The Evolution of Jimmy Kimmel

“This may make me sound like a dickhead,” said Jimmy Kimmel, “but I am not surprised at all. In fact,

“This may make me sound like a dickhead,” said Jimmy Kimmel, “but I am not surprised at all. In fact, I was disappointed that it took this long.”

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It was Monday, May 13, and Mr. Kimmel, 34, was talking from his office in Los Angeles, where in a few hours he would hop a plane bound for New York City. The next day, the scruffy-cheeked ex–radio D.J. turned tele-chauvinist would step triumphantly onto the stage at the New Amsterdam Theater in Times Square to be crowned late-night television’s Latest Shiny New Object. Battered ABC had signed Mr. Kimmel to do a comedy show after Nightline , one to replace the never-really-worked Bill Maher and Politically Incorrect .

Mr. Kimmel had spent the past three years blowing up as host of Comedy Central’s Man Show , the weekly, wild testosterone release in which he and toothy co-host Adam Carolla, cheered on by an eager, beer-swilling audience, riffed upon subjects like urination, masturbation and farting while surrounded by half-naked sidekickettes called the “Juggies,” some of whom jumped on trampolines. Seen as a he-man rebuke of 90’s political correctness, The Man Show was not high art. On one Man Show skit, a shirtless Mr. Kimmel-all 191 pounds of him-had dry-humped a live chimpanzee.

Now he will follow Ted Koppel.

But as he verged on the Big Time, Mr. Kimmel offered this revelation: the Man Show man is not necessarily him . And his and Mr. Carolla’s whooping, herdlike studio audience?

“I don’t like most of them, to be honest,” Mr. Kimmel said. “I like a certain segment of them, but I don’t like them as a group. Individually they’re fine, but as a group, I don’t like the hooting and hollering.”

And there you go. Like a kids’ TV host who winds up loathing the children who bark his name, Mr. Kimmel had grown tired of his screaming, loyal louts. He was grateful for their love, but he hated their brainless cheering of potty-mouth words. He hated it when MTV, figuring they’d be perfect, sent him and Mr. Carolla to Mardi Gras, an event he called a “nightmare.” Jimmy Kimmel grew up wanting to be an artist, for crying out loud. Didn’t people understand? Just because he played well with horny packs of loudmouths didn’t mean he was one of them .

“The idea that I am this guy who runs around snapping people in the ass with a towel, that’s not really me,” he said. “I like to think there is a little more to me than that. I know there is.”

But now he’s got his work cut out. Mr. Kimmel joins a gimpy network with an even wobblier late-night franchise. ABC bungled supremely earlier this year when it flirted with David Letterman, only to lose him and alienate Mr. Koppel and Nightline, its aging yet stentorian news beast. Nightline ‘s execution was stayed, but few people think it will last more than a couple of years.

ABC’s mission, of course, is to get young-grab some of that 18-to-34 male demographic back from Mr. Letterman and Jay Leno. But Mr. Kimmel’s selection raised eyebrows, and not just because his pee-pee gags contrast mightily with Mr. Koppel’s lyrical dispatches from the Congo. Amid the Letterman mishegoss , there were rumors that if they didn’t get Dave, ABC would chase The Daily Show ‘s Jon Stewart, who is witty and charming and the kind of self-effacing smarty pants who gets written up in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine -in other words, the type of guy Mr. Koppel would at least humor, if not laugh at.

Conversely, Mr. Kimmel, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Las Vegas, is seen as a merry lummox-the type that might get written up in Maxim , and that Mr. Koppel might avoid on the Delta shuttle. Physically, Mr. Kimmel reeks regular guyness: Short-haired, barrel-chested and usually in need of a shave, he’s the kind of lovable-schlep who looks like he’s wearing a Rangers jersey even when he’s not wearing a Rangers jersey. Indeed, if late night is college and Jay Leno is the obsequious student-council treasurer, David Letterman the fifth-year senior turned cranky dorm proctor, Conan O’Brien the improv captain and Craig Kilborn the smarmy Lothario who slept with the freshman girls, then Jimmy Kimmel is the cool guy smarter than his 2.0 G.P.A. who didn’t mind if you borrowed his porn, or puked in his room.

Because of that likability, Mr. Kimmel was able to pull off a tongue-in-cheek crudity like The Man Show . Like one of his idols, Howard Stern, who got away with the strippers and breast exams because he had a family in the suburbs and told everyone he possessed a small penis, Mr. Kimmel, who’s been married 14 years and has two young kids (and now appears on Mr. Stern’s show from time to time), is an on-air aggressor with a marshmallow inside-not a misogynist, but a pig with a wink.

At least he’s played one on TV. As he prepares for the biggest leap of his career, Mr. Kimmel is eager to leave that frat-guy perception behind.

“I definitely like sports and drinking beer and all that, but I think I’m a little more well-rounded than that,” Mr. Kimmel said. “I mean, I would never be in a fraternity. It’s so funny when people say to me, ‘Oh, this frat-boy humor,’ because a fraternity is the last thing I would do. I don’t need to belong to a group that tells me who my friends are. I have enough trouble keeping guys away from me.”

Jimmy Kimmel said he is motivated by anger. Not scary-guy Travis Bickle–style anger, but resentment at the way he was shunted around the country, like a Wolfman Jack Willy Loman, in the early stages of his radio career. “There’s a lot of spite that fuels me, it’s true,” he said.

Before he landed on television, Mr. Kimmel toiled in radio stations in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Seattle, Phoenix again, Tampa, Palm Springs, Tucson and finally Los Angeles. He was fired from all but two of those jobs. It still stings him.

“I was fired from all these radio stations, and people laugh and think it’s cool or whatever,” Mr. Kimmel said. “But you know, it wasn’t funny and it wasn’t cool at the time-it was me and my wife and eventually a kid or two having to go pack our house with no money and drive to another city where hopefully I would be able to get another job. It was not fun.”

Mr. Kimmel admitted he was a “huge pain in the ass” in his early radio days. Radio-station directors, he said, “always want to make you into Gary Collins,” and he was an unproven kid demanding that they not tamper with his undiscovered genius. “I was a skinny punk telling these grown men, ‘You’re not funny, I know better-just trust me,'” Mr. Kimmel said. “I can see why they didn’t like me.”

He began to find his voice in a little-listened-to R&B radio station in Palm Springs, where he spun Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle records and a childhood friend named Carson Daly was his intern. Convinced that no one was listening and thus no one cared what he did, Mr. Kimmel honed that wild regular-guy act, moaning about his boss, making crank calls, raising radio hell. “It was like we were doing a show in our living room,” Mr. Kimmel said. “And it was very freeing in a way to feel like nobody’s listening, because you feel like you can say anything-and I did just start saying anything.”

Eventually, Mr. Kimmel wended his way to L.A.’s hyper-influential KROQ, where he rose to prominence as a wise-cracking sports freak called “Jimmy the Sports Guy.” People started calling him with ideas for television. But he stunned suitors by turning most of their ideas away.

“I have said no to so many people when I had nothing going on, and they couldn’t believe it,” he said, laughing. ” I was just on the radio, and they were like, ‘We want you to host this show.’ I said no, and they were like, ‘What the fuck ?’ I’d say, ‘It doesn’t sound good.’ And they’d go, ‘But you were on the radio ! Don’t you want to be on TV ?’ I’d go, ‘Yeah-but I want to do something good.'”

In 1997, Mr. Kimmel relented and agreed to serve as the host on Win Ben Stein’s Mone y, a Comedy Central quiz show in which contestants try and match wits with the monotone former Nixon aide turned movie actor (“Bueller … Bueller … Bueller … “). The acclaimed show earned Mr. Kimmel some critical credibility; he won a daytime Emmy in 1999 for best game-show host.

But even then, he was anxious to show more. “When I was on the Ben Stein show, I always secretly wanted to show I knew the answers to a lot of the questions,” Mr. Kimmel said. He feels a little of the same in his ongoing gig as an armchair prognosticator on Fox’s N.F.L. pregame show, where he plays a funny schmo trying to pick between the Saints and the Buccaneers.

“People equate comedy with being dumb,” Mr. Kimmel said. “And you know, I’d be happy to take an IQ test or an SAT test. Just because [jock-turned-Fox-personality] Howie Long wears glasses doesn’t make him smart. I guarantee you I am much smarter than those guys.”

Mr. Daly, the MTV idol who also hosts a 1:35 a.m. NBC show called Last Call , called Mr. Kimmel “one of the smartest people” he knew. “He’s very well-read, he is a great Trivial Pursuit partner-he has a lot of knowledge on a lot of levels,” Mr. Daly said.

Still, Mr. Kimmel wasn’t going to force his brain on anyone. Better to have your intellect underrated than overcooked, he figured.

“I think that’s why Dennis Miller got hit in the head by a two-by-four,” Mr. Kimmel said, referring to the recently canned Monday Night Football jester. “Dennis Miller seems more intent on showing people that he’s smart than showing people that he’s funny. There are zillions of smart people-there aren’t that many funny people. If your goal is to show people how much you have read, there is something wrong with that if you’re a comedian.”

The Man Show, launched in 1999, would not pose such conflicts. Developed by Mr. Kimmel, Mr. Carrolla and Dan Kellison, the show became the second-highest-rated program on Comedy Central (after South Park ) despite a hairy excoriation from critics when it premiered. Susan Faludi, in Newsweek , dismissed it as a show where “flatulence seems to be the sine qua non of male identity.”

Mr. Kimmel said he can’t understand why The Man Show became fodder for generational arguments. On various occasions, it was derided as evidence that the male troglodyte had returned to pop culture; of a brewing backlash against gender equality; of the shamelessness of cable-television executives.

“It always reminds me of one of my bad book reports, where you have to find three points to support your argument,” Mr. Kimmel said. “The first one is kind of strong, and the third one is fairly strong, but the one in the middle is just bullshit .

“We go and entertain these drunken guys-how is what we do indicative of anything that goes on in America?” Mr. Kimmel asked. “‘Oh, it’s this backlash against feminism.’ No! It’s a show people think is funny. Also, guys like to watch girls bounce. Simple as that.”

It’s not just guys, he said. Mr. Kimmel said that women tell him all the time that they love The Man Show ; he said the program’s female fans regarded their loyalty as a counterintuitive badge of honor. “I think it makes them feel special,” he said.

Over time, however, even the best-intentioned audience affections began to wear on Mr. Kimmel. He said that while they were thrilled that people came and watched, he and Mr. Carolla were weary of the cat-calling and barking from their audience; that they were eager to broaden horizons. Mr. Kimmel said they talked about it every time they taped another episode.

The rabid fans hounded them on the street, too. “Adam and I walk around, and people go bananas,” Mr. Kimmel said.

Sometimes it was too much. Mr. Kimmel told a story about a time he was dining with friends in Las Vegas and a chatty fan suddenly sat inside their booth, trapping them inside.

“I guess my personality welcomes that behavior,” Mr. Kimmel said. “I guess there are some things you got to deal with when you chug a beer at the end of your TV show.”

Mr. Kimmel enters late-night television at a time when broadcast networks, believing that Sept. 11 turned audiences off of gratuitous sex and violence, have become broadcasters again, offering a steady diet of middle-of-the-road comfort-food entertainment. This spirit was evident at this week’s upfront presentations, where urbane NBC, the home of Will & Grace and Fear Factor , announced a new series called American Dreams , about a white-bread 1960’s family with a daughter who hopes to do the mashed potato on American Bandstand . Even the slutty WB is lowering its hemline, introducing a wave of family-values shows, including a remake of CBS’s old Family Affair , starring that Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania, Tim Curry, as a butler.

Mr. Kimmel’s show-which is loosely being described as an hour-long talk and variety show-won’t debut on ABC until January 2003. ABC, however, is in a rush to kick Politically Incorrect to the curb; the network announced on May 14 that it will soon jettison Mr. Maher and the chair he came in on for ( geez , this network gets weirder and weirder) an additional Nightline half-hour called Nightline Close-up .

Then, come early next year, it’s Jimmy time. Bill Hillary, the executive vice president and general manager of Comedy Central, said that he’s happy for his employee, but thinks Mr. Kimmel’s transition from cable will be a challenge, if only because of the creaky viewers he has to convert.

“To be perfectly honest with you, I think it will be difficult at first, because ABC’s audience is so old,” Mr. Hillary said. “But I think if anyone can really break through, he can. The challenge for him is to get a younger audience to be loyal to his program and come to ABC.”

Stacey Lynn Koerner, vice president of broadcast research for Initiative Media, a media-analysis firm, said that on ABC, Mr. Kimmel should probably “get a little broader, shake off some of his Man Show exterior. The key demographic in late night is young men-but that doesn’t mean women aren’t watching.”

Mr. Daly was more blunt about his pal’s ABC show. “Look out,” he said. “Look the fuck out.”

As for The Man Show, its future is unclear. Mr. Kimmel would say only, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Comedy Central’s Mr. Hillary said the network is undecided if the show will continue on, perhaps with Mr. Carolla and someone else; the network, of course, successfully transferred the Daily Show from Mr. Kilborn to Mr. Stewart. (Mr. Hillary added that Comedy Central has also ordered up four years’ worth of Crank Yankers, a new puppets-doing-crank-calls show from Mr. Kimmel, Mr. Carolla and Mr. Kellison.)

Mr. Kimmel, though, will be busy moving on. At ABC’s upfront presentation on May 14, he joked that he planned to get Barbara Walters on a trampoline.

This may make him sound like a dickhead, but Jimmy Kimmel thinks that he and late night can work.

“Everybody I know thinks I’m funny,” he said. “Even people that don’t like me think I’m funny in real life. There is no reason why it shouldn’t translate to the rest of the United States.”

-with reporting by Rebecca Traister and Gabriel Snyder

The Evolution of Jimmy Kimmel