Tears replaced laughs on the comedy scene Monday as TV hosts delivered touching tributes to Kobe Bryant, who died Sunday in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen DeGeneres struggled to keep it together while lamenting life’s fragility and recounting some of their fondest memories with the Laker legend. James Corden and Conan O’Brien were also among those who honored Bryant with reflective words and, in some cases, highlight reels of his past guest appearances.
“Tonight’s show is going to be different from our usual show,” Kimmel began his “Jimmy Kimmel Live” monologue. “We don’t have a studio audience here tonight because going forward with a comedy show didn’t feel right, considering what happened yesterday.... That was a punch in the gut for many of us. Kobe was — and I know this might not make sense, but — he was just the last person you could ever imagine something like this happening to.”
That stunned sentiment was shared across networks, with comedians — like many Angelenos — finding it hard to process that Bryant was really gone.
“Kobe was such a life force — so strong and creative and inspired that, in my head, I thought that he was going to live forever,” Fallon said at the top of “The Tonight Show.”
Though he grew up much farther from L.A. than his contemporaries, British comic Corden felt the weight of the basketball icon’s larger-than-life legacy.
“It didn’t feel real when I heard it, and it’s so unspeakably sad,” he said on “The Late Late Show.” “If you grow up in Britain, basketball is not a massive part of your life. Not many people play basketball at school. NBA games weren’t on television when I was growing up. But there are some athletes that transcend their sport before you ever even get a chance to see them play, and Kobe Bryant was one of those athletes.”
In addition to his impact on the sports world, the hosts also spoke about Bryant’s personal impact on their lives, remembering him as a charismatic presence and devoted father.
“So much is rightly being said about Kobe’s incredible gifts as an athlete and his prowess on the basketball court, but what I want to do is just take a moment here, at the top of the show, to highlight another aspect of Kobe’s talent,” O’Brien said on “Conan.” “He was naturally very funny and charming.... A superstar does not have to be a great guest, but he just was. Whenever he was on our show, he was a joy to talk with, and he always had the audience in the palm of his hand.”
Fallon choked up while reminiscing about the time he and Bryant first met at a party and went on a beer run together. According to the “Saturday Night Live” alum, Bryant, at age 17, was able to persuade a delivery-only store’s clerk to sell them drinks on the spot by simply flashing his identification through the window and saying, “I’m a Laker.”
“When we’d run into each other over the years, we’d laugh about that night that we first met,” Fallon said, fighting to keep his composure. “We’d laugh about how fun it is to raise kids — all the stupid mistakes that we’d made trying to figure out how to be good dads. And Kobe had four daughters, and I had two daughters, and today, he and one of his girls are gone.... Kobe, when we meet again, we’re going on a beer run.”
Kimmel recalled Bryant calling him up for an in-depth discussion on a book the host once gave him as a gift, as well as checking in on him and his family while Kimmel’s young son was in the hospital. Highlighting Bryant’s love for his own family, Kimmel teared up, saying: “There’s no silver lining here. It’s all bad, and it’s all sad.
“Kobe was a hero in the way Superman is a hero,” he said. “He was so big, it was almost like he was a fictional character. He was a real-life superhero, with a costume and everything, walking amongst us. Those of us who love the Lakers know that it seemed like he always came through. He always showed up to save the day. He wanted to save the day.”
The NBA star’s influence also extended to daytime TV, where an emotional DeGeneres pleaded with her audience to “celebrate life.”
“Yesterday was supposed to be a celebratory day [because of the Grammy Awards], and then we got tragic news about Kobe Bryant, and everything changed in a second,” she said. “Life is short, and it’s fragile.... If you haven’t told someone you love them, do it now. Do it. Tell people you love them. Call your friends. Text your friends. Hug them. Kiss them.”
Before cutting to a compilation of his greatest guest-starring moments, Kimmel took a moment to spotlight Bryant’s contributions to his home team and town.
“We also loved him because he was ours. We watched him grow up here,” the host said. “He came to L.A. when he was a teenager and, unlike almost every other superstar athlete, he never left. In his 20-year career, he only ever wore two uniforms, for the Lakers and the United States Olympic team. There were times when it seemed like he would leave, but he didn’t. He stayed until the end.... He worked very hard, and he brought a lot of joy to a lot of people in this city, and we’re going to miss him.”