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The Hemi Q&A: Jimmy Kimmel

He's been a local radio DJ, game show host and creator of an exuberantly lowbrow TV hit; now he's the longest-running late-night host on ABC. This month, the everyman comic wades deep into the mainstream with a debut turn as host of the Emmy Awards. And he has just one rule: There's no crying in show business.

Author DAVID CARR

ILLUSTRATION BY EDDIE GUY

ON SEPT. 23, Jimmy Kimmel will make his debut as host of the Emmy Awards, on his home network of ABC. While he sums up the honor in classic Kimmel fashion—”Either I’ve gotten classier or the culture has gotten coarser, I’m not sure which” —the real reason he was chosen is simple. He’s very funny. He’s very popular. And if you combine his TV and Web platforms, he’s absolutely everywhere.

A smart and reasonably regular guy who divided his childhood between Brooklyn and Las Vegas, Kimmel cut his teeth at radio stations around the country before moving into TV with a sideman gig on “Win Ben Stein’s Money.” In 1999 he created Comedy Central’s hilariously boorish “The Man Show” with friend and comic Adam Carolla. And four years later he parlayed that success into a show of his own, “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on ABC, which has surpassed chat-fests from the likes of Dick Cavett and Bill Maher to become the longest-running late-night talk show in the network’s history. While Kimmel slogged through his share of interviews with C-listers early on (the tedium of which he alleviated with a recurring fib about Matt Damon), he’s now a must-do for big names promoting big projects.

We gave Kimmel a call to talk about hosting the Emmys —as well as his own show and, recently, the White House correspondents’ dinner—but what we really wanted to know is the extent to which you’re allowed to go to pieces if you end up holding some hardware on television’s night of nights.

HEMISPHERES: So, the Emmys. How did they talk you into it?

KIMMEL: It wasn’t a matter of them talking me into it. It was more like, “Let me host the Emmys, will ya?”

HEMISPHERES: Why did you want it so much?

KIMMEL: When you’re a talk show host, there are only so many hurdles you can clear, and this is one of them. It’s not as if I’m going to win an Oscar or something, and I’d be surprised if I ended up hosting the Oscars. So hosting the Emmys is about as big as it’s going to get for me. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do. I felt I was passed over when they chose a reality show host [Jeff Probst of "Survivor"] the last time ABC had them, in 2008.

HEMISPHERES: You won an Emmy yourself once.

KIMMEL: It was a Daytime Emmy for game show host [for "Win Ben Stein's Money"], and it’s not the same thing. The statue looks just the same, though—you have to inspect it really closely to tell the difference.

HEMISPHERES: Did you cry when you won?

KIMMEL: No, I gave it to Susan Lucci.

HEMISPHERES: But it’s OK to weep if you get an Emmy, right?

KIMMEL: I think it’s unacceptable to weep if you get an Emmy. I really do. Getting a little choked up is OK, maybe, but definitely not if it’s a supporting actor award. Then there should be no weeping. None.

HEMISPHERES: At least you won’t have to follow the president, as you did at the White House correspondents’ dinner.

KIMMEL: He did well, I thought. He’s welcome to come and open the show for me, warm up the audience. We could always tell him it’s a fundraiser.

HEMISPHERES: I was there, actually. It was a tough crowd that night, but you seemed to enjoy yourself.

KIMMEL: I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but I think it went pretty well. I was very nervous. It’s like singing the national anthem. If you’re good, people just go, “OK,” but if you screw up, it’s a national travesty.

HEMISPHERES: The media people seemed to laugh at everything except the jokes that were aimed at them.

KIMMEL: I think it’s funny that someone in the press invites Kim Kardashian to come to this event and then the rest of the press spends the whole time saying, “Why is Kim Kardashian at this event?” Because she was invited, that’s why. It was one of the strangest rooms I’d ever been in. There are a lot of people—a lot of very bright people, bona fide geniuses—in the room, and yet everyone is still staring at Lindsay Lohan. What really struck me more than anything is that in Hollywood, the Obamas are the biggest celebrities; but in Washington, people freak out when they see Lindsay Lohan. I didn’t expect that.

HEMISPHERES: Are there other events that are especially tough to work?

KIMMEL: Charity events are difficult. A lot of times people are eating, which is no good. And I think sometimes people forget that you’re there doing a favor for the charity.

HEMISPHERES: It’s not like, say, appearing on a talk show that bears your name.

KIMMEL: There’s no question that you have a home field advantage. You set yourself up to succeed when you’re in your own studio. The people who come are there to see you, so you have an advantage right there. It’s not like being in a room where there are round tables and a lot of other interesting people to look at.

HEMISPHERES: You are everywhere online. You have about eleventy billion followers on Twitter, your YouTube page is massively subscribed and almost everyone on Facebook is your friend.

KIMMEL: It’s empowering to know you can go directly to your audience. I started in radio, where the only people who knew what you were doing were the ones in the local market. If you make a YouTube video that’s genuinely funny, you can bet a lot of people will see it. When you do a TV show, you assume people are laughing and your ratings are merely estimates, whereas online you can see this was viewed 5 million times. It must be something that people are responding to.

HEMISPHERES: I always have trouble remembering how we all did what we did before there was an Internet.

KIMMEL: The days of having to beg for a radio job are kind of gone, because now any kid with a computer can do his own radio show. Sometimes I imagine myself at 17, and I wonder what I would be doing. Would I be making little cartoons or trying to make funny videos? I almost would like to erase everything and start again, just to have that fun.

HEMISPHERES: You’re a pretty funny guy. I’m wondering who makes you laugh.

KIMMEL: There are quite a few guys. Will Arnett makes me laugh; anything he says, I find amusing. Bill Murray still to this day makes me laugh. Chris Elliott is another guy like that, and I would put Zach Galifianakis in that category, too.

HEMISPHERES: Are you buying all this talk about the Golden Age of Television?

KIMMEL: Well, “Breaking Bad” is one of the greatest shows ever. And I’m dazzled by “Girls.” Not only is it funny, it’s got so much heart to it. I feel like I’m watching something important. I wasn’t old enough to be aware when people were discovering Woody Allen, but I almost feel like Lena Dunham might be similar to that. Here’s somebody who’s just supernaturally talented for her age, doing all this stuff herself, and it’s just so good.

HEMISPHERES: Given that you understand the Web and use it well for your show, do you still believe in the primacy of broadcast entertainment? Every weeknight, you light a campfire and invite people to show up. Will that continue?

KIMMEL: I think so. It might become more rare as the years go on, but if there’s a show like “The Sopranos” on, we’re still going to watch it. Or if there’s a sporting event or these live talent shows—they capture people’s imaginations. Those are going to be things that we all watch at the same time because we don’t want to be left out of the discussion. But the days of the broadcast networks dominating television are clearly gone, and they are not coming back. My daughter doesn’t have a television in her apartment, which is mind-boggling to me, but she’s got her computer. She watches what she wants to see when she wants to see it.

HEMISPHERES: You’ve apologized on-air to Matt Damon many, many times for running out of time at the end of your show, as if he were standing by in the green room. Where did that bit come from?

KIMMEL: That was early on in the show, sometime in probably the first or second year, and I don’t remember who our guests were that night, but I remember that they weren’t good guests—they were C-minus at best. As a joke at the end of the show I said, “I want to apologize to Matt Damon, we ran out of time,” and it tickled our co-executive producer, Jason Schrift, who was standing right next to me. It was especially funny on nights when we had really bad guests.

HEMISPHERES: Was Damon a fan of the bit?

KIMMEL: Somehow we got in contact and he encouraged us to keep doing it. Who knew it would pay off in such a big way? But it was funny. It’s like one of the first things people think about when they think of me.

HEMISPHERES: With apologies to Matt Damon, that’s all the time we have.

DAVID CARR, a New York Times columnist, wept deeply when he received a “Traffic Safety” merit badge in the Boy Scouts.

JIMMY KIMMEL, BY THE NUMBERS

44
Age

6’1″
Height

7
Radio stations worked at before breaking into TV

3
Emmys won by “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

24,640
Miles that Kimmel traveled in setting the record for farthest distance commuted in a single week (L.A.-New York, daily)

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