NEW YORK — In the up-and-down landscape of late-night television, Jimmy Kimmel has lately found himself at the top of a crowded field. In his 15th season at ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” he has gained new visibility as a result of monologues in which he has addressed sweeping news events in intimately personal terms. In May, a few days after his newborn son, Billy, underwent emergency open-heart surgery, Kimmel was on the air urging against any health care reform that would deny coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Kimmel returned to the topic in September amid debate over reform measures introduced by Senate Republicans, including Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who had said he wanted legislation that would pass what he called the “Jimmy Kimmel test.” Cassidy had explained this to mean, “Would a child born with a congenital heart disease be able to get everything she or he would need in that first year of life?” Kimmel said in a monologue that Cassidy had “lied right to my face”; the bill was never brought to a vote.
This month, Kimmel was tearful as he spoke about the Oct. 1 shooting massacre that occurred at a country-music festival in Las Vegas, his hometown. He also used that monologue to advocate for gun control and said that political leaders including President Donald Trump “should be praying for God to forgive them for letting the gun lobby run this country.”
Amid this increased attention, Kimmel has also been disparaged by critics who say that he is incorrect on key factual points and is repeating information given to him by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; that he has overlooked other news stories that might reflect negatively on liberals, such as the downfall of Harvey Weinstein; and that he is wading into politically pointed territory that isn’t appropriate for a network TV host.
This week, Kimmel is in New York, where he will record “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” from the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. On Sunday, Kimmel spoke in an interview there about how he sees his role as a host, comic and commentator on events of the day. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
New York Times: How is Billy doing?
Jimmy Kimmel: He’s doing well. He’s going to have another operation coming up soon, and another when he’s around 8 to 10 years old. But he’s doing well.
NYT: Thinking back to that first monologue where you talked about him and the circumstances of his birth, was that difficult for you to perform? Did you hesitate to share that with your audience?
JK: No, but in retrospect, perhaps I should have. Because what I didn’t think through was that, everywhere I went, every day of my life, people would be asking me how my son is doing.
NYT: As I just did.
JK: But thank God I can say he’s doing well. If that wasn’t the case, each day would be very, very painful. But I also felt like I had to say something. Because I’d been talking about the fact that my wife (Molly McNearney, the co-head writer of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”) was pregnant for six months. I left for paternity leave and then I didn’t come back. That was something I had to address.
NYT: Looking at the totality of these monologues, the ones that have dealt with health care and gun control, do you feel that you, or how you approach the show, have been changed in a way that can’t be undone?
JK: It does make you think a little bit more about what you say and maybe you choose your words a bit more carefully. I don’t ever want to get in a situation where I feel compelled to speak about every tragedy, every natural disaster, every murder or car accident or whatever horrible things are going on in the world. If I do that, no one will be interested. You can overdo it.
NYT: One of the criticisms you faced for your monologues about health care was that you’d gotten some of your information from Schumer. Is that correct that you did, and is this a fair criticism?
JK: I did, but I will say I talked to Chuck Schumer three times for, probably, a total of less than eight minutes. As I’ve said, I didn’t know anything about health care, and I wanted to educate myself beforehand. I reached out to a lot of people so I could get my facts straight and find out what the arguments would be.
This notion that they were pulling my strings is one created by right-wing media outlets. It’s just a way of putting a pin in something that scares them. I don’t know why the idea of making sure every American is taken care of should scare a politician. It certainly doesn’t scare the average guy who’s got a job that he doesn’t like and is afraid to quit it because he’s got a pre-existing condition and he may well not get another good job with insurance.
NYT: Do you think some of your detractors are trying to influence what you can or can’t talk about on your show?
JK: I think some of them are. I think some of them are just trying to get Fox News to hire them as on-air commentators. It’s sad. You see people try to engage me in battle that are just trying to give their careers a boost. I won’t be a part of that. With the rare exception.
NYT: Like your back-and-forth on Twitter with Donald Trump Jr.?
JK: I think he’s just trying to position himself as someone of importance, and he seems to be looking for high-profile media figures to fight with. If you go through his Twitter feed, it’s one desperate cry for attention after another. For whatever reason, I decided to give some to him.
NYT: Has there ever been a moment over these recent months, as you’ve waded further into these politicized debates, where ABC stepped in and said, “You can’t do that”?
JK: No, never. They had more concerns about my beard.
NYT: Some people have looked back to the comedy you were doing on “The Man Show,” which was often crude and chauvinistic, and said, who is he to get up on his high horse? Does that past work invalidate what you’re saying now?
JK: Of course not. One has nothing to do with the other. It is almost impossible to offend me when your intent is to make a joke. Sometimes people go too far, and that is one of the perils of being a comedian, and if you don’t ever go too far, you’re probably not a particularly interesting comic. Comedians need a place to experiment, to try things, to bounce things off the wall. Comedy will be worse for it if we don’t allow it.
NYT: You hosted “The Man Show” with Adam Carolla and “Win Ben Stein’s Money” with Ben Stein, who are both more politically conservative than you. Are you still close with them?
JK: To this day, they’re two of my best friends. I’ve had 15 email interactions with Ben Stein over the last 96 hours. Not quite as many with Adam, he’s not a big emailer. It helps me to figure out what I believe. It teaches me and it teaches them how to have a real conversation without just declaring someone the enemy and retreating to your corner.
NYT: For viewers who perhaps once thought of you as a more all-around host — a political centrist, or a refuge from politics altogether — does it concern you if some of these viewers drift away from the show?
JK: It concerns me, but not enough to change what I’m doing. Of course, you want as many people to watch your show as possible. But some things are more important than bringing in a big audience. I hope that we, as a nation, get back to a time where I can have a normal, well-rounded show, that’s more focused on Beyoncé and Jay-Z than Donald and Ivanka. But for the time being, this is what’s at the forefront of people’s minds.
NYT: Jimmy Fallon said in a recent interview that he doesn’t care as much about politics and is not trying to do so many Trump jokes. Is that even possible anymore as a late-night host? Does every comedian have to have a political point of view now?
JK: I don’t think so. Jimmy Fallon, he’s just being true to himself. There are people who don’t care about politics. I certainly know people who care much more about football. Although it’s hard to tell what is football and what is politics nowadays.