The Year of Living Anxiously

''I'm the new king of late night. I know that may sound presumptuous, but I really feel, with the right support and promotion, I could be the best thing to happen to this network since Michael Ovitz.'' -- Kimmel, May 14, 2002

''Jimmy Kimmel Live'' debuted Jan. 26, 2003, in a plum time slot -- after ABC's presentation of the Super Bowl -- and it took just 10 minutes for the show to spiral out of control. An outdoor concert by Coldplay snarled traffic and enraged nearby businesses, while the plan to serve alcohol to the studio audience turned sour when a woman vomited off camera (the bar was shuttered the next day).

This couldn't have been what the network had in mind when it unveiled Kimmel to advertisers the previous May. Initially, Braun -- thinking ahead to a day when Ted Koppel retired -- wanted to prep Kimmel for an 11:35 p.m. show and Kimmel's fellow ''Man Show'' host, Adam Carolla, for a 12:35 a.m. follow-up. But Koppel stayed put, Carolla extended help to Kimmel behind the scenes, and ABC execs turned to grooming their new golden boy. Says Braun, ''Jimmy offered something that was so completely unique -- an Everyman quality and likability for the whole country.''

''It was so fast,'' Kimmel recalls. ''Suddenly I was on a plane to New York, and they were telling me things like 'This has to be a home run. There are a billion dollars of advertising at stake.' I was like, 'I'm hoping for a double. Would everyone be happy with a double?' And they're like, 'No.'''

Since then the show's sophomoric stunts have prompted ABC executives to cry foul on many occasions. Even Disney's top brass has jeered skits, including Jay Mohr's ''manicure'' from a kneeling Vietnamese houseboy (it looked a lot dirtier on camera) and Patton Oswalt's shaving of Kimmel's butt.

It's exactly this type of humor that gets laughs in the writers' room, which, not surprisingly, is populated by thirtysomething guys (many of whom hail from ''The Man Show'' and ''Crank Yankers,'' the other show Kimmel developed for Comedy Central). On a recent visit the group is trying to top the one joke that has their boss chuckling -- how his 12-year-old daughter, Katie, stunk up the place with fart spray. ''Somebody gave us a box of pranks, and she took it upstairs and sprayed it on my cousin Sal,'' Kimmel says, giggling. As usual, Carolla -- who occasionally drops by to help with some humor -- is the one who has everyone in stitches, recounting an actual incident at a seafood restaurant in which a woman found a condom in her clam chowder. ''Good thing she didn't order the jizz-pacho,''

Carolla says. Kimmel joins in on the hearty laughter, but even he realizes the joke will never make the night's monologue.

''I'm not crazy about the unknown.'' -- Kimmel, Nov. 10, 2003

Even though the writers' room still resembles a delta House party, these are new times on Kimmel's show. With Kellison out, British producer Duncan Gray, who previously ran the U.K.'s ''Big Breakfast,'' a wacky version of ''Today,'' is filling in. (Gray doesn't want the job permanently, but there are plenty of people who do, including former ''Late Show'' executive producer Robert Morton.) There's rampant speculation that ABC wants to drop the regular guest cohosts and tape the show, though Braun insists there are no major changes planned other than making Kimmel into a big late-night star. ''Jimmy is a broadcaster at heart,'' says Braun. ''I think the show will continue to evolve if it's tapped into the right way.''

The sad part is that the on-screen antics have overshadowed some real accomplishments this year: Kimmel's greenroom has become one of the hippest hangouts in L.A., and the show has landed appearances by 50 Cent, Foo Fighters, Linkin Park, and most recently Britney Spears and Clay Aiken (in one night!). His supporters say that critics need to cut the guy some slack -- Kimmel, like Conan O'Brien a decade ago, needs time to mature. But there are two big problems with that analogy. The first is obvious: Kimmel faces a lot more competition than O'Brien did at his launch. The second is more subtle: O'Brien was an unknown ''Simpsons'' scribe when he emerged in late night, but Kimmel's ''Man Show'' reputation makes him a tough sell outside the dude demo.

Kimmel's brand of humor and ABC's late-night fantasies (i.e., competing with Leno and Letterman) seem pretty inconsistent at this point. No matter how hard ABC pushes, Kimmel seems to push in the opposite direction. The two parties may not admit it, but they appear to be headed for a showdown -- that is, unless buzz and ratings start to build. ''It's about having a few things happen on the show that people start talking about outside,'' says Kimmel. ''I look at guys like Leno and Letterman and Carson and wonder, How in the world are they still alive? It's grueling, impossible.'' And imperfect.

Originally posted Nov 20, 2003 Published in issue #739 Nov 28, 2003 Order article reprints

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