Of all the people who've been given their own late-night TV slots to play with, Jimmy Kimmel is the one it's taken me the longest to get a fix on. I remember that when it was first announced that Kimmel was getting his own network show, after a number of years toiling at the basic cable work farm of Comedy Central, there was a fair amount of dismay and revulsion expressed by the respected media outlets of our nation. It was as if a network executive had gone out to lunch and returned to work with something stuck to the bottom of his shoe, and once it got inside the building, someone offered it a contract, This was when Kimmel was best known as the co-star (with Adam Carolla) and co-creator of The Man Show, one of those pre-Spike TV, Maxim-era attempts to equate masculinity with cheesiness and stunted mental and emotional growth, and make it sound like a compliment. For some people who viewed Ted Koppel, then still holding down the fort at Nightline, as the Pope of quality TV, it must have sounded as if ABC was launching a five-year plan to make everything on their schedule smell like a gym locker.
In the time since The Man Show folded its pup tent, it's become apparent that Carolla really believes there's something to this Sanctity-of-the-Man-Cave bullshit—he's got a book out now called In Fifty Years We'll All Be Chicks… And Other Complaints From An Angry Middle-Aged White Guy—Kimmel's persona is a bit more nuanced and a lot more interesting. On his talk show, he does little skits that serve as commercials for products, skits that often employ his malaprop-spouting, funny-accent sidekick, Guillermo. Like everything else that has anything to do with Guillermo, these moments of air time are unendurable horrors, and when Kimmel opens the show with them, it would be easy to take them as a Man Show-style challenge and assume that the message to viewers is: "The show we're about to do is garbage, and we like it that way, because real, good, manly American TV like our fathers watched is supposed to be garbage, and if you're too gay or stuck up to think you deserve something better than garbage, go watch some HBO show where the guy who looks as if he ought to be playing Renfield or something ends up shooting the good-looking, sexy guy in the face and leave us alone to enjoy our garbage."
But as a performer, Kimmel doesn't begin to suggest that kind of hostility, and while the show that's connected to those spots isn't great, it isn't garbage, either. I wonder if it's possible that he thinks the spots are okay. What I actually wonder is if he likes doing them, and also likes getting to specify that the musical acts on the show are performing on "the Bud Lite Stage", because it makes him feel as if he's connected to an earlier show business era, when plugs for sponsors were unapologetically woven into the fabric of a show. (Nostalgia for that era may also help explain why he's stubbornly kept the word "live" in his show's title, even though ABC rescinded his live-broadcast privileges in 2004, after he dropped in on a broadcast of an NBA finals game in Detroit and cracked a Carolla-style funny predicting fiery death in the streets if Detroit won.) Maybe that's also the source of his affection for the kind of Jokes for the John humor he used to do on The Man Show, which, as a pro, he knows how to tone down when he's working in a different context. Maybe Kimmel was simply one of the first people to turn his nostalgia for the simpler, less inclusive mass entertainment of his father's America into a show. Maybe, given a different skill set and different connections, Jimmy Kimmel would have created Mad Men, in which case Adam Carolla might have played Roger Sterling. There's an image for you to set aside for when you've gone too long without a really good nightmare.
If anything, it's too bad that Kimmel can't bring a little more of his bachelor-pad-space-age-music side to his role as talk show host when it comes to managing the celebrities taking up space on his couch, In the era that Kimmel seems so fond of, talk shows often brought writers and political and social activists and other people who were famous for their brains on. I understand why Kimmel isn't trying to be Dick Cavett, or even Jack Paar: he does the hackiest monologue on late-night TV, with the usual ritual invocations of the Khardashians (trashy!), Gary Busey (crazy!), and Lindsay Lohan (a two-fer!), and not much interest of life going on outside the confines of Us Weekly. Breaking away from the list of famous cartoon names that audiences are supposed to have a Pavlovian reaction to, he may attempt a bit of surrealism: have you ever thought about how weird it is that, at Christmas, we eat peppermint candy in the shape of canes, which is something people use to help them get around when they can't walk by themselves? What's next, a butterscotch wheelchair!? As he delivers these terrible, worn-to-the-stump jokes, Kimmel never betrays any of the irritation that David Letterman, say, does with his writers for handing him such shit to work with. He seems to see both the monologue and its sickly pallor as necessary parts of the job, something to be gotten through at whatever cost. The man is a formalist.
The tension between the nostalgic old-schooler in Kimmel and the contemporary bad boy willing to say or do anything to get a laugh really gets thick when he employs kids—something he does a lot, especially around Christmas. I don't think he's trying to subvert anything when he does it; he's a parent himself, and he works kids into his show because they're cute. But he can't always help himself. Dressed as an elf and talking to kids about Christmas, he could be Art Linkletter much of the time, but he lets just enough dark slip in to sometimes be funny. He does a bit with two families out in the heartland; we watch them in their living room as they compete to be the first to do things like gift-wrap the youngest child or send the kids off with instructions to come back with a pair of mom's underpants. It's all pretty cute, but it depends so heavily on the charge you get from waiting to see how badly the parents will be embarrassed by something the kids do that you can taste Jimmy's disappointment when the kids on the underwear hunt don't come back on-camera hauling bondage gear.
But to really see how thin the line is between cuteness and sadism, you have to check out Jimmy's big holiday stunt, where he shows home videos made by parents who, in order to get their kids on TV, have given them bad Christmas presents. I'm not going to say that, while watching little tykes unwrap black bananas, half-eaten sandwiches, and gender-inappropriate activity books, I never laughed, But I'm also not going to say that seeing some kid run amok, screaming about how much he hates his parents because he didn't get a flying shark, doesn't chill my marrow. Maybe, in order to just find this stuff adorable and funny, you have to believe that the kid is in some zone where he's saying things he doesn't real mean, and could certainly never hate his mom and dad because they screwed up his Christmas. My problem with that is that I have too good a memory of having once been a kid.
Partly because he's actually one of the better celebrity interviewers on TV, an affable presence who makes his guests feel comfortable and allows them to score without butting in, you kind of wish that he could go that extra mile and duplicate that buzzed, just-dropped-in-after-my-set-at-the-Vanguard air that old talk shows sometimes achieved, It's great fun to see John Holloway kicking back in his chair, claiming to have seen Kimmel out in the sticks "dressed like Ali G.", or Kathy Griffin pleasantly talking about how "super stupid" Kim Khardashian is and how her mom's a pimp, and then sticking around to listen to Jamie Bell talk about what it was like to meet Steven Spielberg and to win the BAFTA for Best Actor when he was fourteen and then have go back "to math class." But imagine how much more fun it would be if they were all plowed! (Granted, this was not an option on Thursday night, when Kimmel hosted two teetotalers—Robert Downey, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz—back-to-back.)
Kathy Griffin, on whose every word Kimmel hangs, is the perfect guest for a show like this, because she's funny and articulate and has a brain, and would never dream of applying these attributes to any subject in the world except for celebrities. The funniest part of Kimmel's show is reliably the clips from news shows and the Internet: Ron Artest babbling to a reporter about how the proof of God's wisdom can be found in the way we lose our baby teeth when we're kids instead of doing it "when you're twenty or thirty" (adding, "It has nothing to do with your question, but it was definitely on my mind"), a graphic from Fox News showing small photos of all the Republican presidential candidates above their names, with President Obama's picture above Mitt Romney's name. Jon Stewart would have used that image to illustrate a riff on Fox News so disliking Romney that they're prepared to use not-quite-subliminal techniques to pull him down; for Kimmel, it's an excuse to say that Romney is such a "flip-flopper" that nobody can even be sure what race he is.
This past week, his sharpest joke, and maybe the one with the most heartfelt delivery—he started to break up as he said it—was about how logical it seemed that it rained all day in Hollywood when Steve Guttenberg got his star on the Walk of Fame. Steve Guttenberg is as deserving a target for mockery as Hollywood has spit up in my lifetime, but how angry do you still have to be about Short Circuit to think of him as the most deserving target to come up in the course of a week? Maybe it's not a question of anger but one of how much more real show business feels to you than anything else. I don't want Kimmel to be doing The Daily Show, and I don't mean to ding him for doing the show he wants to do as opposed to the one I might rather watch. It's worth keeping in mind, though, that the sharpest and funniest—and meanest—he's ever been was back in early 2010, when he was riding Jay Leno for screwing over Conan O'Brian. It might be that even comedians who have no interest in acting as satirists are at their funniest and most inventive when they're talking about something they really care about. If anything is holding Jimmy Kimmel back, it's the fact that he might not really care about anything but getting to stay on TV.
- Speaking of things that chilled my marrow, when Robert Downey, Jr. asked the audience how many of them had read any of the Sherlock Holmes books, several people cheered, and Kimmel yelled back, repeatedly, that they were all liars, and he really seemed to believe that it was unlikely that any of them had. Again, I don't mean to suggest that every talk show has a responsibility to promote or even endorse literacy, but we're not talking Kristen Lavransdatter here—he doubted that many of the people in a room had ever read freakin' Sherlock Holmes! That's a pretty heavy investment in the belief that hardly anybody in America has ever read shit. On the other hand, maybe it was just a heavy investment in the belief that nobody in L.A. who has nothing better to do than attend a free taping of a talk show has ever read shit.
- When Jamie Bell refers to having won the BAFTA for Best Actor for Billy Elliot, Kimmel mentions that, among other rivals, he beat Tom Hanks. A good segment of the audience chose to applaud this. Tom, buddy, you really should have thought twice before making Larry Crowe,
- Best monologue joke: "I tried to write 'Happy Chanukkah' on my iPhone, and the auto-correct changed it to 'Happy Chewbacca.'"
- Whoever told Molly Sims that waving her hands around like a lunatic while she talks would distract people from noticing the inanity of her conversation sure does have a cruel sense of humor.
- This news will come to late to do him any good, but Jimmy would have been well advised to cut back on all the jokes, and especially the non-jokes, about how his underlings behave at the office Christmas party. His affable persona starts taking on water after too many reminders that he's a boss, and that's before he starts doubling down by joshing about all the people he's going to fire. It got to the point where Robert Downey, Jr, who presumably had to listen to way fewer of these than I did, told him to his face that he did presumably have the option of not having an office Christmas party, and that if he insisted on it, then surely the thing to do would be to "appear jovial" and not keep complaining about it on the air, "so that you look like a prick."