The late-night host is reaching new heights of popularity—but some of his tactics may end up damaging his relationship with his audience
Jimmy Kimmel is on a roll.
In an age when the audience for late-night talk shows has been slipping steadily, Kimmel's ratings are on the rise. The host of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! has seen his viewership tick up over the last 12 months, jumping from about 1.7 to 1.8 million viewers from this same time in 2010. Last week, the late-night host even landed the very plum gig of headliner at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.
Also last week? Jimmy Kimmel made some children cry. On purpose. The incident captures the essence of everything that's good and bad about his show.
Halloween week, Kimmel issued a "YouTube Challenge" to viewers. He asked parents to tell their kids, "I ate all your Halloween candy," record their reactions, and submit the clips to his show via the giant video-sharing site. Hundreds of Kimmel viewers—each one clearly a potential Parent of the Year candidate—did just that. They told their children a mean-spirited lie. They recorded the fits of rage and despair that predictably followed. Then these latter-day Cliff and Clair Huxtables submitted the video evidence of their own bad parenting skills to a talk show in hopes of getting their kids' psychic meltdown broadcast on national TV.
That is some top-notch nurturing, Kimmel fans. What's next? Waking the kids on Christmas morning to tell them Santa died in a sleigh crash?
Two days later, while introducing the montage of traumatized kids, Kimmel seemed a little sheepish, cringing at how mean the prank had turned out.
"We didn't know there would be so much crying," he said. They aired the clip nevertheless, though, which immediately went viral, had 10 million hits by Friday, and spread around the globe over the weekend. Compelling, but not rewarding, both hilarious and unsettling, the video is a strange mix of charming, old school, kids-say-the-darnedest-things comedy, and a genuinely loutish display of cruelty in the service of cheap laughs. The clip—in the innovative use of new media, for its weird mix of humor and the guilty-pleasure appeal—is emblematic of Kimmel's show. Jimmy Kimmel Live!—which is broadcast, not for nothing, on tape-delay—can simultaneously feel smart and stupid, sweet and boorish, viral and corporate, innovative yet retrograde.
JKL! is produced by Jackhole Productions, formed by Daniel Kellison, Kimmel, and his longtime companion Adam Carolla. Their company undeniably has been forward-thinking in their approach to new media, whether it's that branded YouTube partnership, or their own smartphone apps. Just try to imagine David Letterman issuing a "YouTube Challenge" to his fans. Since Letterman doesn't even have a personal Twitter account, imagine him Tweeting to his 800,000 followers like Jimmy does. For that matter, try to imagine Letterman even saying the word "tweet" and keeping a straight face.
Kimmel's on-air content is media-savvy, too. Generally, his show follows the sacred talk show template, as created by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson, of an opening monologue, followed by desk chat, three guests and a band.
In his monologue, though, Kimmel sometimes strays from the path. While he tells plenty of standard, setup-and-punchline style jokes, he's more comfortable using mixed-media, web-influenced humor—all the cartoons, found video clips, and edited photographs that younger viewers are used to seeing online all day. He'll throw up an animated mash-up, for instance, then wisecrack about it, and so comes off less like a traditional show host than a dude hanging out on the couch and riffing about whatever happens to be on TV.
The problem with JKL!, though, is what material all that cross-platform, How We Live Today, new media savvy gets used for.
First off, the show's humor is fairly dumb. Jackhole, after all, was also responsible for The Man Show. After Jimmy got his first TV gig in 1997, as a sidekick on Comedy Central's game show Win Ben Stein's Money, he and Carolla created and hosted that lewd, besotted, paleo-sexist, but hysterical bachelor party masquerading as a talk show.
Like The Man Show, JKL! also reeks of teen humor and towel-snapping locker-room bravado. If there's a joke to be made about the size of Kim Kardashian's rear-end, Kimmel will always make it. As a host, he is gracious, if not an especially curious interviewer. Face-to-face with guests, he tends to conspire more than confront. He's a partner-in-crime, as happy to let people in on a joke as make them the butt of it. But there nevertheless remains an element of the bully in his on-air persona—the sort of thing that would make a man find it funny to tell kids that someone ate all their candy.