“Watching Jimmy over the last 20-plus years has shown me how nothing comes easy no matter how much God-given talent you have. The reasons for the enduring success of ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’ have everything to do with Jimmy’s ‘winning’ attributes: hard work, curiosity, determination, pride in your work and wanting to be the best you can be.”
~Rob Mills, ABC Senior VP of Alternative Series, Specials and Late Night Programming, in “Hangin’ with Winners”
James Christian Kimmel is the host and executive producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live! We first met in 2002 when Jimmy was introduced t at an affiliates meeting in New York City prior to the launch of his new late-night talk show on ABC the following year. His “co-star” at the luncheon that day was the Stanley Cup. Most affiliates opted to have their picture taken while holding the Cup, even though it required putting on white gloves to do so. Not me, as no gloves were required to touch or have your picture taken with Jimmy. Goodbye, Lord Stanley … and hello, Jimmy Kimmel. He would become a valued network colleague, and remains a dear friend to this day.
As planned, Jimmy Kimmel Live! made its debut on January 26, 2003 following the presentation of Super Bowl XXXVII on ABC. From the outset, Jimmy surrounded himself with family and close friends. Molly McNearney has been a co-head writer on the show since 2008 and, more importantly, Jimmy’s wife since 2013. Molly, longtime producer Erin Irwin and Jennifer Sharron were named executive producers in 2021, following in the footsteps of Jill Leiderman who was the show’s talented executive producer from 2006 to 2020. Don Barris is a comedian who has “warmed up” the studio audience from day one. Jimmy and Don’s relationship dates back to their work together on the made-for-TV reality film Windy City Heat in 2003. The show’s house band, Cleto and the Cletones, is led by childhood friend and saxophonist Cleto Escobedo III. An interesting bit of trivia is that the show’s opening theme is sung by the late Robert Goulet.
Jimmy’s cousin, Sal Iacano, is a writer and frequent sketch performer on the show. Guillermo Rodriguez is the “security guard” for the show and has been Jimmy’s go-to sidekick for many years now. “Uncle Frank” Potenza, Jimmy’s real-life uncle, served as a security guard for the show and appeared on-camera regularly until he died from cancer in 2011. Frank was a warm, fun-loving guy and it was a pleasure to spend time with him on several occasions. Uncle Frank’s former wife, Concetta “Aunt Chippy” Potenza, is also a show regular who Jimmy loves to play pranks and elaborate hoaxes on for the audience’s — and his own! — enjoyment.
In what might arguably be one of the biggest changes to occur in the show’s history, Jimmy Kimmel Live! flipped time periods with ABC News Nightline in 2013. This was not an easy decision for the network. I was part of a memorable conference call in June 2012 with network executives, senior officials from ABC News who were opposed to it, and their counterparts from ABC Entertainment who were in favor of it. The handful of ABC affiliate board members on the call unwittingly joined the network’s internal Nightline/Kimmel deliberations for the first time. In fact, the real purpose of the call was not divulged to any of us representing the affiliate body ahead of time.
Both sides made poignant arguments, with News pointing out that Nightline was an award-winning program that had served the network well since 1979 … and was still winning the time period in total viewers. Entertainment countered that Jimmy Kimmel Live! was on a roll and had earned the opportunity to compete head on with both The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Show with David Letterman. The respective arguments were made against the backdrop of widely-anticipated changes involving the hosts of competing late-night shows, perhaps giving ABC an opening to drive higher late-night ratings among younger demographic viewers. It became clear that the network’s top brass were looking for affiliates to weigh in.
After some awkward silence, I spoke first and began by saying that the question in front of us was the equivalent of being asked which one of our children we loved more! I then shared the point of view that we should strike while the iron was hot and move Jimmy Kimmel Live! up to 11:35pm ET. Jimmy called shortly after the call concluded and thanked me for the support, even though neither one of us knew at the time what the final resolution would be. It was on August 21, 2012 that the network officially announced the time slot switch to take effect on January 8, 2013. Looking back, I still believe it was the correct call. With the end of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in February 2014 and David Letterman’s retirement from The Late Show with David Letterman in May 2015, Jimmy is now host of the longest-running, late-night talk show on network television.
It’s fun to reflect back on many memorable experiences with Jimmy over the past 20 years. Several are related to various awards shows, the first of which took place around the Primetime Emmys in 2008. After spending time with Jimmy at the show the night before, the very next morning I participated as outgoing chairman of the ABC Board of Governors in a closed-circuit feed to affiliates that originated from the Jimmy Kimmel Live! set in the El Capitan Theatre. Jimmy, still dressed in his tux from the night before, opened up the affiliate presentation after what clearly had been a long night of celebrating at Emmys after-parties!
We would meet up at the Emmys again in 2016 when Jimmy served as host of the 68th Annual production. Hosting an awards show is no small task, but Jimmy kept things moving with hilarious bits and a quick wit. His mother, Joan Kimmel, even contributed to the fun atmosphere by passing out 7,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the middle of the telecast. Jimmy poked some fun at himself as well: moments after his “best variety series” nomination lost out, old nemesis Matt Damon strolled on stage. “I missed the last category,” he deadpanned to Jimmy. “Did you win?” But it was the intimate, private after-party that foodie Jimmy hosted afterwards that is most memorable. He recruited several of his celeb chef pals and mixologists who, working together, paired each dish with specialty cocktails for the star-studded affair at The Lot in West Hollywood. Members of the Kimmel family (including PB&J sandwich maker, Joan Kimmel), cast members from Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Emmy award winners and nominees alike, and other friends of Jimmy’s were there. And yes, even Matt Damon showed up.
Attending the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2012 was made all the more special by the fact that Jimmy was the host. Jimmy and President Barack Obama exchanged some pretty good zingers that night including this one from Jimmy to Obama: “Remember when the country rallied around you in hope for a better tomorrow. That was a good one.” It was one of the better WHCA dinners in recent years, and President Obama would later accept an invitation from Jimmy to be a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on March 12, 2015. It was one of the highest-rated shows of the year.
With his experience hosting awards shows – the Primetime Emmy Awards (twice), the American Music Awards and the ESPYS – Jimmy was more than prepared to host the 89th Academy Awards in February 2017. He told Deadline Hollywood that the most important lesson learned from previous hosting jobs was to prioritize the audience response over all else. “People get overly focused sometimes on the audience at home,” he said, “and the audience at home is used to responding to other people laughing. So, if you get dead silence in the room, even if there are people at home who might think it’s funny, it’s not going to be seen as a success.” Jimmy’s hosting gig earned him much critical acclaim. Variety’s Sonia Saraiya said that Jimmy nailed the “perfect, quintessential host move” when joking that he knew he’d screw up the telecast somehow after La La Land was incorrectly named best picture instead of Moonlight.
A poll conducted by Variety shortly afterwards asked whether Jimmy should return to host Hollywood’s biggest night in 2018, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Sure enough, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced in May 2017 that Jimmy would return to host the Academy Awards in March 2018. He told E! News, “If you think we screwed up the ending this year, wait until you see what we have planned for the 90th anniversary show!” As it turned out, his second time around hosting the Academy Awards produced more positive acclaim … and none of the controversy associated with the first time.
Despite having the word “live” in the show’s title, Jimmy Kimmel Live! has not actually aired on a live basis since 2004 except for special programs involving the Academy Awards or NBA Finals. There were just too many guests who liked to challenge the network’s lawyers and censors! Attending a taping of the show for broadcast later that same evening is still every bit as much fun. While it’s been my pleasure to attend over a dozen such tapings, a couple memorable occasions stand out. In May 2010, the annual ABC-TV affiliates meeting was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel just down the street from the show’s studios on Hollywood Boulevard. On one day of the meeting the studio was filled with affiliates and network executives, though I’m not sure having a bunch of “suits” make up the entire audience was Jimmy’s idea of a good time. Another wonderful show experience occurred around the ESPYS in July 2012. Following their win over the No. 2-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys the prior November, the Iowa State Cyclones were nominated for an ESPY in the “Best Upset” category. It was a thrill to host Coach Paul Rhoads and four of his players at the show where that year’s ESPYS host, Rob Riggle, was one of Jimmy’s guests. It was also both special and memorable to attend a taping in July 2019 with the entire Cole family for the first time.
Jimmy was born in Brooklyn, NY and grew up in the Mill Basin neighborhood before the family moved to Las Vegas when he was nine years old. He returns there on a regular basis for Jimmy Kimmel Live!: Back to Brooklyn and the production of five original shows. Guests in Brooklyn in years past have included David Letterman, Michael J. Fox, Howard Stern, Bill Murray, Chris Rock, Alicia Keys and Jay Z. It was fun to join Jimmy in October 2018 when the show originated for the fourth time from the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House. Julia Louis Dreyfus and BeBe Rexha were among the guests that night. It was even more fun to join Jimmy and the entire cast and crew at their Wrap Party held at the infamous Hometown BarBQue afterwards.
Jimmy also hosted a week’s worth of shows from the Zappos Theater on the Las Vegas Strip in April 2019. A few months later in June 2019 he opened up “Jimmy Kimmel’s Comedy Club” in the Las Vegas Linq Promenade. In a show of love and gratitude for his hometown, Jimmy announced that all of the profits from the comedy club would be donated to deserving Las Vegas charities.
Jimmy is the kind of person that can help keep you very humble. For example, Diane Sawyer sent me a note in June 2014 just after the announcement that she’d be stepping down as anchor of World News Tonight. She wrote, in part, “Ray, your wonderful mind and heart have been like a GPS for me in the fifteen years I have anchored a daily broadcast at ABC.” It was a humbling sentiment, to be sure. Upon learning of Diane’s note, Jimmy was not to be outdone and sent me a note of his own. It read, “Ray’s wonderful mind and heart have been like UPS for me. I especially love when he wears those little brown shorts.” Everybody needs a friend — and ego check — like Jimmy!
Jimmy has been honored with and/or nominated numerous times for the Primetime Emmy, Daytime Emmy, Writer’s Guild of America, Producers Guild of America, People’s Choice, American Comedy, Critics Choice, NAACP Image and Teen Choice awards. In January 2013 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2018 Time magazine named Jimmy one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People.”
It was announced in September 2022 that Jimmy would soldier on in late-night for some time after extending his contract for three more years. That new deal will keep him in place on Jimmy Kimmel Live! through at least its 23rd season. At that point, only Conan O’Brien (28 years), Johnny Carson (30 years) and Jimmy’s hero David Letterman (33 years) will have worked in the late-night daypart longer. Like those other legendary hosts, Jimmy is a WINNER who can always be trusted to put a smile on the face of his audience at the end of a long day.
Jimmy’s “Pillar of Character Award” tribute to Ray
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Updated: October 30, 2022