Jimmy Kimmel: Making Late Night Cool Again


When I was a kid, I had a problem with pills. No, this is not one of those exciting Thought Catalog pieces where I talk about stealing Ambien and breaking into strangers’ houses, or throwing Vicodin parties at my uncle’s loft in Soho. I am nowhere near cool enough for Vicodin. Or Soho, for that matter. Truth be told, I’m barely even cool enough for parties. What I am cool enough for however, is sleep.

Sleep and I have been best buds since way back. We partied every night, and when things got really wild, afternoons too. Some teenagers have Playboy magazine, I had naps. And I loved it. But when I turned 12, sleep somehow started to evade me, and I freaked out. Every night 11pm came and went, with no sign of my old pal Mr. Snooze, and in his place was a whole shitload of anxiety. So, in order to get my friend back, I ventured into my mom’s medicine cabinet and scored some Valium. And when I say “some,” I mean tons. Soon enough, sleep and I were together again, better than ever. That fixed the problem, until I got the keen idea to hide the Valium in my sock drawer, which got filled with clean socks by, you guessed it, my mother. And thus, the gig was up. My parents realized their child was on sleeping pills, and they were not pumped. Understandably, they offered to do anything they could to fix the problem. Should I see a shrink? Perhaps if I tried a little antidepressant? Or maybe a glass of warm milk? I had a simpler suggestion. “I think if I had a TV in my room, it would help me relax. Then I could fall asleep.” It was true, but also devious. And within 24 hours, I had a brand-new Mitsubishi bedside television, and it introduced me to a new friend even better than shuteye. His name was Johnny Carson.

At 12 years-old I started watching late-night TV, and I haven’t stopped since. It did help me drift off to sleep, but it also helped me love every minute of being awake. Carson was my first love: so cool, so relaxed, so hysterical. He was like the coolest guy you ever met, able to turn every guest into a riot, and every one-liner into a charming jewel of observation. Soon I started arriving at school with my favorite Carson joke from the previous night practiced to perfection. It went over terribly, because sixth-graders don’t really laugh at jokes about Tip O’Neill, but I didn’t care. Still don’t really. Screw sixth-graders. But when Johnny Carson retired, I think I was the only 13 year-old in the world who cried, but that’s OK, because soon enough I discovered Dave.

The coolness crown of late-night was immediately passed from Johnny to Letterman, and I couldn’t get enough. To even start a list of my favorite Late Show bits is absurd, but “Stupid Pet Tricks,” “Know Your Cuts of Meat,” “Is This Anything?,” and interviews with Bonnie Hunt, Chris Elliot, and Amy Sedaris are all wonderful places to begin. Dave has never been as funny though, or as cool, as when he left the studio.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f36Q6jh58zQ&w=584&h=390]

My God that’s awesome. I still watch Dave religiously to this day, and the time I submitted a packet to write for the show was one of the most exciting days of my life, even if it was not received with quite as much enthusiasm by the Late Show staff. But that’s OK, I’ll always love Letterman. The show isn’t as edgy as it once was, and while it’s still hilarious, the title of Coolest Host in Late-Night has been passed once again. Conan held it for a while, as his voice of ultra-absurd silliness made me giggle long past my bedtime, but now there’s a new guy dominating at 11:30. And if you’re not watching him, you better start.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOlpdd7y8MI&w=584&h=390]

Jimmy Kimmel grew up a Letterman disciple himself, and famously requested Late Show-decorated cakes for his birthdays. Because ABC has never been a place for late-night, and because he was on at 12, Kimmel has never gotten much attention. Even though “Unnecessary Censorship” is probably the best recurring bit on TV today.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZF4cLVR2-4&w=584&h=390]

But since Jimmy Kimmel Live moved to 11:30, he’s starting to get the respect he deserves. He has the same voice of a rascally ballbuster that makes Letterman great, but mixes it in with a hunger to innovate. What makes Kimmel special just as it did Johnny and Letterman back in the day, is you know he wakes up every morning wanting to be the best damn host on the face of the earth. Jimmy has always been the underdog, so he’ll take risks. He’ll do things other shows would never consider doing. His show is the most daring and creative late-night show on today, and if that’s not the definition of cool, I don’t know what is. But he needed something to breakthrough, something to make everyone try out the new guy. And then he gave us the Matt Damon episode.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOHeLc7g6iI&w=584&h=390]

This episode, where Matt Damon kidnapped Jimmy and took over his show for the hour, inviting huge stars to mock Kimmel as he’s sat helplessly tied up in the corner made big news. ABC re-aired in primetime, which happens more or less never, and it reminded me of the sort thing Letterman would’ve done when he was still battling for the late-night crown. It was brilliant, and perhaps the greatest compliment of all: so crazy that I’m not sure even Carson would’ve tried to pull it off. It was an hour of 100% scripted comedy, more like a one act play than a talk show. Watch the full episode here, and tell me if it’s not the coolest thing you’ve seen in late-night in a long time.

And yeah, I got all that from a simple little bottle of sleeping pills. Sometimes drugs are pretty sweet, right?

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