While the news that Jimmy Fallon is poised to take over The Tonight Show has been greeted mostly with cheers, the other Jimmy seems like a more appropriate heir to the late-night throne: Jimmy Kimmel.
He’s hosted the Emmys, and his name has already been batted around as a possible host for next year’s Oscars. It has even been speculated that it was Kimmel's move to the coveted 11:35 time slot in January that forced NBC’s hand in making Fallon The Tonight Show's heir apparent, to start in 2014. Only 38, Fallon is hip, young, and edgy, coming up the ranks via Saturday Night Live to take over Conan O’Brien’s slot.
But maybe NBC is picking the wrong Jimmy.
Kimmel surprised everyone with his strong ratings out of the gate, beating Jay Leno several times in the coveted 18-to-49 bracket, showing cracks in Leno’s armor.
Fallon has a huge audience, attracting 1.7 million viewers last week, up 33 percent in the 18-to-34 bracket from over a year ago. And he’s arguably hipper (anyone smart enough to choose the Roots as his house band deserves kudos), but in a way, he’s not broad enough in his appeal. And unlike Kimmel, Fallon didn’t grow up wanting to do this job.
It’s Kimmel who's the better talk-show host for Generation X. He’s self-deprecating, he understands viral marketing, and he’s able to mock and make fun of celebrities without alienating them, a difficult tightrope to walk (just ask Ricky Gervais). He’s charming without being an ass-kisser, and seems like the guy you’d grab a beer with, not the guy who’d be schmoozing with celebrities (even though, clearly, he knows them all). And Kimmel, after a decade-long makeover—this is the same guy who once protested wearing a tie on his talk show—now manages to exude easygoing class in the same effortless way Johnny Carson did.
Who would have thought that almost 20 years ago, when he was on Los Angeles's KROQ-FM as "Jimmy the Sports Guy," and later when he was the host of Win Ben Stein’s Money, and most notoriously, when he co-starred on The Man Show with Adam Carolla, that Kimmel would be poised to become one of his generation’s top emcees, presiding over the White House Correspondent’s Dinner and roping major movie stars to be on his show? That the guy who was famously fired from four radio stations early in his career would be the one that Hollywood calls on when they want to make fun of themselves? The guy who was once dubbed “the David Spade of late night,” by a Hollywood exec might host the Oscars?
Certainly not anyone who watched The Man Show, Kimmel's biggest claim to fame prior to getting his own talk show, a program where the high point was fart jokes and the low point featured women bouncing on trampolines, garnering the ire of feminists everywhere.
(There’s still an aftertaste left over from those days. Last year when Carolla ranted to the New York Post about how women weren’t as funny as men, Kimmel told TheWrap.com at a Television Critics Association panel, “I think Adam says a lot of things he doesn’t mean.”)
But he’s managed, slowly, to reinvent himself over the last decade.
Slimming down and cleaning up his boorish image, he worked his Hollywood connections and managed to convince megastars to make fun of themselves. Don Cheadle, Perry Farrell, Joan Jett, and Tom Hanks have appeared in skits on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. He even persuaded the almighty Oprah to come out of acting retirement and do a comic bit poking fun of her haughty image.
More importantly, Kimmel is never afraid to make fun of himself, joking that he’ll ultimately be “No. 3” in the ratings, or flaunting his flabby out-of-shape body—his hilarious staring contest with Matthew Fox found him in the shower with the hot, toned actor.
He knows how to make the most out of a gag. His long-running joke about running out of time for Matt Damon continues unabated, and has led to some of the best bits on his show—the now-legendary “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” featuring then-girlfriend Sarah Silverman and Damon singing about doing it “on the bed, on the floor, on the towel, by the door, in the tub, in the car, up against the mini-bar.” Kimmel nearly outdid himself with the response to that video with “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck,”, a gay love story that culminated in a “We Are the World”–like celebrity sing-along featuring Huey Lewis and Joan Jett.
Those two skits helped establish Kimmel as an Internet sensation, cornering the market on viral videos in ways, as Jake Tapper recently noted, that even his closest competitor, Fallon, hasn’t managed. (It took Fallon slow-jamming the news with the president to outdo Kimmel’s infamous clip “The Handsome Men’s Club,” in which he is booted from a super-exclusive club of Hollywood hunks that includes Matthew McConaughey, Josh Hartnett, and Rob Lowe, and which now has more than 6 million YouTube views).
And now that Barbara Walters has retired her pre-Oscar show, it’s Kimmel people tune in to, mostly for his all-star spoofs, like the fake trailers for Movie: the Movie.
Kimmel’s regular segment “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets”— which features stars like Bryan Cranston, David Arquette, Kirstie Alley, and Tom Arnold reading their mean tweets to hilarious effect—manages to both use social media as a source and spin it into further views for his show. It’s a smart and funny way to loop in an older general audience who might not understand what Twitter is and make them a part of the conversation.
More than anything, though, Kimmel wants this job. He’s been training for it his whole life. Though Fallon and Kimmel have similar roots, both born in Brooklyn, they differed in their aspirations. Fallon fixated on Saturday Night Live as a kid, even reenacting skits his parents taped for him. If we are to believe Fallon, it’s no big whoop that he might inherit The Tonight Show throne. He told GQ: “I mean, in the nicest way, who really cares?" he said. "In the nicest way. It would be great, sure, I guess. I'd love it, but it's not on my mind. I'm in no rush to do anything.”
But Kimmel’s idol was David Letterman. He’d persuade his friends to tape the show on their VCRs because he didn’t have one. He told The New York Times that he even got into radio because he read that’s how his idol had broken into TV.
Kimmel’s attitude is the polar opposite of Fallon's. He's made clear the importance of his move to the 11:35 time slot. “It’s a big deal to me,” he told NPR's Terry Gross.
While Fallon was Switzerland in the late-night wars between O’Brien and Leno (He told GQ: “I'm kind of a boring character in that book. I'm not in a fight with Jay or Conan, or any of them. I don't have that story"), Kimmel boldly took sides, even doing so on Leno’s own show, famously shredding the shocked host during a segment in which he said to a dumbfounded Leno: “Conan and I have children. All you have to take care of is cars. I mean, we have lives to lead here. You—you've got $800 million! For God's sake, leave our shows alone!”
During the controversy, he spent a week in Leno drag eviscerating the host and backing Conan throughout. You would have thought that it was Kimmel who’d been duped by the network, he seemed to take it so personally. Part of his ire, he later explained in interviews, dated back to Letterman getting the shaft after Johnny Carson left.
Thought it’s inevitable both Jimmys will square off, it’s not likely we’ll have a redux of Letterman vs. Leno late-night war—they are mutually admiring of each other. Fallon said of Kimmel in GQ: "Love him! So fun to play with. I'm so happy he's moved to 11:30. It's a good move for him. Love him.”
And Kimmel told CNN of Fallon: “Well, obviously NBC is looking to move on, because they did it once already. This would be the second time this has happened. So I mean, it makes perfect sense, and Jimmy Fallon is doing a great job.”
In the end, though, there will be only one king of late night. Here’s hoping Kimmel’s the one we grow old with.