There’s a reason why Jimmy Kimmel took the No. 1 spot in our list of the top 10 late-night moments of 2017.
During President Donald Trump’s first year in office, the increasingly vast late-night landscape became a platform for the #Resistance to channel its outrage day after day. On any given night, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, John Oliver and others could be seen screaming some version of “this is not normal!” at their like-minded viewers. It was almost always cathartic, but almost certainly did not change any minds.
Somehow, Jimmy Kimmel was different. When the host opened up about his baby son’s harrowing medical emergency in early May, his heartfelt words resonated with Americans on all sides of the Obamacare debate precisely because they weren’t used to hearing this type of political argument from him. Kimmel’s politics likely align with those of his more outspoken competitors, but he never made them a central part of his show, which has always been more concerned with celebrity and reality show culture than it has been with Washington and the White House.
It only makes sense that his focus began to shift after the country elected a former reality star as president. When he hosted the Oscars in February, Kimmel spent a good deal of his monologue going after the “racist” president and his bizarre attacks on Hollywood stars like Meryl Streep.
Over the next couple of months on his show, he roasted GOP figures like Paul Ryan and Sean Spicer. More recently he has found himself in full-on Twitter feuds with the likes of Donald Trump Jr. and Roy Moore.
But no political commentary in Jimmy Kimmel Live!’s 15-year history came close to the widespread impact of his speech about the GOP’s plan to eliminate guaranteed health care coverage for those like his newborn son, who will forever have a “pre-existing condition.”
“If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make,” Kimmel said on that first night, he voice trembling as he fought back tears. “I think that’s something that whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right?”
The answer from his audience and the majority of Americans was a resounding yes.
“Watch & prepare to tear up. Thanks @jimmykimmel for sharing your story & reminding us what's at stake w/health care,” Hillary Clinton tweeted.
“Well said, Jimmy. That's exactly why we fought so hard for the ACA, and why we need to protect it for kids like Billy. And congratulations!” former President Obama added.
Of course, not everyone agreed with his premise. On the other end of the spectrum were tweets like the one from former GOP congressman and professional troll Joe Walsh, who wrote, “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn't obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else's health care.” Fox News, meanwhile, gave the trending topic cursory coverage without once mentioning the political message Kimmel was trying to impart.
Five months later, Republicans still hadn’t managed to pass their promised Obamacare repeal and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) was still invoking the “Jimmy Kimmel test” to defend his new legislation with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “Stop using my name,” Kimmel told Cassidy, whom he accused of lying to his face when he appeared on his show earlier in the year.
In response, Cassidy went on cable news and condescended to the host, saying, “I’m sorry he does not understand.” Yet numerous fact-checking sites found faults in Cassidy’s claims while backing up most of what Kimmel said on the issue. Only later, through reporting by The Daily Beast’s Sam Stein, Asawin Suebsaeng and Lachlan Markay, did we learn that Kimmel got at least some of his talking points from the office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who had been in touch with the host following his original monologue in May.
Of course, all of this led to the dramatic Senate vote in late September when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) gave the thumbs-down and effectively killed the GOP’s chances of ever repealing the Affordable Care Act — despite what you might have heard from President Trump this past week.
But while McCain may have cast the decisive vote, Kimmel deserves almost as much credit. He helped turn the tide on the public’s opinion, giving an adorable face to the value of Obamacare for so many less fortunate families across the country at a time when its repeal seemed all but inevitable with Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress.
What makes Kimmel’s victory all the more remarkable is how genuinely reluctant he seemed to be thrust into the position of “moral arbiter” for the American people, as one conservative critic put it, asking, “Who died and made him Jesus?"
After Kimmel delivered yet another emotional plea on his show in October, this time for action on gun violence following the mass shooting in Las Vegas, figures on the right started unearthing old comedy bits from his days on The Man Show, aiming to show him in a less heroic light. Co-opting the #MeToo moment, some even suggested he was guilty of the same type of behavior as the men who were being brought down for decades of sexual harassment.
Kimmel was the first to acknowledge that he is far from perfect. “They’re saying that I’m calling myself the moral conscience of America, which I most certainly never did and most certainly never would,” he told Good Morning America in response to a question about his relative lack of material about Harvey Weinstein.
He may well be proud of the work he did to preserve affordable health care for those like his son, but Kimmel quite clearly has no desire to become the next Jon Stewart. The irony is that as many of Stewart’s former colleagues vied for that position by railing against Trump every night in 2017, Kimmel managed to come the closest — not with outrage but with empathy.