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new york times - november 3, 2002

In the Land of the Insomniac, the Narcoleptic Wants to Be King
By Bill Carter
New York Times
November 3, 2002

Here comes Jimmy Kimmel, sauntering along Hollywood Boulevard in a red T-shirt, walking right over the bronzed star on the sidewalk engraved with the name Pee Wee Hunt. At this point, Kimmel is only marginally better known than Pee Wee (a Dixieland trombonist of the 1940's), but that's going to change. In January, on Super Bowl Sunday, ABC will introduce Jimmy Kimmel as the next star of late-night television, the network's hot young hope to take on Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Craig Kilborn, the stars of NBC and CBS. Kimmel's show will start at 12:05, right between the other networks' 11:35 and 12:35 shows, so he'll be competing with all of them.

Kimmel has brought his posse with him today: his mother, his father, his close friend and producer, Daniel Kellison, and Bill Simmons, a sports columnist whom Kimmel is courting to join the new show's writing staff. Lloyd Braun, the ABC Entertainment boss who found and championed Kimmel for this job, is on hand, too. Kimmel introduces Simmons to Braun, who lets the would-be comedy writer know, "More people have come up to me and asked me for jobs on this show than any show we have."

"More than 'According to Jim'?" Kimmel deadpans, referring to the rather pedestrian sitcom. "I heard that was No. 1."

The group has turned up at what will be the site of Kimmel's show: a huge former Masonic temple, which ABC's parent, the Walt Disney Company, acquired along with the grandly refurbished Capitain Theater next door. Grauman's Chinese Theater is across the street, along with the new Kodak Theater, home of the Oscars. According to Braun, who is just a bit passionate about it, this address is "the most spectacular location imaginable for a late-night show." As if to punctuate his point, a guy dressed in an eight-foot-tall Frankenstein costume is walking by across the street. "How great is that?" Braun says, pointing to the guy. "This is why we're going to do this show live."

That is the breaking news. In a throwback to Steve Allen and the earliest days of late-night TV, Kimmel's show is going to be broadcast live every weeknight (at least in the Eastern and Central time zones), which means taping begins at 9:05 p.m. in Los Angeles. The other late-night shows tape in the evening, around 5:30, allowing them to edit out flaws, not to mention unfunny bits.

Going live was Braun's idea, but Kimmel was more than willing. "I think live will give it an intangible electricity," he says. "On Letterman and Leno, it always bothers me when they go outside the studio and it's daytime. That's one thing I won't have to deal with. And I think it's going to be a good thing for Los Angeles, if it goes well. The 'Tonight' show is not a Los Angeles show. It's a show for America."

He offers it as a neutral observation, but he has already tipped off his views on that late-night institution, and its host, Jay Leno. Kimmel told TV Guide, "I want to do the comedy version of the 'Tonight' show." "Jay called my publicist," Kimmel says. "He said he didn't understand why I would say anything bad, that he thought I was a friend of the show." He makes a pained face. "Jay, I was just goofing around."

Kimmel's a goofball, all right, but he's a smart, ambitious, tough-minded goofball. He seems untroubled by how many doubters Jay Leno has swatted away in his eight years of ratings dominance. Nor is he backing down on his assessment. "Leno was so great when he was a guest on Letterman," Kimmel says. "Great, great. I just think he's worked it too hard. I think he turned comedy into factory work -- and it comes across." As for the phone call, Kimmel says, "It's just amazing how insecure he is."

Inside the temple, Kimmel extends his arms and says, "We're going to set up a full bar and serve cocktails." That's not a joke. "The Man Show," his testosterone derby of a variety show on Comedy Central, regularly served beer to audience members -- mostly beefy guys in beefy T-shirts. "It had pluses and minuses," he says. "The minus was they were drunk and unruly; the plus was we didn't ever have to buy an audience."

Kimmel plants himself on the proscenium and asks me: "Do I have to wear a tie? I know there are, like, 12 rules for late night: a desk, a band. Will people take me seriously if I don't wear a tie?"

He has reason to wonder. There does seem to be a roster of unwritten but unwavering rules about the look and format of a late-night show: Wear a suit; open with at least four jokes; hire as writers 20 or 30 young guys who specialized in college in delivering put-down lines; don't put on a music act until after the last commercial. On the tie issue, Kellison is willing to break one rule. "No way should he wear a tie," Kellison says. "You've never seen anyone more uncomfortable in a jacket and tie. Jimmy's never going to be a fashion plate. This is a guy who buys everything at Costco." At an audition a few years ago, Kimmel wore his father-in-law's sport jacket. It did not match his pants. One network executive at the audition speculated that Kimmel was overtly trying to suggest the look of a clown.

Kimmel says it wasn't deliberate. He did not own a jacket, and besides, he's mostly colorblind. He is also narcoleptic, but that's another story.

To this point in his career, nobody has cared about Jimmy Kimmel's wardrobe. The relaxed-fit look has been perfectly tailored to the Kimmel persona: a 34-year-old blue-collar everyguy, who plays his humor crass and loose.

"If I have one criticism of the other late-night shows," Kimmel says, "it's that they're almost entirely scripted. Hopefully people will notice our show is looser." As for his previous show's lewd and crude humor, he says: "I'll figure out where my comfort area is. I don't really need to be dirty to be funny." But, he adds, "I think the show will be dirtier than the others, certainly."

Kimmel wants to blow up as many of the late-night rules as he can, and for the moment at least, ABC says it will let him. The plan is for him to drop the stand-up monologue, opening the show directly from his desk. And instead of a constant sidekick, Kimmel is leaning toward using weekly co-hosts. Kellison is particularly excited about what can happen in the deep parking lot outside the studio. "There's so much square footage to do crazy stuff," says Kellison, who, as a segment producer, once helped stage stunts for another late-night show, in New York: divers jumping off roofs, Formula 1 drivers racing taxicabs down Broadway. "I really want to use this location the way we used 53rd Street on Letterman," he says.

Kellison knows this plan will play well with his star. Kimmel's devotion to David Letterman goes beyond professional admiration and all the way to lifetime fan-club membership. "Did he tell you about the lifelong-dream element to getting this job?" Kellison asks me. "Did he tell you about the 'Late Night' cake his mother baked him for his birthday, or the 'Late Night With David Letterman' jacket she had made for him?"

Kimmel admits to all of it and adds that in high school, his license plate read: "L8 NITE." "Really, the reason I got into show business is I wanted to be David Letterman's friend," he says. "There are kids in high school, and this guy's a baseball player, this guy's on the wrestling team, this guy is really smart. I was the guy who watched David Letterman."

In a time before VCR's reached ubiquity, Jimmy Kimmel, living in Las Vegas, stayed up till 1:30 every night watching David Letterman, whose show was still in the 12:30 slot and still on NBC. "I watched every night on a little black-and-white TV at my desk. I wanted to be an artist at that point, so I'd draw and watch the show all night."

Since then, of course, Letterman has left the very late shift for the more desirable 11:35 slot, and he left NBC, the network that passed him over for the "Tonight" show, in favor of the more solicitous CBS. In March, ABC tried to lure him away, offering him the same time slot, even more money and the promise of bigger audiences delivered from their local stations. That would have meant displacing Ted Koppel and "Nightline," a prospect that horrified many news viewers and made ABC's news division apoplectic. The ensuing media furor, and Letterman's ultimate decision to turn down the offer, left ABC divided and deflated.

And so it must qualify as coincidence on a classic scale that, seeking to rebound from a lost love affair with Letterman, ABC would turn to Kimmel, who has been suffering from just the same starry-eyed obsession for the last 20 years.

After the letterman letdown, Lloyd Braun allowed himself a week to decompress. Then, toward the end of March, he got back to work. He knew ABC had to refocus its plans on the midnight hour, following the now sacrosanct "Nightline." All the publicity had put the show that occupied that slot, "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," in an untenable position.

Braun began to assemble a list of potential late-night hosts -- mostly, by his definition, "the usual suspects." At the top of that list was Jon Stewart, the critically celebrated host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central.

ABC had talked to Stewart before; now hotter than ever, he expressed a strong interest in the late-night opening. Braun had always been enormously impressed with Stewart. But Braun had the nagging feeling that there might be someone else out there.

For one thing, he worried that any "usual suspect" would forever be branded as a second choice, the person ABC turned to when Letterman said no. For another, he knew that the prime audience for a new late-night entry would be young men, who tend to stay up late, often drifting all around the cable dial. He also knew that television does best when it makes new stars. Could ABC could find an unknown who appealed to that target audience? Someone young enough to be a star on the network for 20 years or more?

In late March, Braun met his friend Michael Davies for a round of golf at the Riviera Country Club. Davies, a former ABC executive, had hit it big as the executive producer of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Walking to the green from the ninth fairway, Braun asked Davies's advice. "Knowing it could be anyone," he said, "someone I've never heard of, someone without a name, and knowing I have the luxury of offering the midnight show, if you could pick anyone, anyone, who would it be?"

"I know the guy," Davies said. "Jimmy Kimmel."

"Who?" Braun responded. The name meant nothing to him. It wasn't on his master list. Davies began describing him. "You mean the guy who does the football stuff for Fox?" Braun asked.

Five years earlier, Davies hired Kimmel to be the co-host of the Comedy Central game show "Win Ben Stein's Money." Davies told Braun: "The thing that separates Jimmy Kimmel from everybody else is that he is, in his heart and soul, a broadcaster. He has trained his entire life to do this, and he is as smart and funny as anyone wanting to do this."

By the time Braun reached his office, Davies had hand-delivered a cassette featuring a particularly apt clip: a Kimmel appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman." Braun slammed it into his machine. There on the screen was this outgoing, hefty-department sort of a guy sitting as Dave's lead guest. Bantering with Dave about how much the Fox football guys hated him, Kimmel struck Braun as not at all the wiseacre sports guy, and even less the "Man Show" sexist. Instead he was self-deprecating and respectful, even charming. As Braun pushed the eject button on his VCR, he said out loud, "I think this is going to be the guy."

He wanted to learn as much as possible about Kimmel, but his research was hampered by an unfortunate coincidence. Kimmel's agent, James Dixon, was also Jon Stewart's agent. And as far as Dixon knew, he was moving toward closing a deal for Stewart.

Braun managed to get a stack of videotapes of Kimmel's other shows. Some of the early material seemed completely raw. The most egregious stuff Kimmel was doing on "The Man Show," like the signature bit, girls bouncing on trampolines, might seem to have disqualified him from ever appearing on a network show. But Braun noticed something else: Kimmel seemed far smarter than that material, and he was steadily getting better.

With a 1 a.m. show, to follow Stewart, as the implied bait, Braun invited Kimmel to lunch, and came away even more impressed -- convinced, from both his quick wit and his thorough analysis of what worked in late night, that the comic was "wicked smart."

With time pressing, Braun took a pile of tapes home. He watched 15 minutes of Jon Stewart followed by 15 minutes of Jimmy Kimmel. Then back to Stewart. On and on, for much of the night. He was leaning toward Kimmel, who seemed as if he might be able to take late-night in a new direction: one based in the in-your-face extreme comedy that young male viewers seemed to flock to, with enough wit to attract more sophisticated and female viewers.

Perhaps more important, Kimmel's comic voice had a classic blue-collar timbre. Nothing is deeper in the DNA of ABC television than blue-collar comedy. From "Laverne and Shirley" through "Roseanne," "Home Improvement" and the current "My Wife and Kids," most of the comedy hits on ABC have been about middle-American, working-class folks. Braun knew the high price the network had paid for moving away from that heritage toward yuppiecentric NBC-style shows in the late 1990's.

Braun admired Stewart's topical commentary, but he was not sure how broadly it would play, and how it would fit the ABC comedy brand. Still, he asked himself, "Am I really going to say no to Jon Stewart?"

He was. Braun brought in Kimmel and gave him the news.

"I was totally blindsided," Kimmel says. Then Braun called Jon Stewart, who expressed his displeasure, mainly at the way ABC handled the situation, keeping him hanging as they explored other options. But Stewart had only good things to say about Kimmel. "I really like Jimmy," he says today. "I respect his talent. I'm very happy for him on a human level, even though I was disappointed for myself."

Only about six weeks later, Jimmy Kimmel had his first assignment as ABC's new man in late night. The setting was the New Amsterdam Theater in New York, where the network was introducing its fall lineup of shows in the annual ritual known as the "upfronts." The assignment was to walk out onstage, stand alone in front of hundreds of advertising executives (who knew him, if at all, as a misogynist "Man Show" neanderthal), and, in comedy terms, kill.

Kimmel has never been a professional stand-up comic; never stood behind a mike in a hundred smoky clubs and honed the skill of pacing a routine, drawing out a laugh. And this was a considerably larger room. In front of a huge ABC logo, Kimmel ambled out, wearing a gray suit that matched and even fitted O.K. He got right into it: "Please don't breathe a word of this to Ted Koppel. We all saw what happened the last time a talk-show thing came up, and nobody wants to go through that again."

He punched the jokes out with authority, even though he was rocking side to side on his feet like a man having a conversation on a cruise ship. His self-deprecating theme was playing well. Referring to ABC's announcement regarding a dusty relic of the 50's, Kimmel said: "This is your plan to resurrect the network? 'Dragnet' and me?" As far as that previous talent search, he noted: "It looked like David Letterman was coming to ABC and instead you got me. ... This is not a step in the right direction."

Advertisers left the building talking about him. "Jimmy's performance was nothing short of spectacular," Braun says. "He was our story coming out of the upfront."

Kimmel's house is perched on one of the winding hills above Los Angeles, with panoramic views of brown, desert brush in every direction. It is very much a guy house: cluttered garage, disarray here and there, a projection-screen TV so big it might have previously served a drive-in theater. In a first floor bathroom, an R. Crumb poster with some crude suggestions about proper use of toilet tissue hangs in a position of honor.

"It's kind of symbolic," Kimmel says. "I was married for 14 and a half years, and my wife would not allow me to hang that in the house." The marriage broke up last winter. Kimmel has two children, an anomaly among the current late-night comics, none of whom have any. As a result, perhaps, his off-screen persona seems more grown-up than his comedy. But that's not the reason for his perpetually sleepy look, which tends to mask his fire-at-will wit. He sometimes stops midconversation to take a pill to counter the effects of narcolepsy. So far it has had little impact on his career, though he says he has on occasion nodded off in his car, as well as in afternoon writers' meetings -- "not the best way to make people feel good about their material," he grants. And he acknowledges that "Jimmy Kimmel, the narcoleptic late-night host" has a certain weird, circus-sideshow ring to it.

Kimmel spent his earliest years in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn. When he was 8, a teacher told him he should be a comedian. In high school, he disrupted classes so much that one teacher limited him to one joke a week. "I knew I had to get off a good line with that one," he says. His family expected him to pursue his talent in art. But Kimmel had read in a Playboy interview that Letterman had worked in radio. "So I thought I should start in radio," he says. He took a series of jobs in places like Seattle, Tampa, Palm Springs -- where his sidekick was Carson Daly, now the host of "TRL" on MTV -- and eventually Los Angeles, where he began auditioning, not entirely successfully, for television. He still rankles at the memory of every slight.

"The Man Show" arose out of one producer's comment that he wouldn't appeal to women. So why can't a show appeal to just guys? he wondered. He and his friend Adam Carolla pitched the idea to several ABC executives, including Michael Davies, who loved it. The overarching concept was the "anti-Oprah show," with a heavy emphasis on midgets, explosions and beer. They shot the pilot and sent it to the network. "It was the most poorly received pilot ever," Davies recalls. "The Standards and Practices guys said they could never put it on." But within days of the rejection, seven cable networks were bidding on the show, and Comedy Central won.

As for the unapologetic buffoonery of his "Man Show" character, Kimmel says: "That is definitely one element of my persona. If I'm out drinking with my buddies, that's when it comes out. But I'll be totally different at other times, depending on the situation. 'The Man Show' -- I knew what that was. I gave them what they wanted."

Lately he's been trying to do that for Fox Sports. Kimmel tapes a comedy sketch each week in the apartment of his producer, making picks on games and poking fun at the occasional pomposity of the N.F.L.

Some at Fox aren't laughing. Kimmel's weekly bit is routinely derided by his castmates on the Fox pregame show. "Keep in mind, I have a sterling ratings track record for Fox," he notes, dropping the usual self-effacing humor for a more telling dose of self-promotion. "You can isolate a ratings bump to the day I started and the quarter-hour that I'm on."

Off his sports success, he did get a meeting with Fox's senior entertainment management, but it did not go well. They suggested that he could start a late-night talk show at a Fox station in Minnesota and maybe expand to other local stations from there. Kimmel called the idea "ridiculous and insulting." "We're going, 'Are you insane?'" he says, his extremely healthy ego flaring up in response to yet another perceived snub. "Do you know I've been offered sitcoms and all kinds of stuff?"

The experience left him with a very dim view of that network's late-night prospects. Earlier this year, Conan O'Brien declined Fox's offer to sign on for an 11 p.m. show, even though the proposed salary of more than $20 million dwarfs the $8 million O'Brien took to stay at NBC -- to say nothing of the $1.75 million Kimmel will be getting at ABC. "If Conan turned down even $25 million, he was smart," Kimmel says. "Fox isn't going to be successful in the talk arena as long as the present administration is in charge."

For Fox to break into late night now, it would take "an ironclad contract with a big, can't-miss star," says one executive who has been involved in the effort. "Jimmy Kimmel may be a lot of things, but that, he ain't."

Opening up his laptop, Kimmel reads out the letter he sent as an invitation to be the first ever guest on his late-night show: "Dear Dave: Please be my first guest. Thanks in advance, Jimmy. P. S.: Let's not be childish about this." Kimmel sent the note on some Lionel Richie stationery he had acquired. Letterman sent back a polite no.

Given his feelings about Letterman, you might think Kimmel is headed for some deep soul-searching conflict. He is, after all, being set up to draw away some of Letterman's viewers. But he has a rationalization he can live with. "I really would feel badly if I cut into David Letterman," he says. "But I figure this: The people who like Leno are largely the stupid group. The people who root for Letterman are the smarter group. The people who like me? Also stupid. I figure I cut into the dummies."

In the annals of what Leno calls the late-night wars, such provocative rhetoric has often backfired -- most memorably in the case of Arsenio Hall, who promised rather colorfully to dethrone Jay Leno but who lost his show and now turns up frequently as Leno's guest. Still, Kimmel seems unbeholden to the usual niceties. In fact, he seems entirely unfamiliar with the established show-business poses. Even his put-downs do not come across as nasty or venomous; they're just a straightforward dose of what he thinks.

As in his take on the competition. He calls the "Tonight" show "the McDonald's of comedy." Of Craig Kilborn, he says: "I almost feel sorry for him. The guests are horrible. He has to pretend to be interested in them." Conan O'Brien, he says, he admires for his exceptional comedic mind. "When Conan first came on, I thought, This guy is going to be great. A lot of silly and smart stuff. I thought, When this guy smoothes out, he's going to be real good." But, he adds, "he never smoothed out."

Kimmel knows he will get his own share of slams soon enough, and his candid remarks won't endear him to devoted fans of the other shows. Even now, Kimmel doubters are not hard to find. One longtime senior network executive says of ABC's gamble: "To me this guy is the David Spade of late night. This is someone who is the fourth or fifth guy on a sitcom, who walks into a room, hits one line out of the park and leaves. I just don't feel he's a guy you want to spend an hour with every night."

Kimmel grants that that assessment might prove to be right, though he would advise his doubters to check with the guys who like midgets, explosions and beer. He notes that the average audience age for the two big guys in late night has been creeping higher and higher. Kimmel will be the youngest late-night host on network television and, he intends, the freshest.

"Here's why I think I'm going to do well," he says. "Ultimately the show is going to be my vision. And I'm lucky enough to have a boss, Lloyd, who wants that, which I think is pretty rare." Still, there is reason to resist being overconfident: David Letterman, the man he idolized is, after all, not the No. 1 man in late night. "It's insane that America votes for Jay," Kimmel says. "It's my biggest fear. Everybody says it's going to be great; everybody is positive. But in a world where Jay Leno beats David Letterman every night, you can't be sure of anything. You really can't."

Bill Carter, the author of "The Late Shift," covers television for The Times.