Jimmy Kimmel: 20 Years Later

Herbie J Pilato

Photo byJimmy Kimmel Live/ABC

According to entertainment journalist Michael Schneider and Variety.com, "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," Schneider observed. "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.

"Variety 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," Schneider concluded.

Meanwhile, Kimmel's shared these recollections with Variety:

"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 [when] we thought that was a pretty good show, we were extremely wrong!"

"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."

"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."

"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!"

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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