When asked if he thinks about what it is he's doing so right these days, Jimmy Kimmel has a good laugh.
"It seems like everything is happening at once," he says the week before Christmas, sitting on a long, red wrap-around couch in his office above the space in the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard where Jimmy KimmelLive is filmed. "But it's like putting a pot of water on the stove. Just after a long time of heating, it starts boiling."
Kimmel's cup does appear to boileth over. With a new two-year deal following a successful 10-year run on ABC at midnight, his talk show is moving up to the late-night big-time. Starting Jan. 8, he's going head-to-head at 11:35 p.m. with his idol David Letterman on CBS, ratings heavyweight Jay Leno on NBC and the youth-appealing Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. (Nightline, which has occupied 11:35 p.m. on ABC, moves to 12:35 a.m.)
What's more, Letterman appeared on JKL for the first time in November. In 2012, Kimmel drew raves hosting the Emmys, the White House Correspondents' Dinner and ABC's upfront; and JKL earned an Emmy nod. Also: Kimmel is engaged to Molly McNearny, JKL's co-head writer.
Kimmel sounds downright philosophical -- Zen, even. Maybe it's all the talking he's been asked to do lately about what is arguably the biggest move of his career. In a two-week marathon of promotional visits to ABC affiliates last month, he was in New York; Boston; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and Dallas.
"There's no point" in being nervous, Kimmel says. "I feel relatively confident about it. I know we'll work hard; I know we'll do the best we can. And the rest is up to the universe."
The Apples & Oranges of Ratings
Kimmel and ABC have not talked about ratings expectations, he says, but he's looking at the long game. And for the rest of the TV season, JKL ads were sold based on the ratings potential for the show in its old time slot. "Presumably we are going to exceed whatever number we promised the advertisers just by virtue of the fact that we're on a half-hour earlier [when HUT levels are higher]."
Kimmel says he hopes people don't make direct comparisons of Jimmy Kimmel Live's ratings to Nightline's. "Nightline is a half-an-hour-long show that was rated on, like, 17 minutes," he says, "and we're an hour-long show -- and in late-night, that's a major factor. Your first half-hour is higher-rated than your second half-hour because people go to sleep." The only fair comparison to make is with Leno and Letterman. "We're all on head-to-head now," Kimmel says.
So far this season (through Dec. 23, 2012, according to Nielsen data provided by ABC), The Tonight Show on NBC at 11:35 p.m. is averaging a 0.8 18-49 rating and 3.5 million total viewers; Late Show With David Letterman on CBS at 11:35 p.m. is averaging a 0.7 18-49 rating and 3.1 million viewers; and Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC at 12:02 a.m. is averaging a 0.5 18-49 rating and 1.9 million viewers. The Colbert Report, which like Nightline is a shorter program, airing for 30 minutes starting at 11:31 p.m. on Comedy Central, is averaging a 0.8 18-49 rating and 1.8 million viewers.
Nightline, which as Kimmel points out is rated on far fewer minutes than JKL, has been averaging a 0.9 18-49 rating and 3.9 million total viewers. Due to the demand for entertainment programming in the hour, ABC reps say, JKL's younger audience in the earlier time period lets ABC get additional commercial time at premium CPMs. And JKL won't have to beat Leno or Letterman -- or deliver the numbers of Nightline -- to make more money for the network in its new time period.
Kimmel sees one additional possible edge for his show: While Leno and Letterman do full shows on Fridays, Kimmel is prepping a weekly best-of compilation show. Like the JKL Friday repeat that has been airing in his midnight slot, the best-of show will be part of the weekly ratings average. It's a strategy he even thinks his competitors may try.
"This may turn out to be a false prediction," he says, but "once we start doing it -- of course we're going to see how it rates and how it does -- but I believe that it will become a trend, and other shows will wind up doing their own version of what we're going to do on Friday night."
Kimmel sees the format appealing to short attention spans: "If you're lucky, your regular viewer will watch the show one time a week," he says. "If you watch the show on Friday, you'll get to see the best parts of the week all in one show."
The Friday show is among a handful of not-so-big changes viewers will see in addition to the show starting 25 minutes earlier. Among them, the set is getting a makeover. Five minutes after the show finished taping Dec. 18, before hiatus, the studio was torn up. A wall was knocked down to accommodate different shots in the new JKL era. The ad breaks will be a little different. But the biggest change Kimmel foresees for 2013 is that he's going to be more selective.
"In the past there have been nights where I've looked at a bit, and thought, 'Yeah it's OK. It's pretty good,' and sometimes I convince myself that it's good. Because I know I need something to fill the slot. And I'm determined to stop doing that," Kimmel says. "That's my goal for 2013: less filler."
One of his most important comedic influences -- his grandfather -- would be proud regardless. Last month, Kimmel came across memorabilia of his early fascination with Letterman while cleaning up his home office to make room for his daughter, who was coming home from college. He found buttons he'd made for a party he threw in honor of Letterman's second anniversary on NBC. He also found snapshots his grandfather had taken of Letterman on the TV and mailed to him.
Letterman was something Kimmel and his grandfather bonded over, he says: "He's the first person I ever discussed David Letterman with. He actually brought it up to me. He said, 'Did you ever see this guy Letterman?' And I said 'yes.' It's a strange thing, but at that point I thought I was the only person in the world watching the show and it never occurred to me that other people might be watching it."
His grandfather, who was the old man in a wheelchair in the opening of The Man Show -- the late-night sketch series Kimmel did with Adam Carolla from 1999-2003 -- lived long enough to see some of his grandson's success. "He was a very funny guy and as a result, most everyone in my family is funny. But my grandfather was the funniest of everyone," Kimmel says, adding that he thinks to know Letterman went on Kimmel's show and he's now going head-to-head with him, his grandpa would "be very excited about it and proud of me."
For the most part, Kimmel is looking to continue doing what he's doing, already having that high point of the show with Letterman's November JKL appearance, which was "everything I could have hoped it would have been with the possible exception of us, you know, going out and playing whiffle ball afterwards," Kimmel says. He did his best to return the favor, helping fete Letterman during his recent Kennedy Center Honors induction.
"He owes me nothing," Kimmel says. "As far as influence and entertainment goes, I feel like my debt to him is enormous, and there was no reason for him to do our show. And it was really very gracious."
Kimmel's take on his other big competition -- Leno -- is different, to say the least. In a 2009 interview, before NBC's Leno-Conan O'Brien debacle but after it was clear Leno would not be jumping to ABC, Kimmel told B&C Leno was a "very nice guy." But in interviews since NBC's late-night saga, Kimmel has had less flattering things to offer, saying "F--- him" in one interview and likening The Tonight Show host to Jason from Friday the 13th in another.
Leno 'Punished Sufficiently'
"That wasn't an indictment of his personality," Kimmel says of the Jason allusion. "In fact, if anything, that was a compliment. You could never count him out. When you think he's dead, he comes back." But when asked if he is taking some opportunity for a little "Hey, batter batter," Kimmel says that's not his intention.
"I come from a morning radio background, and one of the ways to get attention in morning radio was to attack the big guy," he says. "But that's not really what I'm doing. I just feel like I'm answering questions that I'm asked and I feel like I've been straightforward about my feelings in that department, if you can call it that."
Kimmel points out that at the time he called Leno a "very nice guy" in February 2009, "[Leno] was definitely wooing me in some way because he needed me to give him the OK if he was going to have ABC as an option, because they weren't willing to blow me out for him.
"But what they wanted to do was put him at 11:30, and they wanted to slide me to 12:30," Kimmel explains. "So he made a great effort to be very nice to me, and the moment that he signed with NBC, I did not hear from the guy again. When I did hear from him again, it was months later, when I impersonated him. That was when he decided to pick up the phone."
After Kimmel impersonated Leno on JKL, Leno invited him to appear on The Tonight Show in March 2010, right after Leno returned to his late-night perch. Kimmel proceeded to rip Leno to his face. He says he'd accept another invitation to go on Tonight: "I would do it again. I think that stuff is interesting. For the viewer it's a lot of fun. I would gladly do that if he wanted to have that conversation on television."
But the fact that Leno seemed to drop him like a hot rock once the ABC deal was off the table made him feel "stupid," Kimmel says. "I mean, at that point I just felt like -- 'Oh, OK, that was all fake.' There was nothing, there was no relationship there. I was being manipulated," Kimmel says. "You think you're smarter than that. You'd think you'd look at this guy's history and you'd understand that that's a distinct possibility, but I didn't. I have to say, it embarrassed me."
For that, though, he doesn't expect Leno to apologize. "I don't think he owes me an apology," Kimmel says. "I think he's been punished sufficiently for his misdeeds."
Success is the best revenge anyway. And Kimmel sounds hopeful that he may get it, pointing to the recent morning ratings upset his home network achieved: "If you look at, like, what's happened with GMA and the Today show, you can see that every once in a while you can turn things around," he says. "And hopefully, given time, we will do that."
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When asked if he thinks about what it is he's doing so right these days, Jimmy Kimmel has a good laugh.