The odds that “Jimmy Kimmel Live” would still be here, 20 years after its launch on Jan. 26, 2003, were astronomically low. The network hadn’t done a traditional late-night talk show since the short-lived “Into the Night With Rick Dees” (hosted, coincidentally, by another Los Angeles radio veteran) in 1991, and the time slot’s previous inhabitant, “Politically Incorrect,” had been canceled due to declining ratings — and controversy over 9/11-related comments host Bill Maher had made.
Those early reviews were rough (including Leak Herald, which lamented that “ABC is stuck with a show designed by a network that’s not quite ready for cable”) and the show struggled in its early months to book guests. And soon, Kimmel’s biggest backer at the network, then-ABC chairman Lloyd Braun, was out the door.
But there was a glimmer of promise from the start: Early on, ABC execs said they were encouraged by the show’s first week national ratings, especially among young male viewers. (Back then, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” aired at 12:05 a.m., after “Nightline,” and competed against the second half-hour of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With David Letterman,” as well as the first half hour of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn”).
Among all of those hosts — Leno, Letterman, O’Brien, Kilborn — Kimmel is the only one left standing in late night, and has more than earned his keep over the years, growing into the role as now the longest-tenured host in the genre. The “Kimmel” team has a loose tally of more than 3,500 monologues, 10,000 stars and five presidents that have been a part of the show over two decades.
On Thursday, a primetime “Jimmy Kimmel Live” anniversary special will recount some of the show’s history by bringing back the original guests from the very first night: George Clooney, Snoop Dogg and Coldplay. The first “Jimmy Kimmel Live” aired live (which the show continued to do for its first few years) on a Sunday night following ABC’s coverage of Super Bowl XXXVII and the “Alias” episode “Phase One.”
Leak Herald was there on the very first night, watching the live broadcast from the lobby bar (yes, that was the one night that Kimmel’s audience was served alcohol, a practice that was quickly halted after an audience member vomited in the seats) and Coldplay performing on Hollywood Blvd., which was shut down for the telecast. We recently asked Kimmel to recount what else he remembered from that very first episode.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling as everybody might imagine, it feels like it went by in the blink of an eye, and it also feels like it’s been going on since the Middle Ages. But it definitely gives me a sense of accomplishment. And I think all of us that feeling that way. Especially when you go back and watch some of the old shows and you’re like, “Wow, this is very unprofessional!” Those nights where we thought that was a pretty good show, we were extremely wrong!
Have you been doing going down memory lane and watching some old episodes?
I’ve been unable to avoid it. I’d never watched the first show; I think for our 10th anniversary, I watched like eight minutes of it. And then threw up. I actually still haven’t quite made it all the way through, but made it through as much as I could. And I guess the positive spin is we’ve gotten better, we’ve improved.
It sounds like you still cringe watching those old episodes even though it’s been 20 years.
To be honest, I would cringe watch any episode from any week ever including this week. But much more so watching those. Those first few years, I still don’t understand why they kept me on the air. It would have made perfect sense to remove me. But thank God they didn’t have sense.
What do you remember about that first night?
I actually remember some very specific, non on-air things about that night. One of them is I had made the very foolish mistake of spending almost two full weeks leading up to the show working on a segment called “Jimmy Says Goodbye to Cable.” The idea was I would say goodbye to all these different cable shows. So I said goodbye to Jon Stewart at “The Daily Show” and Christopher Lowell on HGTV and Larry King and SportsCenter. I went to New York and I went to Connecticut and I went down to Orange County, I was like all over the place shooting this bit.
And I also was part of a Super Bowl special for MTV the day before my premiere in San Diego. So that morning I woke up in San Diego, got on a bus and headed to LA and did the show. I watched George Clooney’s movie, the movie he was promoting, in that bus from San Diego. I was totally unprepared for the show itself. I had almost no jokes written. I had a terrible cough and was very sick that night. I couldn’t stop coughing moments before the show started. And the stage manager didn’t want to give me $2 to buy some cough drops at the little souvenir shop next door. Luckily, a woman who was doing my hair gave me gave me $2, I ran in grabbed the roll of cough drops. I chomped all of them on my way into the studio and was able to keep it together without coughing for the monologue. But I remember while I was doing the show still being so mad at the stage manager.
So the whole show you’re distracted by this vendetta!
This is what’s going through my head. I remember under my sport jacket and shirt I was a “Late Night With David Letterman” T-shirt that was given to me that day by Steve O’Donnell, who was one of the head writers in the early days of “Late Night” and was our head writer. And I just remember everybody being so kind of upbeat and relaxed, and me feeling like I was about to go to war or something. That night was pretty crazy. And then the craziest part was realizing that I had to keep doing that every single night. And not just for as long as I could, but five more nights in a row of that.
What do you remember thinking about as the show was going on, and how it was going? You must have started to feel some relief as Coldplay came on.
A couple of things I remember, which is not much by the way, but one of them was that we went to great lengths to set up a satellite feed with [Tampa Bay coach] Jon Gruden, who had just won the Super Bowl. He did not show up for that satellite interview. So I remember saying something to the effect that we just spent $10,000 so I could interview a potted plant. But I also remember they were going to scrap it and I said no, keep the camera on the fern that we had in the shot for whatever reason, because I think this will be a funny moment. I also remember having to get special airspace clearance to land Warren Sapp on the football field of Hollywood High School. After the game, he got on a helicopter and flew to LA, landed on the field and came and did our show. Which was kind of cool.
I remember at the time thinking that’s pretty ambitious for the first episode. I’m sure Warren Sapp just wanted to stay down there and party but the fact that you’re able to get him up here was a coup.
It is still surprising. Although I definitely remember him being enthusiastic about it. And I remember a person throwing up in the front row. I didn’t really see it happen, but I did see our warm-up guy Don Barris suddenly bolt into the audience, grab a woman, throw her over his shoulder and carry her out.
The famous one-and-done moment with the booze. ABC was never going to let you have an open bar after that.
Yeah, that was probably for the best. And I do remember how upset certain people were about losing the ability to serve booze to our audience, but the show was live at 9 p.m. and that was unquestionably a bad idea.
I still can’t believe you didn’t get past the first night with the alcohol!
It’s funny because as part of the reason I left “The Man Show” was the drunken audience was no fun to perform in front of anymore. And for whatever reason, we decided to do that again. It did make for good promotion leading up leading up. I do remember David Letterman being very tickled by that idea that we had an open bar at the show.
And it is so interesting now to think back to those early ideas, the open bar and then also the guest host idea with Snoop Dogg. Those early days of doing guest hosts feels so long ago now and so forgotten. But the guest hosts were a big early selling point, since no one else did that.
Yeah, I guess it was. I mean, that was probably one of the few smart things that we did, because it did give me a bit of a crutch. I didn’t really have a sidekick. And I was used to having a partner. Adam [Carolla] and I were on “The Man Show” and Ben Stein and I did “Win Ben Stein’s Money” together. And then I’d done radio previous to that. So I was used to being able to have somebody to talk to during the show, and that definitely helped. We also had random announcers every night for the first maybe year of the show, which would be staffers or some D-level celebrity. And that was a great way to get the show off to a very slow start.
It was good also to have that guest host to kind of play off of when you didn’t have a big night of big stars.
It was never a big night of big stars. We peaked on night one. I think Night 2 was the blizzard show with The Rock. I think we bullied The Rock into getting on a dog sled and he was unhappy. Thank God he got over it and came back because at that time, we weren’t aware he would become the biggest star in the world.
George Clooney was a great night one guest. Do you remember how you guys pulled that off?
I’m not sure, I know he was familiar with “The Man Show.” And I think ultimately, his publicist Stan Rosenfield was a big NFL viewer and liked me from Fox NFL Sunday. And so I think that opened the door. And it did just so happen that he had a movie coming out.
And then what do you remember about the Coldplay performance?
That was the best part of the night because I could just sit there and take it in. It was, I think, emotionally overwhelming at that point. Just the idea that Coldplay is there playing my show was pretty crazy at that time. And then that we closed down this street that I’ve driven on so many times on my way to my job hosting a game show on cable. And that thousands of people came. A lot of them were obviously there to see Coldplay, but a lot of them were my fans from radio from KROQ. That was nice. I felt like I was among family in some ways and even to this day, that’s kind of the reference that means the most to me. When people say, “I started listening to you on KROQ,” it makes me remember how long ago it was. You’re in a bubble when you’re on the radio, you don’t realize that you make an impact on people’s lives by being in their cars with them as they drive to school and work. So being reminded of that is always kind of nice.
You’ll always be Jimmy the Sports Guy on “Kevin and Bean” to me. It’s hard to believe that’s 25 years ago, but you’ve aged well, Jimmy.
The key is to come out of the gate fat.
You’ve become more and more of a DILF through the years. As the kids would say.
I don’t think the kids would say that, but we’ll go with it.
Speaking of all those guests, the fun thing that you’re doing with the anniversary special is the fact you’re able to get them all back, except Warren Sapp. But you have everyone else, including Snoop.
We don’t have 90 minutes or maybe we would have stuck Warren in there. But ultimately, I think not only is it great that they agreed to come back, it’s great that we want them back. Like they’re all still very relevant. I mean, what were the odds of that?
I imagine it was hard to get schedules to line up, but it sounds like everyone really wanted to make it happen.
Yeah, everybody’s schedules we managed to piece it together. Snoop Dogg is always the funniest because he’s so laconic. You wouldn’t think he would get excited about something. But he’s interestingly sentimental and enthusiastic. I heard he was sitting in his dressing room watching the monologue and just getting really excited about the fact that this was happening.
There was no one better than Snoop Dogg for you to play off of in week one.
Yeah, absolutely. And we just happen to have great chemistry. That was the one guest that I knew going in. I’d done stuff with him at KROQ and we’d done stuff with him at “The Man Show.” I’d been to his house. I knew him a little bit before the show. So it was nice to start things off with someone I had an actual relationship with.
Have you gone back and read any of the old reviews? I’m looking at Leak Herald’s review, and I’m sorry to say it’s not nice.
There were so many comically hilariously bad reviews. I don’t remember them. Maybe it’s just because the Internet wasn’t as omnipresent as it is now. But I don’t remember us getting bad reviews. I really don’t! I remember coming out of that first show thinking, “That went pretty well. I mean, certain things could have been better, but I think that was a pretty good!” The sentiment was not shared by many.
We have many more years of you to come, what convinced you to renew your deal?
There was a part of me, like almost the whole part of me, that was convinced that I was going to retire in May. But they talked me out of it. It’s interesting when you’re faced with the reality, it’s very different than the fantasy retirement scenario that you present yourself with. And ultimately, I think the show is pretty good right now and I enjoy the people I work with and enjoy the people I work for. And I don’t feel like it’s a drag coming into work. If I did, I’d be ready to go. On top of that, I’m a little bit fearful of how I might react when I’m not doing the show. I don’t know maybe I’ll be depressed. Maybe I’ll wish I hadn’t retired and there’s that and then there’s the I just don’t want to clean out this office here at the show. I mean, there’s so much crap in here. That laziness is part of it, too.
So, 20 more years, right? That’s the plan.
I don’t think I’m going to live 20 more years but we’ll see… I don’t know if we’ll have television in 20 years!
ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” 20th anniversary special airs Thursday at 10 p.m. ET, and then again in the show’s regular timeslot at 11:35 p.m. ET.