Cover Story: Q&A With Jimmy Kimmel

In his first extensive interview since learning Jay Leno is not jumping to ABC, Jimmy Kimmel reacts to Leno’s surprising decision, talks about his own 11:30 rumors and says the days of TV personalities making big money are numbered.
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Posted on Feb. 16 at 1 a.m. ET

Related: CBS and David Letterman Discussing New Deal

Related: Jay Leno Taking Over 10 P.M. on NBC

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What was your initial reaction to Jay Leno making the deal at NBC?

I was surprised. I wasn't surprised that NBC did it, I was surprised because it hadn't crossed my mind. I really thought Jay would come to ABC.

In your heart, would you rather have followed Jay at ABC or gone somewhere else?

I have mixed feelings. Every scenario has a good side and bad side. It would be safer to be on at 12:30 after Jay Leno.

Safer how?

You know Jay's going to do well, and you know you can just ride his coattails at 12:30 and be left alone for the most part.

What about Jay? You joked on-air about him coming to ABC, but did it ever get uncomfortable?

No, he's a very nice guy and he's professional and he understands this whole thing just as well if not better than anyone. He always has good advice. During the strike, that was a difficult time and he helped calm me down. The strike really brought us together more than anything. But no, we don't spend time together. We've never gone out to dinner or anything. Every once in a while we talk on the phone.

What if Fox or someone else came calling offering you 11:30?

Fox doesn't really have an 11:30 spot, but I really don't worry about it too much. I'd be lying if I said I don't think about it. There were so many factors, so many people involved. The truth is, the safest thing for me to do would be to stay right where I am because I can stay in this time slot indefinitely. But if ABC one day asked me to go to 11:30, I'll be excited and I'll be ready to go at 11:30. It's not something I bug them about.

The rumors have surfaced again lately that ABC's entertainment side is making a run at Nightline.

News always wants as much real estate as they can get, and so does entertainment. I don't know that I've ever met David Westin, to be honest with you. I just stay out of it. I'm the action figure in their playground, you know, in their bat cave. But it's weird to be part of this circle of gossip. Especially being a fan of late-night television. It's very surreal to be a character in this story.

So do you want 11:30? Would you do things differently?

Yeah I would [want 11:30], sure. Would I do anything different? Mostly thematic. I don't think the approach of the show would be much different. I'd like to have more staff. We put out a lot of material every night and we do it with a smaller group than most shows—but essentially it would be the same thing. There are a lot of boring things I could tell you about, but as far as big changes that would be about it. Maybe we'd need a bigger theater, a theater that looks bigger on camera. We're in a very old building.

What do you think Jay will do content-wise at 10?

It's tough; you can't throw the last part of the show away like a lot of people do. I don't know what he's going to do, but they're probably going to steer clear of putting a band at the end of the show. So I don't know how they're going to handle that. I don't envy them. That's the truth.

You wouldn't like primetime rather than late night?

No, I really wouldn't. I want to be as far off the network radar as possible without actually disappearing.

Do you watch other late-night shows?

Watching other people is good and it's bad. The most I learned about comedy was from watching David Letterman growing up, and I didn't realize I was learning at the time, I thought I was just watching TV. But also with that you learn how things are supposed to be done, which isn't necessarily good. Because there is no answer to how things are supposed to be done. You do take cues from other people who have done it before you.

What's it like going on Letterman?

It's the scariest thing I've ever done professionally. Without a doubt.

Have you gotten to know him?

Not really. He doesn't want to be bothered by me. I'm sure he means a lot more to me than I mean to him. I think the greatest gift I could give him is to just leave him alone.

What was your reaction to our story that Letterman and CBS are talking about a new deal?

I wasn't surprised, just curious. It certainly can't be money. Leno and Letterman aren't in it for the money at this point. There's no way they could spend all the money that they have. What is it about [hosting a talk show] that's so addictive? I don't know. I think if I had a hundred million dollars, I'd head for the hills. I'd grab a fly-fishing rod. The last anyone has ever heard from me. Now I say that, but I don't mean it. I know six months would go by and I'd be like, “Hey, you know what would be funny?” and try to convince somebody of something.

Do you consider yourself a student of thelate-night game?

I guess so; I always was. As a high school student I was. I'm interested in it. I'm as interested in it as I am in sports or cooking or any number of things. If I weren't working in late-night television, I would be very interested in all of this. What was going on and what this guy was going to do. Who would win the battle and all that silly stuff.

What will happen when Conan O'Brien takes on Letterman?

I've learned not to make predictions like that. I don't know what Conan's plan is at 11:30. I don't know what the competition will be like for guests. It's going to be very interesting to see how The Tonight Show and Leno arrange their guest situation. There's definitely a pecking order as far as guests go. Even though Leno will still be at the top of the pecking order, it makes me wonder. If he's successful at 10 o'clock, he will have free reign over what he does guest-wise. He'll be really unstoppable. There are just a lot more people watching television at that hour. What happens when somebody like George Clooney has a movie coming out? Leno first and then Conan, or Leno and then Letterman? Both shows on the same night?

Where do you fit in?

I think we're in pretty much the same position we're in. We are fourth essentially, after Leno and Letterman and Conan. There's just sort of a pecking order that the publicists go by. We used to be at the bottom of it.

You told me you don't know show business. That's not true.

It absolutely is. Very little of [show business] makes sense to me. If I were an advertiser, I would demand a better system for measuring an audience. I really don't totally understand the whole thing.

What do you understand about the business?

I really believe I'm on the very tail end of television as a big money-making business. I think there will always be a certain number of people who make a lot of money, like American Idol or NFL football, but I just think that in 10 years when people have good Internet connections, there are going to be a thousand channels. People will be making money, they just won't be making a lot of money. Even successful shows or programming will bring in small amounts of money.

When? In 10 years?

Maybe. It can't just be the early adopters; people's grandparents have to have same equipment as everyone else. Yeah, the golden age of making a lot of money as a television personality is coming to a close. I was lucky enough to get in before the doors closed, but in 10 years I just don't think that you're going to see people make as much money in late-night television as Leno and Letterman do now.

What's the most improved part of your show?

Guest booking. But everything leads to that because the better the show does, the more comfortable people feel going to it and the better guests you're going to get. We didn't know what we were doing when we started.

What still needs the most improvement?

The host. You just get better at doing your job until I think you reach a point you don't get better at it, you get worse at it. But certainly the biggest area of improvement has been my performance on the air. I just got more comfortable.

How have you grown as a host?

I'm always getting fatter—and more relaxed. There was so much riding on every guest interview in the early days.

What's next after this show for you?

Death. I will do this as long as I can or I want to. Does anybody ever do anything successfully after they've hosted a talk show? Doesn't seem like it. Do a show in Vegas every once in a while? Really what I want more than anything is to consistently make great pizzas in my backyard.

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