My late-night death happened at 12:15 a.m., as Thursday became Friday. On ABC's "Nightline: UpClose," Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone was talking about the future of the Internet, his stock portfolio, his business philosophy. "I'd rather be a lover than a fighter," Redstone said. He gave off a mischievous grin. I felt I understood him implicitly.
Here's the deal: If you find yourself late one night wanting to watch Sumner Redstone talk about his stock portfolio, as opposed to viewer mail on "Late Show With David Letterman" or Katie Holmes on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," then there can be no more denying it: You're dead as a viewer of late-night TV.
You're dead because they really don't care about you, whether it's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and "Last Call With Carson Daly" on NBC, "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn" on CBS, or "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central.
At 37, I thought I had more years to go. College coincided not with Steve Allen, but with Letterman's 12:30 a.m. NBC years. And so it came as a kind of final do-not-resuscitate order when I asked Jimmy Kimmel, the newest -- and seventh -- white guy in late night about going after 20- to 40-year-old viewers.
Kimmel corrected me. His core audience, he said, would be 18 to 35.
"Jimmy Kimmel Live" debuts tonight after the Super Bowl on ABC. In what amounts to pro bono programming, the network used "Nightline: UpClose" to fill the void created by the cancellation of "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" in June. Now ABC gets back to the business of chasing the youth vote in late night, banking that Kimmel, like Letterman and O'Brien before him, will resonate with a new generation of 20-year-old males sending in minimum payments on their first Visa cards. Those of you who get low interest and frequent-flier miles can hear about his show in the morning.
ABC is all too ready to get in the game. None of the late-night shows draws audiences in huge numbers, but all are established in their own way, whether as a ratings leader (Leno), a brand (Letterman) or media darling (Stewart).
They attract a concentration of young male viewers who are highly coveted by advertisers. More broadly, the shows provide each of their networks a veneer of youth-oriented with-it-ness, the pretense of staging a late-night pop culture salon.
You can imagine, then, how out of it ABC has felt: On the very last "Nightline: UpClose," the show booked Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning novelist and Holocaust witness.
Kimmel's show will air from midnight to 1 a.m., going out live to the East Coast during a 9 p.m. broadcast from the Disney-owned El Capitan Entertainment Complex in Hollywood. The show is expected to be layered thick with the kind of humor Kimmel displayed on his Comedy Central series, "The Man Show": irony that doesn't bite but can nevertheless be acknowledged as clever. It is the most anyone shoots for.
The last comedian who really made noise in late night was Arsenio Hall, who arrived on Fox in 1989 as competition to NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"; Hall was a sycophant with guests, but there was no getting around the fact that a black comedian-host could put a fresh spin on a format grown staid with white people (a decade later on HBO, "The Chris Rock Show" realized this again).
Hall fizzled in the early 1990s, as late night transitioned into the Leno-Letterman wars. Those who launched shows against them failed, sometimes humiliatingly so, as in the case of Chevy Chase, who lasted all of six weeks.
Enter ... Kimmel? Many people don't know who he is, which ABC spins as part of its strategy. Big names spell big flops.
"Jimmy Kimmel Live" will be done live at 9 weeknights. The show is going for a vibe. They will serve drinks in the lobby -- it'll be like a hip club, with bands. .
Leno and Letterman get the biggest late-night audience (an average 5.8 million viewers for "The Tonight Show" this season, versus an average of 4.2 million viewers for "The Late Show," according to Nielsen Media Research). Combined, Leno and Letterman account for 21% of those watching television at 11:30 p.m. "Jimmy Kimmel Live," the optimistic theory goes, won't cut into the Leno or Letterman audience; it'll attract new late-night viewers -- guys a little bug-eyed from watching too much "SportsCenter," or waiting out the exposition on whatever soft-porn movie is airing on Cinemax.
This is the company Kimmel keeps, thanks in large part to the success of "The Man Show," which is in its fourth year on Comedy Central and evidently will continue with two new guys replacing Kimmel and co-host Adam Carolla. Kimmel came up with the concept -- a series that, using bits and babes ("Juggy Girls," they came to be called), would celebrate and lampoon the inner caveman.
Now, like a politician who moves to the center after going reactionary to win a primary, Kimmel must soften his bits-and-babes edge. In August, when "Jimmy Kimmel Live" was assembling its staff, Daniel Kellison, the show's executive producer, sent an open letter to the show's prospective writers that said, in part: "This is not 'The Man Show.' While Jimmy's sensibilities are what they are, that show was targeted very specifically to young male alcoholics. This one will be much broader-based."
To that end, it may be worth noting that the show's writing staff includes Joel Hodgson, creator of the cable cult hit "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
ABC canceled "Politically Incorrect" last spring, in part after Maher's post-Sept. 11 comments created a groundswell of negativity from sponsors and affiliates. In the end, though, ABC gave up on what it saw as a format (B- and C-list entertainers trying to sound politically and socially aware) that couldn't grow. If Maher is a cultural provocateur who has never quite been able to mellow his angry comedian persona into an endearing TV host, Kimmel, in a way, is his opposite: He has nothing to say about North Korean nukes, but he's doughy and lovable and makes political indifference seem OK.
In this, Kimmel may more accurately reflect where comedy is these days -- self-absorbed, politically disengaged, media-obsessed. Maher, Leno and Letterman all were stand-up comics in the 1970s and '80s, when the likes of Robert Klein and Steve Allen could still be counted as influences and celebrity wasn't as pervasive as it is today. Kimmel, 35, came of age worshipping Letterman and Howard Stern. He copied Stern and Letterman and went into radio, and he emerged as one of those hybrid guys -- not exactly a comedian, not exactly a writer, not exactly a broadcaster. He is a "funnyman," insofar as "funnyman" can be used to describe someone's vocation.
Interviewed in his office next door to his theater, Kimmel said he'd learned, over his years in radio, that "there's only one way you can be different than other people, and that is to be you." Asked to describe who he is, Kimmel said: "I'm a funny guy. I don't have much common sense when it comes to weighing what I say. I will oftentimes say things that I shouldn't."
It was three weeks before he'd go live to the nation.
ABC in the mix
ABC sees tremendous advantages in Kimmel, but at one time it was willing to pay much more to get a late-night franchise and all that can mean -- better network branding, millions of dollars in profit, etc. Early last year, ABC made a play for Letterman. CBS had let an exclusive negotiating window with Letterman pass, and ABC, led by Disney President Bob Iger and the network's entertainment chief Lloyd Braun, became suitors. But the potentially bold free-agent signing backfired in a haze of bad PR over ABC's intent to dump its venerable news franchise "Nightline." When Letterman ended the drama by signing with CBS for 10 more years, ABC retrenched and went through a list of names (Jon Stewart? Chris Rock? Tavis Smiley?) before selecting Kimmel.
"Most people out there don't know who Jimmy is. Had we wanted to burst out of the gate with real ratings, there were established names we could have gone to," Braun said. "This is about creating a franchise over a long period of time. We're much less focused on short-term ratings than long-term ratings."
It is, of course, much easier for a network executive to preach patience now, and Braun's largess isn't necessarily shared by ABC affiliates, some of whom openly rebelled against airing "Politically Incorrect" at 12:05 a.m., preferring to air more profitable syndicated shows like "Oprah" or local programming at midnight.
As it stands, ABC says 80% of affiliated stations have agreed to air "Jimmy Kimmel Live" at midnight and for the full hour. Since the news broke early last year that he was to be ABC's late-night choice, Kimmel has been downplaying the opportunity and his qualifications -- an ironic pose that has the benefit of anticipating the media's cynicism. "I don't know what I'm doing here," Kimmel said when he was introduced in May at the annual up-fronts in New York, when the networks preview their new lineups for the nation's advertisers. "They called me. We had lunch. They gave me a talk show."
Kimmel looks the part of the schlemiel. He is 6 feet 1 and 204 pounds; he has a hangdog face and dark circles and bags under his eyes. He volunteers that beautiful women make him nervous.
It was three weeks before the launch of "Jimmy Kimmel Live," and Kimmel had just returned to his office after shooting a promo. He was wearing a suit and pancake makeup, and he shed the clothes and washed off the makeup like a kid who can't wait to get home from church and change into his play clothes. Kimmel and his wife are in the process of getting a divorce, and she had just called, upset that Kimmel, in a Playboy interview, had discussed their sexual history. He seemed properly chagrined.
Kimmel was born in Brooklyn, but the family moved to Las Vegas in 1977, in part because his father has asthma and wanted a desert climate. He went into radio after college and cycled through a series of jobs before finding his niche as a sports guy on the Kevin & Bean show, which airs on KROQ-FM (106.7) in Los Angeles. Then came his TV break -- a job as a sidekick to host Ben Stein, on the Comedy Central game show "Win Ben Stein's Money," which led to a series of his own, "The Man Show."
Guys behaving like guys
Like Stern, Kimmel seeks -- and receives -- comedic credibility among a wide swath of guys. They include guys who can tell you in which movie Jennifer Connelly appears naked the most, and guys for whom mixing avocado and sour cream, to make guacamole, is cooking (in Kimmel's world, this may even be considered gay, since you can just buy guacamole at 7-Eleven).
With an average 1.3 million viewers, "The Man Show" is still the third-highest-rated show on Comedy Central, a respectable showing in the circumscribed universe of cable ratings. For a one-note joke, "The Man Show" has enjoyed a remarkably long shelf life.
The series unapologetically celebrates the modern-day caveman, on the premise that the social climate has become so politically correct a guy can't go out and ogle girls and drink too much beer and chuckle at a midget without feeling as if there's something wrong with him.
Worse shows have been tried and failed on the same theme, and Kimmel was evidently prolific at dreaming up sketches and bits that pushed all the right caveman buttons. The show's most enduring characters, the Juggy Girls, are women with full breasts whose main purpose is to jiggle.
It remains to be seen how much jiggling can be done on ABC, which still promotes itself in prime time as the home of family comedy and has a corporate parent in Disney. "I don't think there's going to be a need for that; I don't think Jimmy's going to get that crass," Braun said. "The show's not going to be milquetoast either. I haven't had a single discussion with Jimmy about this."
Nor, Braun insisted, does the network care about landing celebrity guests. This is good news, because right now it's unclear that "Jimmy Kimmel Live" can land one.
"We need to manage people's expectations in terms of guests on this show," said Kellison, the show's executive producer. Kellison, 38, is another Letterman baby; he began as an intern on NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman" and rose through the show's producer ranks.
Next to Kellison's desk was a bulletin board with the names of people who'd agreed to participate in pre-launch "test shows." There was Ben Stein, sportscaster Jim Rome and comedian Sarah Silverman. "This show is not going to be celebrity-driven," Kellison said. Certain of Kimmel's relatives will be regulars, for instance. Also: "If one of our [production assistants] gets drunk and vomits at a party, we'll probably ask him to explain himself on national television."
Kimmel, Carolla and Kellison constitute the brain trust of Jackhole Industries, Kimmel's production company. It is a troika of guy-think not unlike the cabinet surrounding Adam Sandler as he churns out comedies that bear his imprint, either as star or producer. The Kimmel imprint includes "Crank Yankers," a puppet show on Comedy Central, and several movies in development."You know what's weird?" Kimmel said. "I've reached the point -- and I always hoped I would get to this point -- where everybody thought all of my ideas were good. But it's terrifying.... Like, for instance, they asked me what I wanted it to say on the sign in front of our building. I jokingly said it should say, 'Home of the Whopper,' and the next thing I know they're working on it.
"It's better when people think all of your ideas are ridiculous and undoable, like they did five years ago."
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The hours (and hours) of schmoozing
The arrival of "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on ABC adds yet another sectional to what has become one very long talk-show couch. The list is such that a star would be hard-pressed to appear on every show in one day, but it could be tried. Let's say, for instance, that it's Thursday, and Nicole Kidman is promoting her starring role in "The Hours." Her day could begin on NBC's "Today" show, which goes live at 7 a.m. in midtown Manhattan, and end in Los Angeles with an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" at 9:30 p.m.
Allowing time for makeup, hair and a costume change at each stop, here's how all the hours might look (all times are Pacific Standard Time):
4:30 a.m.: Appear on "Today" (demand Katie, not Matt; she asks more feminine questions)
5:15 a.m.: Appear on CBS' "The Early Show"
5:30 a.m.: Take town car to "Good Morning America"
5:45 a.m.: Appear on "Good Morning America"
6:15 a.m.: Town car to "Live With Regis and Kelly" (ask driver to turn off "Howard Stern")
6:30 a.m.: Appear on "Live With Regis and Kelly"
7:00 a.m.: Back to hotel
7:30 a.m.: Breakfast in bed
8:00 a.m.: Nap
8:30 a.m.: Wake up. Stare in mirror
10:30 a.m.: Finish staring in mirror
11:00 a.m.: Light snack. Get dressed!
11:30 a.m.: Take Oprah's call. Assure Oprah the only reason you're not doing her show right now is because you want to give her first dibs after your best actress win at the Oscars.
1:00 p.m.: Town car leaves for "Late Show With David Letterman" appearance
1:30 p.m.: Appear on "Late Show With David Letterman"
2:00 p.m.: Town car to "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart"
3:00 p.m.: Tape "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart"
3:30 p.m.: Town car to airport
4:00 p.m.: Take off for L.A.
5:30 p.m.: Land somewhere, briefly, for appearance on "Tonight Show With Jay Leno." You will be interviewed from the cockpit of your private jet (Jay likes gimmicks)
5:50 p.m.: Take off again
9:15 p.m.: Arrive in Los Angeles
9:30 p.m.: In town car, go immediately to "Jimmy Kimmel Live"
9:45 p.m.: Appear on "Jimmy Kimmel Live"
10:15 p.m.: Go home. Remind assistant to send apology fruit baskets to Conan O'Brien, Charlie Rose, Craig Kilborn, James Lipton and Caroline Rhea for not being able to appear on their shows today.
-- Paul Brownfield