Jimmy Kimmel hasn't always liked Jay Leno. In fact, as the 40-year-old comedian launched his late-night talk show for ABC in 2003, he famously quipped: ''I want to do the comedy version of The Tonight Show.'' Those days are long gone. After making amends during the writers' strike, Kimmel visited The Tonight Show on Sept. 26 with a different target in mind. ''ABC is a hellhole,'' he announced. ''My office is swarming with bees.... They pay me in Disney Dollars.... Every day my car gets keyed.... It's not so great over there.''
On the surface, it seemed like Kimmel was blowing off some steam at his bosses for comedic effect. But to Hollywood insiders, the rapid fire of one-liners was telling. Rumors are flying that ABC may push Kimmel from his 12:05 a.m. perch by 30 minutes to make room for Leno, who is leaving The Tonight Show in May. That scenario would see Leno owning his longtime 11:35 p.m. slot on ABC in 2010, followed by Kimmel at 12:35 a.m.
Ironically, amid all this uncertainty, Jimmy Kimmel Live! has evolved into a buzzy late-night talk show that's produced an increasing number of you can't miss this moments, including the Emmy-winning short ''I'm F ---ing Matt Damon.'' And night owls are taking notice: At 1.7 million viewers per show, Kimmel now trails Late Night With Conan O'Brien by the smallest margin ever, 180,000 viewers, and regularly ties with his CBS competitor, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. The accomplishment is all the more impressive considering his less-than-compatible lead-in, Nightline, and the mixed signals from ABC: Until a couple of years ago, the network did not encourage its prime-time stars to visit the show. And the guy has never even had one of those cushy multiyear contracts he has to renegotiate every 12 months.
Recently, Kimmel suffered yet another blow. Many expected that ABC, which aired the Emmy Awards a few weeks ago, would tap Kimmel to host the show. But a source close to Kimmel says that the comedian wasn't seriously considered for the gig. (Kimmel wouldn't comment for this story.) Instead, he was given a prime-time berth before the telecast, which he deftly used to parody Barbara Walters' self-important prime-time specials. A rep for the network downplays the Emmy situation, saying, ''We remain committed to Jimmy. He's fantastic, and he's gaining momentum every night.''
That's true. Now working under executive producer Jill Leiderman (Late Show With David Letterman), the onetime cohost of The Man Show has abandoned the frat-boy yuks of his early days for clever, made-for-YouTube bits. (Recent highlights include movie-trailer spoofs with Guillermo the security guard and an inspired takeoff on The Hills, starring Lauren Conrad herself.) And after struggling for marquee guests in its early years, Jimmy Kimmel Live! has become a destination for A-listers like Shia LaBeouf, Robert Downey Jr., and Ben Stiller. ''Celebrities are now magnetically drawn to what we're doing, which is not only a testament to Jimmy's sensibility but also to his staying power,'' says Leiderman. Adds Don Rickles, a longtime friend of Kimmel's: ''He's like a Hershey bar. He's a warm, sweet guy who gives you every opportunity to enjoy yourself when you talk to him.''
With Kimmel's reputation on the rise in the industry, some think he would actually benefit if Leno became his late-night neighbor. He could choose to remain at ABC after his contract expires in 2010, in which case he'd be in a position to negotiate a bigger salary and bonuses tied to his ratings, says one high-powered talent agent. (A viewership spike would be all but certain if he were to follow Leno.) Another scenario: He could patiently wait for Leno, 58, to retire and then hope ABC rewards him with the 11:35 slot. Or Kimmel could entertain the offers he's sure to get from other networks, such as Fox. ''In truth, nobody knows anything right now,'' admits Leiderman. ''We're just in a waiting period. Jimmy's way of dealing with the swirling speculation is through jokes.'' Seems like he won't have any shortage of material for quite a while.
Additional reporting by Dan Snierson
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