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Jimmy Kimmel's move to SXSW pays off in barbecue and viewership

Beer, barbecue and flat Guillermos as Jimmy Kimmel makes the rounds in Austin for SXSW

“Someone’s in a cranky mood right now,” Jimmy Kimmel said to his 8-month-old, Jane. He was bouncing her on his lap as he rehearsed for his first show here this week. She picked up a pack of gum from the late-night host’s desk.

“You wanna crinkle my gum?” he said. “That’s good.”

Kimmel’s wife, the program’s co-head writer Molly McNearney, sat in the audience of the Long Center, a 1,141-seat performing arts center that this week became home to “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Next to her were other staff writers, their eyes all glued to monitors previewing the news clip Kimmel was set to make fun of Monday evening.

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After each snippet, Kimmel would quietly jot things down on a notepad or ask something practical: “Is that from our affiliate?” “Maybe there’s a better clip of that guy?” “Can you start that over?”

Kimmel’s show has gone on the road before -- to Detroit and Brooklyn, and to Austin for the first time last year. The 47-year-old had such a positive experience in Texas that he made the decision to return during the South by Southwest Film Festival last June.

“No. 1, it’s really for the viewers,” he said after the show’s Austin debut Monday. “People are interested to see when you travel to a town -- and you get a big boost in the local markets. And a plate of barbecue has just been delivered to my desk. That’s reason No. 2.”

Indeed, Kimmel did seem genuinely interested in immersing himself in the local culture -- or at the very least, the local cuisine. When the actual taping began at 5 p.m. Monday, in between commercial breaks he asked the crowd what restaurants he should visit.

“Round Rock Donuts!” one audience member shouted out.

“Torchy’s Tacos!” another insisted.

“I think that’s good for now,” Kimmel said. “We’re only here for a week.”

He also made the media rounds, doing dozens of interviews, participating in a SXSW discussion and attending a party held by Entertainment Weekly in his honor. But Kimmel couldn’t just up and move the show to Austin for a week because he wanted some good ribs and beer.

“It’s very expensive,” he acknowledged. “You have to figure out basic travel issues, but there are issues with the unions and the venue too.”

This year alone, 274 ABC and “Kimmel” staffers traveled to Austin, and the network also hired a number of locals to work on the program. It’s also a different performing experience for Kimmel, whose TV studio in Hollywood holds only 180 guests.

“It’s a huge energy boost when you walk out and there are thousands of people in the audience here,” he said. “But I have to change my approach somewhat. The way I deliver the material is different -- it’s less conversational and more presentational.”

Dressed in his usual black suit during Monday’s show, Kimmel seemed at ease in front of the larger audience -- except when he had to introduce musical guest Brad Paisley from a lofty balcony.

“I’m actually really nervous right now,” he said, looking down at the crowd below as he clutched his microphone.

During Paisley’s performance, audience members waved paper cutouts of Kimmel’s sidekick, Guillermo Rodriguez. Ushers had passed out the “Flat Guillermos” -- a nod to the popular kids book “Flat Stanley” -- during a commercial break. Everyone was told to hold up the miniature figure in front of popular Austin landmarks, take photos and send them into the show.

For Guillermo -- and the rest of the cast -- the trip is a “nice way to shake things up creatively,” Kimmel explained.

“It’s a bonding experience,” the host said. “Staying in a hotel with everyone you work with feels like a retreat.”

Kimmel’s final show from Austin airs Friday, with guests Willie Nelson, Colin Hanks and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

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We’re at South by Southwest until March 22. Join us at latimes.com/sxsw for ongoing coverage of the festival.

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