Other things have changed, too. Kimmel is considerably slimmed down and gets his bald spot covered up by a makeup artist before every show. He wears dapper suits and ties to interview “Dancing With the Stars” rejects and openly declares his admiration of Oprah. His show has become very much a traditional late-night talk show – only hipper around the edges.
Kimmel’s “figured it out, and his producer has figured out, and the network was really smart and nurtured it,” says Lloyd Braun, who was ABC Entertainment boss at the time the network hired Kimmel. “They’ve been great, getting Jimmy out from behind the desk — even the way he dresses.”
Kimmel, who lacks the corniness of Leno but also the dry wit of Letterman, continues to be the best deadpan cipher in the business. But he’s also unabashedly sentimental. The show’s bandleader, Cleto Escobedo III, is a childhood pal, and his Aunt Chippy is a regular. He’s got relatives writing, directing and booking guests; Uncle Frank was a fixture on the show until his death in 2011.
But what really put Kimmel’s show on the map was the January 2008 appearance of his then-girlfriend Sarah Silverman, who surprised him with a birthday gift — a video called “I’m F------ Matt Damon,” in which she and Damon sang a duet about all the places they were supposedly having sex behind Kimmel’s back.
The video went viral, and Kimmel had the good sense to follow it, a month later, with his own response video, “I’m F------ Ben Affleck,” which was jammed with celebrity cameos. That September, Silverman won a Creative Arts Emmy for writing the first song, and Kimmel was a made man.
In his new time slot, Kimmel’s taking on two guys in their 60s with a couple of years left on what could be their final contracts. Letterman will have broken Johnny Carson’s 30-year record on late-night TV, and there’s speculation NBC will let Leno go at the end of his deal and give “Tonight” to Jimmy Fallon.
Both “Leno” and “Letterman” are trending down ratings-wise. Less than a decade ago, Letterman was attracting more than 7 million viewers and Leno more than 5 million. This season to date, Letterman’s averaging about 3.1 million viewers, and Leno 3.6 million. Meanwhile, Kimmel’s been averaging about 2 million viewers — his biggest-ever audience through this point in any of his seasons.
Kimmel said recently that he does not expect to beat Jay or Dave when he moves to 11:35 but does expect his numbers to go up substantially, if only for the reason that a lot more people are watching TV then than at midnight.
The shadow of Letterman looms large, as Kimmel has made a career of obsessing over his idol. And it’s been great for business.
There’s no reticence about Kimmel when it comes to Letterman. He’s like one of those Arthurian knights who used to jump up on the Round Table and break into a song about how much he loved his girlfriend.
It can be a little creepy.
“JKL” executive producer Jill Leiderman who, not coincidentally, was a producer for Letterman, says the two men have a lot in common.
“Thoroughbred,” is how she describes them, saying that they are creatures of habit, have “excellent work ethic” and always are well-prepared guests when they appear on interview programs. Both men “engender tremendous loyalty among their staff,” she said.
When Letterman visited “JKL” recently, out came the photos of his old L8 NITE license plate and a childhood birthday “Late Night” sheet cake.
“It might be pathetic to say, but it was probably one of the most meaningful moments of my life,” Kimmel said of Dave’s first visit to his show.
Part and parcel with idolizing Letterman comes hating Leno, though Letterman last month told journalist Charlie Rose that the period of his life when he was lashing out at losing “Tonight” to Leno was “some of the worst behavior of my life.”
Kimmel’s not listening.
“Everyone is better than Leno,” he told New York magazine recently as part of his walk-up to his new time slot.
On a conference call with reporters to plug the time change, Kimmel warned the press: “Never count Jay out. He’s like Jason in ‘Friday the 13th.’ He seems to pop up just when you think he’s dead — he comes alive, and he’s got a hatchet.”
But when asked how he can position himself to take down Letterman in the ratings, Kimmel’s got a ready answer:
“It’s like if Nolan Ryan is pitching to you. You still have to try to hit the ball, no matter how many baseball cards you might have in your bedroom or posters of him on the wall.”
Jimmy Kimmel Live
(One hour) returns Tuesday at 11:35 p.m. on ABC.