of them down.

"I just didn't want to do anything bad for money," he said.

In 1997, though, he took a role as the sidekick on the Comedy Central quiz show "Win Ben Stein's Money," where he parried with Mr. Stein and regularly bested contestants with his knowledge of trivia. (His cousin Sal Iacono is now the co-host.) He also began working as a football prognosticator for Fox's Sunday pre-game show.

In 1999 he was a surprise winner at the Daytime Emmys for best game show host. That same year Mr. Kimmel met with Michael Davies, the producer of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" to discuss an idea.

"I told him it's a show for guys," Mr. Kimmel recalled. "It's the anti-Oprah. It's all the stuff you see on beer commercials. And every show ends with girls on trampolines."

ABC bought a pilot of "The Man Show," and blanched. "The list we got back from the network censors was just reams and reams," Mr. Kimmel said. "The Bible was shorter."

Comedy Central, however, had no such qualms. "The Man Show," trampolines and all, made its debut in the summer of 1999 and has been a weekly staple ever since.

Now Mr. Kimmel is primed to confront an even bigger audience. What can viewers expect? More girls? More midgets? More girls and midgets? Mr. Kimmel says he doesn't really know, though he is firm about what the show won't be.

"I would kill myself if I was forced to interview C-level celebrities and pretend to be interested in them," he said. "I can't do that. And I don't think they want me to."