Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013 | 2 a.m.
This story first appeared in Vegas Magazine, a sister publication of the Sun.
Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show goes into a commercial break, but that doesn’t mean rest for the busy host. The audience applauds vigorously, obeying the command of the illuminated applause sign hanging high in the cozy ABC studio. Buoyed by the clapping of these 200 or so fans, Kimmel pushes his chair free of his desk and walks toward the crowd.
“Who traveled the furthest distance to be here?” calls out the man who is just a few weeks away from some important travel of his own: his long-awaited Italian honeymoon with writer Molly McNearney. Someone shouts, “Australia!” Another, “Canada!”
Then, from the back row, a trio of young women set the stage for a revealing exchange when they respond, “Singapore! Singapore!”
The host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” grins and peers into the recesses of the theater. “Singapore?” he says. “And you’re here to see the show?”
“We are students,” one of them says, adding that they’ve been on a West Coast tour of sorts. “We’ve been to Seattle, San Francisco, and here.” She says the three will attend UCLA in the fall.
“You know,” Kimmel says, “your English is very good.”
The women point out that English is an official language of their country.
“No, it isn’t,” the host says, smirking. “That’s not true.”
The women are insistent. But like a poker player trying to bluff his way through a crappy hand, the Las Vegas-bred Kimmel projects an unshakable confidence that he’s right. When told that he isn’t, he finally concedes. “Well, whatever the case, you speak English very well, better than most Americans.”
Watching Kimmel arrive at this point — agreeing to disagree on an inarguable fact — you detect the aloof, cocky yet playful air of the Rat Pack. He is certainly dressed for the part, wearing a smart slate-gray suit and rose-colored tie. He’s a more svelte, more adult version of the mischievous, wiseacre kid who made his TV debut in the late 1990s as the sidekick of droning smart guy Ben Stein on “Win Ben Stein’s Money.”
The 45-year-old Kimmel is aging with an air of comic dignity, always cool but primed to crack wise on any subject, including the official languages of Singapore. He is doubtless a product of his environment, having grown up in Las Vegas — a proud graduate of Clark High School, which this year thanked him for a generous donation by naming a technology wing after him — and having attended UNLV, where he became an avid Rebels fan, later appearing in HBO’s Jerry Tarkanian documentary and often tweeting his support.
Kimmel maintains his finely honed sense of humor when describing his hometown to skeptics who wonder whether he’s joking when he claims to be from Vegas: “It seems like it never occurred to people that kids grew up in Las Vegas, that it’s not a town exclusively full of magicians and blackjack dealers. Of course, the more I describe it as a normal experience, the more I realize it was an abnormal experience.”
For instance, there was the time Kimmel saw Sammy Davis Jr. — two memorable times, actually, and they couldn’t have been more different. “My bandleader, Cleto (Escobedo III), his dad was Sammy Davis’, like, personal room-service butler,” Kimmel says. “So he took us to the show at Caesars, and Sammy was just great. I mean, I was 14 years old, I think, and it was the first concert I’d ever been to. It’s a pretty great answer when people ask you what the first concert you ever saw was and you can say, ‘Sammy Davis Jr.’ We met him afterwards, and he was very nice to us.”
His other brush with the Sam Man? “I also saw Sammy once shopping for pants in the boys section of Saks Fifth Avenue,” Kimmel says, chuckling. “That’s a true story.”
Kimmel bumped into another Vegas entertainment legend at the most commonplace of meeting spots: the grocery store. “I saw Liberace at the Mayfair Market on the Strip,” he says. “He was wearing a hairnet and buying meat. It was very sanitary. I said, ‘Hey! Liberace!’ He smiled, and that was pretty much the end of it.”
In Vegas, Kimmel was at once surrounded by and fascinated by newsmakers of every ilk. At UNLV, his gig at the campus radio station, a burgeoning FM outlet with the call letters KUNV, was more or less a fluke.
“I was working at (the clothing store) Miller’s Outpost, and I worked with a kid who was working at the radio station,” he says. “He invited me to come meet the program director. I had a little interview with him, and he asked me what I wanted to do. I said, ‘You know, I’d like to invite local celebrities to be on the show and make fun of them.’ ”
Those interviews were a harbinger of Kimmel’s future job as a late-night talk show host. “I would go through the yellow pages and watch local TV commercials,” he says of his search for subjects. “I probably only did six or seven shows before they had enough of me.”
Even more than his love for the Rebels, it was Kimmel’s first foray into interviewing celebrities — or at least people with some local claim to fame — that began his career-long affiliation with UNLV. He even gave the school’s commencement address in May. Kimmel spent just one year at the university before transferring to Arizona State in Tempe, although he didn’t graduate from either college. (UNLV awarded him an honorary doctorate at his commencement appearance.) Instead, he chased a series of radio jobs in Phoenix, Seattle, Tampa, Palm Springs and Tucson, before landing at KROQ-FM in Los Angeles.
In L.A., Kimmel spent five years as Jimmy the Sports Guy on the “Kevin & Bean” morning radio show. As part of his role, he once agreed to participate in what turned out to be a career-changing charity boxing match against a combatant named Michael the Maintenance Man. A listener who happened to be working as a boxing coach offered to train one of the fighters for the big bout.
“I was interested in the maintenance man, not the radio guy,” says that listener, Adam Carolla, at the time a budding comic performer. “But when I went to the station, the guy walking down the hall was Jimmy.”
The two trained at the Bodies in Motion gym in Pasadena. “We worked on boxing for 20 minutes,” recalls Carolla, who was also studying improv comedy, had joined the comedy troupe the Groundlings, and was a member of L.A.’s Acme Comedy Theatre. “Then we drank Snapple and talked about Howard Stern for three hours.” Kimmel wound up offering Carolla a spot on “Kevin & Bean.”
“Jimmy is the same off the air as he is on the air,” Carolla says. “He can be a tough guy to work with, and a tough guy personally, but ultimately he is the most generous guy you’ll ever want to work with and one of the hardest-working people you’ll ever know. But I’m not going to blow sunshine up anyone’s butt. He’s very dogged, headstrong, and has always been that way.”
Carolla says those traits were evident from the beginning of his friend’s radio career. “He asked me, ‘What’s your strength?’ and I told him that what I do is improvisational comedy. He said, ‘The guys who run the show are already doing that. They don’t want anyone sitting next to them doing that on their own show.’ ”
So to get on the air, he became Mr. Bircham, the grumpy wood-shop teacher, who quickly turned into a fan favorite. “That was our first real producer-comic collaboration,” says Carolla, who attended Kimmel’s bachelor party this year. “In him, I have always seen a guy who liked writing, producing and performing comedy. I love that about him, and I just wanted to be around it.”
The rest is comedic history. The two teamed again years later while Kimmel was hosting “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” from 1997 to 2001, for which he won an Emmy Award in 1999 for best game show host. That same year, he conceived another Comedy Central show and invited Carolla aboard as cohost. “The Man Show” featured quasi-pointless clips of women in bikinis bouncing on trampolines and the ceaseless quaffing of brews from glass mugs. Predictably, men loved it, causing Kimmel to observe, “I wasn’t popular in high school, but now every drunken guy in the United States wants to be my pal. They all want to buy me a shot, and pretty soon I’m throwing up.”
“The Man Show” trailed only “South Park” among Comedy Central’s highest-rated programs and helped make Kimmel a TV star. He soon gravitated to Fox’s Sunday NFL pregame show, predicting the week’s results while making snarky remarks — the ideal role for a budding talk show host — mostly directed at co-hosts Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long.
ABC had passed on “The Man Show,” but in 2002 the network signed Kimmel to host the late-night talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” He spent 10 years in the 12:35 a.m. time slot before moving to the more prominent 11:35 p.m. slot. Kimmel is among a new order of hosts who are stepping up to challenge the long-standing twin towers of late night, Jay Leno and David Letterman. Another Jimmy, Fallon, will replace Leno on “The Tonight Show” in February, in conjunction with NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
As a late-night ringleader, Kimmel brings a mix of classic and contemporary inspirations. “The thing about me is, I came from a radio background, not stand-up comedy,” he says. “So I love a lot of the people who have performed in broadcasting, as well as in stand-up. David Letterman and Howard Stern were probably my two biggest inspirations growing up, and Jay Leno was actually one of my favorite comics.”
Carolla has observed Kimmel’s ascent to a sort of Letterman-like status among late-night hosts. “Every once in a while I get caught off-guard,” he says. “I was watching ‘SportsCenter’ the other night and they ran a quick clip of Jimmy. He was interviewing Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers pitcher, and the announcer said, ‘Last night, Clayton Kershaw was on with Jimmy Kimmel …,’ and it’s to the point you don’t have to say Jimmy has a talk show or say he’s a host. It’s just the name that’s enough, and it didn’t used to be that way with him.”
To that point, Kimmel says he isn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon. “Hosting a talk show is one of those jobs where you don’t plan for other things after it,” he explains. “You just keep going as long as you can.”
To borrow a Hollywood term, Kimmel is today a star among stars. His July wedding to McNearney, a co-head writer on his show (he has two grown children from his first marriage, to Gina Kimmel), drew a bevy of celebs to the ceremony in Ojai, Calif. Matt Damon showed up — he’s the subject of a hilarious back-and-forth between Kimmel and ex-girlfriend Sarah Silverman, sparked by Kimmel’s running gag at the end of each show that he had to bump Damon from the program. Jennifer Aniston, Ellen DeGeneres, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski and even Howard Stern were also among the 300 guests.
But one of the most important attendees was Kimmel’s boyhood priest, and still a close friend and confidant, the Rev. Bill Kenny of Las Vegas’ Holy Spirit Catholic Church, who led the service’s final prayer.
For Kimmel, the path always winds back to Las Vegas. He is both a promoter and defender of the city.
“I remember when ‘Saturday Night Live’ made fun of UNLV on the air, and I was angry,” he says. “The city gets a bad rap, but I think that’s kind of part of the deal when you have a city that’s named itself Sin City. But I don’t like to hear bad things about it. If I were interviewing someone who hates Las Vegas, I probably would try to explain that Las Vegas does extend beyond the Strip, that that’s not the whole of it.”
The whole of it might be embodied by Kimmel himself. Abnormal? Maybe. But in a way that is smart, funny, driven and wholly Las Vegas.