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A bigger share of the couch

Times Staff Writer

AS a teenager, Jimmy Kimmel was so enthralled by late-night talk shows that he sported a “Letterman” jacket almost everywhere he went. His license plate said “L8 NITE,” and so did the writing on his 18th birthday cake.

Back then, the host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” never dreamed of following in the footsteps of his idol, David Letterman. But his radio career managed to set him on that path anyway and now, four years later, Kimmel and his network are starting to see the payoff.

“Jimmy Kimmel Live” is still the late-night underdog, but the show picked up steam last year after 4 million viewers tuned in to its first post-Oscar special and ABC hired executive producer Jill Leiderman (“Late Show With David Letterman”) to run it in April. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” is the only late-night show that registered growth last year, both in its total audience (17%) and the younger viewers (13%) -- those 18-to-49-year-olds coveted by advertisers. Although the show hasn’t proven profitable for ABC, the network is close to finalizing a deal with Kimmel that would extend the franchise for several years beyond the 2009 season.

This month, as Kimmel, 39, prepared for two big events in his life -- his annual Super Bowl party and his second post-Oscar special -- the comic allowed The Times to join him in the two places he is most likely to be found: El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, where his weeknight show is taped, and Costco, where he feels free to be who he really is -- “a little old lady.”

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IT’S the day before the Super Bowl and Kimmel is at his Lake Hollywood home (the one he prefers is in Hermosa Beach), preparing for his party. This house was designed for nothing but entertaining. His 17 television sets are ready (there’s even one in the guest bathroom), and so is his glassed-in rotating pie refrigerator, which he uses for appetizers. Kimmel is a football party pro. Every Sunday his friends invade, Kimmel spends the day cooking and only one buddy helps him clean up. “That’s the level of respect that I command,” he says. “Almost every one of those guys works for me.”

Costco is where this man, who puts in 15-hour days five days a week, goes to reflect on the important things.

“I like to just go and walk around. I think because I spend so much time working, I never really spend the money that I make. I love walking around and thinking, ‘I could buy anything I want in this store.’ It makes me realize why other countries hate America.”

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BEFORE Kimmel makes it to his version of the Happiest Place on Earth in Burbank, he stops for lunch at Porto’s, the Cuban bakery with really long lines, fantastic cakes and Kimmel’s favorite “potato balls” (papa rellena).

Over lunch -- those potato balls and a grilled chicken sandwich -- Kimmel ruminates on something that happened on his live show the previous night: Kimmel and his infamous security force (his Uncle Frank and company) had to kick out comic Andy Dick.

“I have a great tolerance for crazy people. I can put up with almost anything,” he says. “But when a third party is involved, like Ivanka Trump, who was very nice and surprisingly with it, I thought, that’s a different thing. So now I have to be a bit of a gentleman here and protect her. And when he started touching her leg and stuff, I was like, all right, that’s that.”

Booking guests used to be the toughest challenge. Some nights Kimmel called on his friends or girlfriend, Sarah Silverman, to join him on the couch at the last minute because there was nobody else. Little by little, that changed. But then, when the stars came, so did their wacky conditions and behavior. According to Kimmel, Jennifer Beals wept for apparently no reason; he says Beck needed a special entrance because he has an aversion to ramps, which becomes even more bizarre when you consider the building doesn’t have one; and he says “The Apprentice’s” Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth refused to come out of her dressing room because she heard there was a lie detector on the premises for an unrelated bit and she didn’t trust that Kimmel would not subject her to a test.

“If my friends were around those guys, they would have no such affectations,” he says. “If I wear something ridiculous, I get razzed all my way out to stage. I can get away with nothing.”

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KIMMEL arrives at “the gates of heaven” and immediately starts spouting his hard-earned wisdom.

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“So this is one of my Costco tips: First of all, I like to help out by bringing the [stray] carts in from outside. And secondly, if you can, get the boxes -- it’s hard to get good boxes and you need the boxes to carry all the stuff out to your house.”

Inside, Kimmel marches past the jewelry toward a section that holds his interest: the thank-you card collections, Easter-colors Post-its and the $50 iTunes gift certificates that go for $44.99. Kimmel goes for the sticky-note pads even though they are not on his list and throws in a box of pens too

“Sometimes people can sense that I know where everything is here and they’ll ask me for help. And I almost always know the answer. Whenever I don’t, I make something up. Sometimes people will recognize me but not quite know why, so they think I work at the store or something.”

In 40 minutes, Kimmel is done. His tab of $427.21 is as low as it ever gets and he’s got plenty of boxes for his goodies. All is well.

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IT’S 12 days before the Academy Awards and Kimmel has 10 live shows ahead of him. He is a little late arriving for his morning writers meeting because he had to have his cholesterol tested. As the writers pitch their ideas, Kimmel, who is not wearing shoes, types away on a laptop, compiling his favorite jokes on a list, which he immediately e-mails to the group so they can write scripts when the meeting is over. He also surfs the Web for breaking news.

“I don’t know how I do it. I really think it’s the end result of growing up in very loud family. Whatever the opposite of ADD is, I have, because I can lock in. If I’m reading, there could be a war going on around me and it would make no difference whatsoever.”

This meeting takes place in “Jimmy’s lounge” outside his office, a comfy room with brick walls, couches, a jukebox and a bar. One topic: When is it appropriate to comment on the ongoing paternity saga of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby?

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“My initial inclination was not to talk about it at all, but the fact is that it’s still the No. 1 story every single day. If I had any idea she was this popular, we would have booked her more frequently.”

Kimmel then meets with the show’s producers to go over the guest segments and to begin planning the post-Oscar special. Kimmel is relieved that his guests, Dr. Phil and Gwen Stefani, are already booked. Dr. Phil has never sat on Kimmel’s couch and the host is hoping he can paint him gold like Oscar himself. Producers are also planning a cold open with Ellen DeGeneres.

Landing guests on Hollywood’s prime night isn’t easy. The academy does not allow nominees or presenters to chat it up across the street at the El Capitan with Kimmel, and most other A-Listers want to see and be seen at the parties, so they won’t come and play either. Last year, that meant the guest list didn’t come together until two days before the show, which was taped in North Hollywood for security reasons. But the academy is letting Kimmel stay home this year.

Kimmel recognizes a post-Oscar spot is indeed special, but that doesn’t make him anxious. He tends to get nervous only in unfamiliar environments or when the people he grew up admiring accept his invitation.

“These older guys that I watched on talk shows when I was a kid -- guys like Don Rickles, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters -- it makes me feel like I’m really hosting a talk show. To have them think enough of me, even if they are promoting a project or whatever, it’s as satisfying as anything.”

The rest of his day involves preparing his monologue, a rehearsal, revising scripts and preparing for interviews. When the show goes off the air, Kimmel goes home and begins researching for the next day, going to bed around 2 a.m.

Would he work this hard if he became the top dog of late night?

“No,” he says, “probably not. I’d just stay at Costco all day.”

maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com


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