HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — When I walk into Jimmy Kimmel’s large corner office above the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, he offers me the customary bottle of water. “Or do you want eight Diet Cokes like the president?” he asks.
The host of Jimmy Kimmel Live! is in a reflective mood but Trump jokes are never far from his mind. As we start our interview, Kimmel is lounging on a large sectional couch, wearing socks, jeans and an untucked shirt. His hair is noticeably less kempt than it will be when he takes the stage downstairs a few hours later. Just a few days away from a two week vacation, Kimmel seems ready for a break. “We’re pounding it out,” he says of this home stretch of shows.
As it has for most late-night hosts, the Trump administration has kept Kimmel on his toes, providing a never-ending stream of hilarious and/or terrifying news stories for him to joke and/or cry about in his nightly monologue. “The show’s never really finished until I’m standing on that stage,” he tells me at one point. “And it’s a pain in the ass, quite frankly, to be writing a monologue an hour before the show starts. But we do it a lot now.”
We begin our interview by talking about his show’s seventh consecutive nomination in the main Emmy category for Outstanding Variety Talk Series. It’s an award Jimmy Kimmel Live! has never won, losing out to HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver the past two years and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report several times before that.
This year, in addition to Oliver, Kimmel will face off against shows hosted by Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee and James Corden. Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Bill Maher and others failed to make the cut. While Kimmel doesn’t really expect to win, he is, of course, “honored” to be nominated.
What do you think it means now to be included in that group? Because there are so many late-night shows now, it seems like it’s getting more competitive.
It’s starting to mean something to get nominated for an Emmy. It used to be if you didn’t get nominated that just meant you’re in the bottom two or three shows.
There were probably some years where one show didn’t get nominated.
Yeah, you know, it’s very nice. I mean, I never have any expectation that we even have a chance to win. I’ve never written a speech or even collected my thoughts beforehand. But it is, as they say, an honor to be nominated. And more than that even, it would be a bummer to not be nominated.
But you have the J.D. Power award now, so that’s something.
Yeah, really the Emmy pales in comparison to the J.D. Power Award we won for “Most Reliable Midsize Late Night Talk Show.”
So as that award highlighted, you’re 15 years in now. How do you feel like the show has evolved over those 15 years?
It turns out a lot, but in very small increments. It’s like one of those rulers you put on the wall in your kid’s room and you mark their height. Suddenly they’re 6’3” and you don’t know how it happened. The show is very different from what it was at the beginning. It was a melee at the beginning. The show was on live and the idea that we would have an A-list guest was pretty optimistic. Anything over C we were happy with. There were a lot of crazy people on the show. In a way, it was more fun. And in a way it was terrible. It was a lot more stressful. We wound up having very high highs and very low lows. And I didn’t know what I was doing. I was hosting a show by myself for the first time since I was on the radio in Palm Springs. And it was very scary and very stressful. Now, things are not scary and not particularly stressful. Actually things are still scary, but the fear comes from the outside rather than the inside. I mean, Donald Trump is our president.
One thing that has remained pretty constant is the line about Matt Damon that comes at the end of every show. Did that come out of the idea that you couldn’t get A-list guests?
Yes, definitely. There was one particular night when the guests were particularly low rent and I just said, “I’m sorry, we ran out of time for Matt Damon,” and one of our executive producers was standing by the camera and just started laughing. And I just started doing it to make him laugh, really. And then a couple of weeks later, maybe months later, we heard from Matt Damon’s publicist, “Matt thinks that’s funny, you should keep doing that.” And so we kept doing it and we still do it.
You were not friends with him at the time?
Oh no, I’d never met him.
So when did you become friendly with him?
Listen, he’s a bitter enemy, make no mistake. [Laughs] I met him for the first time when we shot the first thing he did on the show. We had a primetime special and the joke was, I introduced him and the intro was so lengthy that by the time he came out on stage there was no time left in the segment. And then we screamed at each other for a while and a good solid 50 percent of the audience thought it was real. They were very angry at me for disrespecting Matt Damon in that way.
Well, he’s a good actor.
Either he’s a good actor or they were dumb or some combination of both. It has to be one of the longest running jokes in American history.
So, let’s see if you remember this from the early days. In 2004, you were going to have Omarosa on —
Oh, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
And the legend is that she thought there was going to be a lie detector test, freaked out and left before her appearance. Is that an accurate description of what happened?
Yes, what happened was, my Uncle Frank lied about something. And I thought it would be funny to give him a fake lie detector test on the air, something that he thought was real. She saw the setup for the lie detector test and decided that we were going to spring it on her, which, if you know anything about taking a polygraph test, that’s not how it works. It takes a long time. There’s no ding and no buzz. It’s a chart that they analyze afterwards. So that was preposterous just to start with. But she stormed out of there and the show was live so we had no guest. I don’t remember what I talked about, I probably just talked about her the whole time. But she was very angry. And I remember thinking it’s better this way. I didn’t want to have her on the show. The woman — there’s clearly something wrong with her. And the fact that Donald Trump hired her is really all you need to know about that guy and his organization.
Yeah, people are sort of pointing to the lie detector thing now to further discredit her.
I should probably look at that to see if there’s anything worth doing. The problem is I can never show any of those old shows because they’re too embarrassing. So even if there’s something that’s pertinent, I never want to see the video. It’s kind of hard to explain. And I remember it being difficult to explain to the audience that night because it made no sense at all, the idea that we would I guess pin her down and strap a lie detector on her body?
And what was she trying to hide?
I’m sure there was plenty that she was trying to hide.
It could have changed the course of history if you had given her a lie detector test.
I know. If I had given her that lie detector test, who knows? Gary Busey could be the president right now.
I really enjoyed the Kanye interview last week, but he seemed a little salty about the coverage of it. What did you think when he you asked him that question and he didn’t say anything?
Well, I think Kanye is kind of in a perpetual state of being interviewed and he shares his thoughts constantly. So the idea that he needed to come up with the answer right there on the spot isn’t necessarily something I agree with. I think he doesn’t feel the same type of pressure that most people feel in a situation like that. And I think it’s a question that I hope he will answer eventually. But to force an answer out of somebody isn’t necessarily the way to go.
That’s why you decided to go to commercial at that point?
No, I went to commercial because the segment was supposed to be eight minutes long and we were already at 10 minutes. I didn’t have time to pick another leg of the conversation up there. So that is an issue when you’re having a freeform conversation. I have an eight minute segment, a six minute segment and a four minute segment and I have to fit the show within those confines. So really, that wasn’t about anything other than the time constraint.
But was it a conscious decision not to go back to that question after the break?
It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. I felt that his silence answered the question in some ways. And I also know that if Kanye wanted to continue on a subject then he is not shy about continuing on that subject. I also had a lot of areas I wanted to cover. I didn’t want to spend the whole interview on one thing.
It does kind of highlight the challenge of doing some serious issues on a comedy show where there isn’t necessarily time to go deep. That’s obviously something you’ve been dealing with a lot over the past couple of years. You want to make it a fun, entertaining comedy show but also at times get serious.
Yeah, it’s sometimes confusing for the audience, especially a studio audience. You’re expecting a comedy show and you sit down and the host comes out and he’s speaking about something serious. If you can imagine going into a comedy club and having that experience, it can be disorienting. There’s not much I can do about it, you know? Some nights the news is too grim to ignore.
The narrative is that you’ve gotten more political, more serious over the past couple of years. Do you feel like Trump has been the catalyst for that?
One hundred percent. Because one of the things you look for as a talk show host is a point of reference. You don’t want to have to spend three minutes explaining a story to your audience. And if there is anything good about Donald Trump, it’s that people are paying attention to what’s going on in the White House. And you can make jokes about subjects that people might not have been paying attention to when Obama was president or Bush was president. Because he is such a colorful character and there is so much attention put on everything he says and does. So that makes it ideal for comedy. You don’t have to set up the setup. I’ve always felt that my job, even during my radio days, is to talk about the events of the day.
I also want to ask about the surreal experience of first hearing that Trump had talked about you at a rally and then eventually seeing the video, because you were on vacation when that happened, right?
I was on vacation. It’s funny, it’s not surprising, it’s not as big a deal as you might think it would be anymore. You almost expect him to mention us once every two or three months. And it’s almost like we are among the characters in this story. Maybe when, hopefully America survives in the future and somebody makes an HBO miniseries about this time I would imagine that the impact of cable news and late-night television will play some minor role in that story. Because you know he wants us to like him. You know he wants us to say nice things about him. He just wants to be loved by celebrities. That is one of the more ironic things about this. The idea that he’s for the regular people. The man shits into a golden toilet.
It seems from the outside that you really enjoy these moments when you get to be part of the story, whether it’s getting into Twitter fights with Don Jr. or Roy Moore. What gets you excited when those things start to happen?
I’m a fighter in general. I did morning radio for years and I grew up in an Italian family, so it’s where I’m most comfortable. When other people start something, it excites me. My wife jokes with me, “I’ve never seen you more happy than when you get into one of these things.” The adrenaline courses through my veins.
The Sean Hannity feud was particularly vicious. Was that one any less enjoyable for you because he was so out of control?
Yeah, well, I mean he’s a lunatic. He’ll say anything. That he would compare me to Harvey Weinstein, it’s just ridiculous. And he knows it’s ridiculous, but I realized somewhere along the line I wasn’t going to win anybody over in that argument. His supporters are on his side, mine are on my side and that’s kind of that. Whereas in a situation like Roy Moore, I really felt that if there was any even tiny thing I could do to remind people what kind of man this person was, that I would want to do that.
Going back to Hannity for a second, the basis of his “Harvey Weinstein Jr.” attacks seemed to be old clips of The Man Show?
Yes, Sean Hannity seems conveniently unaware of the fact that the show was on television and that everyone involved was a willing participant.
Do you think about that show any differently now? Do you worry that it’s not aged as well as you would like?
Not really. No, I don’t think you can’t look at things in that way. If you do, you’re bound to lose. That show was always tongue in cheek. And some people enjoyed it for the wrong reasons. There’s no question about that. But I think you can put a lot of shows into that category. And it was a show that people liked and we had fun doing it and I learned a lot doing it. As the show went on, we refined it. The reason we left that show was because there was a specific day on which Adam [Carolla] and I looked at each other and said, “It’s time to end this show.” Adam was talking about the dad of one of his friends. And he was talking about what an idiot this guy was. This guy would say, “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.” And Adam said that intending to illustrate how dumb this guy was and instead our studio audience laughed.
Like they’d never heard that joke before?
They’d never heard that joke before, if it is even a joke. And that was disheartening. And that’s when we decided to stop doing the show. In fact, we decided to stop doing the show before I got this talk show. We’d already made that decision.
That reminds me of what Dave Chappelle would always say about why he ended his show, that people were laughing for the wrong reasons.
Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but I think there is a similarity there.
I also want to talk about the Oscars a bit. Have you decided, or have they decided, whether you might host the show again?
The answer is no. They are in a state of flux and typically they decide who their producers are going to be before they decide who the host is.
Is it something that you would want to do again?
I have mixed feelings about it, I really do. I sometimes lay in bed at night praying that they don’t ask me, so I don’t have to make that choice. It’s a lot of work.
What did you think about the debate over the new popular movie category?
I think it’s a good idea. I mean, let’s be honest, awards are meaningless just right off the bat. So to add one doesn’t diminish the others. You’re still getting a trophy for pretending. There are some really great, big box office movies that are award-worthy. And not just a blockbuster award. Thor: Ragnarok, to me, was one of the funniest comedies of the year. And Mission: Impossible [— Fallout]. These are in there own way great movies and I think they also are truer to what the movie experience is supposed to be. There’s a lot of work put into them, there’s a lot of money put into them and the idea that they would get ruled out completely because their subject matter isn’t serious is silly.
In a way, would you rather have them add a Best Comedy category than this other idea?
That would be nice. It would be better if the voters in the Academy took comedy more seriously. Because any actor or director will tell you it’s harder to make people laugh than cry and I believe that to be true.
I don’t think Trump has ever tweeted about you by name since he became president, but he did tweet about the Oscar ratings and insinuated that it was your politics that caused the ratings to go down. And just this past week Megyn Kelly was talking about that on her show, saying maybe if they got a host who didn’t hate Republicans so much the ratings would be better.
Isn’t it funny to hear someone like Megyn Kelly, who based on her ratings probably won’t make it to the end of the year on NBC, talking about anyone else’s ratings? You know, network television is in decline. The ratings for everything are going down every year. There are too many shows to keep up with. So that’s going to happen every year. And I said it beforehand, I said this year’s Oscars are going to be the lowest-rated. Maybe if they shorten the show it will cause an artificial spike in the ratings. But that’s just how it’s going to go. The audience is going to get smaller and smaller every year.
In terms of the effect of politics on your own ratings, I know you’ve said if people who disagree with you don’t want to watch, you don’t particularly care. But has that ever been an issue at ABC?
Maybe I shouldn’t have said I don’t care. I don’t care enough to change what I’m doing is probably a more explicit explanation. I’m sure ABC would love it if my show appealed to everyone. But I don’t think that world exists anymore. And I’m not comfortable in it. I don’t really see any other path. I also think one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a performer is trying to guess what your audience wants. I think you need to do what you think is right and hope that it works out.
There’s still a model, especially with the three of you guys at 11:30, where it’s built to appeal to a massive audience. Are you ever envious of someone like John Oliver who isn’t beholden to things like ratings and advertisers?
The only thing I’m envious of John Oliver is — first of all he has dual citizenship — and secondly that he does one show a week. And that is a great luxury. And he does a great job with it. I’m not saying I could do better job. I honestly don’t think I could. The hardest thing about this is the daily grind. And any late-night host who does this every day will tell you the same story.
You’ve had some former Trump administration figures on your show, most recently Sean Spicer. Is there anyone that you just would refuse to have on?
Yeah, I mean, they asked me if we should try to book Omarosa and I said no. Because I think she’s just all over the place. I don’t think I’d be able to get anything out of her that anyone else isn’t able to get out of her. But somebody like Sean Spicer, you know, I think I’m able to ask questions that he would never be asked in any other situation. And I have a genuine interest in what he did at the White House, what he saw at the White House. Whether he’s being 100 percent forthcoming or not is another matter. But I do think we learned a few things about life in the Trump White House from my interview with him. And I do like to talk to people who work at Fox News or CNN who have some insight that others don’t have. Because I do think I have an inclination to ask unusual questions that sometimes yield interesting answers.
One interesting thing about Omarosa is that she seems to be the only one who has come out of the White House willing to say a bad word about the president. Sean Spicer’s still holding the line pretty strongly.
People need to remember that Sean Spicer is a Navy guy and his nature, what he was trained to do, is respect his commander. And whether he’s still working in that White House or not, that is who he is.
Do you think one is more honorable than the other? Staying loyal to Trump or breaking from him?
I think the best thing you could do is be honest, really. And I think your loyalty should be to this country, not to the person who runs it.
It’s hard to say either of them are being honest, Spicer or Omarosa.
Yeah, I mean, who knows? Are any of us 100 percent honest? I don’t think so. I’ve been bullshitting you through this entire interview, for instance. What you don’t realize is, I’m a white supremacist. Wilstein, that’s a Jewish name? [Laughs]
Uh, I gotta go... So, anything exciting planned for tonight’s show?
Well, the president calling a woman a “dog” is not something you get to see every day of your life, so we’re following that. And probably when this interview is over, a couple of television-watchers will rush in with more clips of Trump saying something crazy to a bunch of metalworkers or something and them cheering wildly. The show’s never really finished until I’m standing on that stage. And it’s a pain in the ass, quite frankly, to be writing a monologue an hour before the show starts. But we do it a lot now. And we have to, because, as Wolf Blitzer said on our show last night, it’s gone from a 24-hour news cycle to a 24-minute news cycle. And we do have an advantage being on the west coast, because we have three more hours of news to absorb and to comment on than the others do.
And you have Tom Arnold on this week, too. That should be good.
The timing of that booking turned out OK.
He’s got that tape, apparently.
He says that, but I don’t think he has the tape, I think he’s heard the tape. I think if Tom Arnold had that tape we would have heard it within four seconds of him getting it. He said he had it on a link that expired and I think he’s trying to get it. Whether he will get it — you know what’s crazy, that Tom Arnold will somehow play a role in this crazy story, but many crazier things have happened.
If this tape does come out — or the pee tape for that matter — it’s hard to imagine anybody caring that much.
I disagree. Well, the pee tape, forget it, that’s a nuclear bomb.
You think? Because I feel like we’ve all kind of imagined it already.
Maybe you have! [laughs] But, you know, if there’s a tape of the president using the “n-word” I think that’s a line in the sand — and maybe I’m wrong, I’m always wrong, so I’m going in with that caveat — but I think that’s a line in the sand that his fellow Republicans will not cross. And I do not see them throwing the full force of their support behind the president if something like that is revealed. I really don’t. But I could be wrong. There seem to only be three or four Republicans who have any problem with what he’s doing. I think they are all so unpopular and they see that he is popular and they fear him so intensely. It’s really a shameful and cowardly way that they are behaving. Anybody who you talk to who has any insight into what was going on in Washington will tell you that they do not know what’s going on with this guy. Save a handful of people who were wearing tin foil hats to start with, they do not support him, they wish he wasn’t the president, they fear him and they don’t want to deal with him. And yet, only a few of them have stood up and spoken out against him. And some of them have even reeled that in.
Have you had any more contact with members of Congress? The Daily Beast originally broke the story that you had been in touch with Chuck Schumer leading up to your health care monologues.
Yeah, that’s bullshit, by the way. I was not talking to him. What happened was, the truth of what happened was — now, I have spoken to him on the phone subsequent to that — someone in our office did some fact-checking on some subjects with his office because they knew somebody there. But I really think that someone in Chuck Schumer’s organization decided they wanted some of the credit for the movement. And threw their name into the mix. And unfortunately, to a lot of Republicans it makes it look like I’m somehow in bed with Chuck Schumer, which is not true. We just happen to be on the same page when it comes to health care.
This is the real collusion.
Yeah, that I’m the puppet of Chuck Schumer somehow.
Well, it’s good to clarify that, but it sounds like it may have made your life difficult.
I don’t think it made my life difficult, but I do think it lessened the impact I have when I speak about health care issues. I think it was actually very damaging.
Just to end, how much do you think traditional TV ratings matter at this point?
It’s interesting. I mean, we have between 30 and 50 million views every week on YouTube.
That’s a lot more than are watching on TV.
It’s a lot more than are watching on TV. And it’s funny, because the media seems to be focused on who is a hundredth of a point ahead of whom when that’s all nonsense. What they should be looking at is how many people are watching across every platform. But there’s no way to measure that. I mean, YouTube, the numbers are pretty clear. Nielsen ratings are an estimate. It’s like one out of every 12,000 homes. This is a relatively inaccurate way of measuring compared to YouTube or Facebook. Yet almost all of our money comes from that metric and I feel like it’s probably that no one cares because everyone’s making money. The buyers don’t care, the companies don’t care, they just want to be able to put their commercials on in the same way they always have. And that’s that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.