Wednesday, April 2, 2008

He saves a late-night seat for regular Joes

Nokiainside - Hot News

The best thing about Jimmy Kimmel may be the fact that Sarah Silverman is his girlfriend, that the Great Jewish American Princess of Taboo finds enough inside Kimmel's narcoleptic head to love. Or maybe the best thing about the talk-show host is the fact that he's a massive "Lost" fan, one who developed a catch phrase for Hurley ("Hey ladies, it's Hurley time") and gave us the Broadway stylings and jazz hands of "Lost: The Musical."
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But as Kimmel celebrates his 1,000th "Jimmy Kimmel Live" with a 90-minute special tonight at 11:35 on Channel 5, it's clear he also has something valuable of his own, something intrinsic to his schlubby self. In 2003, in his post-Super Bowl premiere, Kimmel announced, "Welcome to 'Enjoy It While It Lasts,' my new talk show," aware that the likes of Magic Johnson and Martin Short had bombed before him.

The odds were against a Kimmel late-night break, and yet here he is five years later, despite his serious dearth of star quality. He's as unlikely a success as "Knocked Up" star Seth Rogen, and similarly lacking in the metrosexual finish that trails most Hollywood men.

Silverman perfectly defined Kimmel's demagnetism when she introduced him at a 2001 Friars' Club roast of Hugh Hefner: "Jimmy Kimmel, everyone - he's fat and has no charisma. Watch your back, Danny Aiello!"

That Kimmel has no pressing talents, no whiz-boy needle-sharp irony, has turned out to be his ace in the hole. He stands out on late-night TV for being so blandly ordinary. He's never too smart for the room. At 40, he already has the mien of an old-school TV veteran, a friendly guy in a tie and jacket who's kind of stiff around the shoulders but comfortable with guests.

Unlike Conan O'Brien and Dave Letterman, Kimmel doesn't have that clever ability to make his interviews about his own comic sensibility. He's a listener. And unlike Jay Leno, he doesn't strain, stretch, and squeal for effect. He's sedate - the opposite of a live-action cartoon.

When Lance Bass appeared with Kimmel in February to promote his memoir about coming out, Kimmel didn't have the big thought balloon you'd have seen above Leno's or Letterman's head: "I don't get this crazy stuff." He conducted the interview without waiting to pounce - he was curious about the double life of a gay teenybopper hero, then brought out one big Conan-esque flourish as he showed his own People magazine cover reading "I'm Gay Too!"

Kimmel clearly gets a kick out of playing gay, most recently in his Ben Affleck video, but he doesn't seem to be pandering to homophobia so much as poking holes in political correctness. If there is hatred behind his gay jokes, I'd say he's hiding it pretty well.

To use a Yiddish word, Kimmel is a bit of a tummler. He's the conventional social director who surrounds himself with gaudier characters, like Howard Stern surrounds himself with the Wack Pack. He busies his show with reality segments about his more colorful security guards and family members such as his Uncle Frank and Frank's ex-wife, Aunt Chippy. If Kimmel himself were wittier, shrewder, edgier, he'd be less palatable to young middle America, which is the demographic ABC is targeting. He projects an everyman persona no matter what's going on nearby, even when you can see mockery playing around his eyes and he lets out a Letterman-esque ironic groan.
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Unlike Silverman, Kimmel is not passionate about being a provocateur. His regular feature "This Week in Unnecessary Censorship" - bleeping out harmless words and gestures on film clips to make them seem obscene - is a send-up of the FCC and Parents Television Council-like organizations, but Kimmel never plays it as intellectual subversion. He's just fooling around, YouTube-like, not trying to push cultural buttons or tease conservatives as on "The Daily Show." He's stubbornly middle of the road, even when his material has the potential to be spiky.

The Matt Damon-Ben Affleck video throw-down between Kimmel and Silverman has given Kimmel a huge boost, bringing him more press and more viral cred than he had even after featuring interviews with "Tron"-obsessed guy Jay Maynard and the first-ever live performance of YouTube sensation "Chocolate Rain." But, of course, Kimmel's standing as the average Joe means that his Affleck video had to be sloppier than hers. Silverman's Damon clip was sharply written and sustained; Kimmel's retaliation was jumpy rehash - a decades-old "We Are the World" spoof.

Kimmel has been growing into his hosting duties since 2003, as he moves away from the more sexist material of "The Man Show," with its drinking songs and women on trampolines. He has mellowed enough to have filled in effortlessly for Larry King and Regis Philbin. He's not the frat boy at a kegger anymore, so much as the dude who has the potential to become the underdog of late night.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit

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