''We have a great show on tap tonight. Nothing can screw it up. It is impossible. It will be absolutely perfect from beginning to end.'' -- Jimmy Kimmel, Nov. 6, 2003
According to Jimmy Kimmel, a perfect episode of his ABC
late-night talk show goes something like this:
Roasting Rosie O'Donnell by comparing her to Adolf Hitler;
Listening to guest cohost Andy Dick recount how he almost replaced Kyle Gass of Tenacious D by ''forcing him out with my penis'';
Watching guest Jack Black move his tongue in his cheek to feign oral sex.
Here's a shocker: What was perfect on Comedy Central isn't going over so well with ABC executives. Mickey Mouse and ''The Man Show'' have been an odd fit from Kimmel's first day on the air, when ''Jimmy Kimmel Live'' served alcohol to its studio audience, to last week, when ABC censors bleeped DMX's four-minute performance 28(!) times. And while Leno, Conan, and Letterman are must-stops for celebrities promoting their movies, albums, or series, most nights ''Kimmel'' struggles to grab C-list guest stars (Kathie Lee Gifford! Adrienne Barbeau!).
In person, Kimmel is far funnier than he appears on his show, and by most accounts, the often off-putting spectacle you're watching (or, more accurately, not watching) on ''Kimmel'' is symptomatic of what's going on behind the scenes. Executive producer and longtime Kimmel pal Daniel Kellison recently left the program. And the long days involved in putting together a live show are taking their toll on Kimmel: He's developed a twitch and a compulsive nail-biting habit. ''I'm never relaxed,'' says the 36-year-old host. ''I've just started putting Band-Aids on my fingers because I'm biting through them. And eyes twitching uncontrollably for the last three weeks. I'm turning into a lunatic, I really am.''
Kimmel's wracked nerves and ABC's increasing agita can partly be blamed on ratings: After 10 months on the air, ''Kimmel,'' which airs at 12:05 a.m. in most markets, can be best described as ''The No-Man Show.'' It draws 1.7 million viewers, lagging behind ''Leno'' (by 71 percent), ''Letterman'' (58 percent), and the first half hours of ''Conan O'Brien'' (39 percent) and ''The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn'' (5 percent). (Kimmel's ''Man Show'' frat-boy persona plays better with younger men, and in this demographic he runs close to Letterman and beats Kilborn.) Undercutting the show's ratings is the fact that ABC affiliates in major markets like Washington, D.C., and Atlanta don't run ''Kimmel,'' while roughly 20 percent of the network's stations air it in the wee infomercial hours of the night. You can't really blame them: Chicago's ABC affiliate, for example, reruns ''Oprah'' in Kimmel's time slot and grabs nearly four times the ratings.
Publicly, the network wavers between supportive -- ''Considering how long we've been on the air, and the difficulty of the task of starting a late-night show from scratch, I think we're doing very, very well,'' says ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun -- and not so supportive. ''There's been quite a few times the show's gone too far. Just because it's funny doesn't mean it's okay to do. It can still be funny and in bad taste, or it can be funny and drive women away,'' Braun says a few minutes later.
The task of drawing in the viewers the network so desperately wants (men between 35 and 49, any women at all) plagues Kimmel. ''It bothers me that twice as many people watch Leno than Letterman,'' he says. ''It makes me want to throw my hands up.'' And yet, EW has learned that ABC has renewed the show for another year. Somebody get Jimmy some more Band-Aids.