The Jimmy Kimmel Live! staffer wanted something different. “Let’s try this,” he said to the nearly 2,000 people gathered early Monday evening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to watch the first taping of Kimmel’s annual five-night stand in the New York City borough where he was born. It was a few minutes before the start of the show and the staffer had already put the audience—who an hour earlier had snaked around the block—through its paces, asking them to practice a standing ovation and then cacophonous laughter, which the amped-up crowd delivered so easily he deemed it “awesome” on the first try. Now, he said, “React like he said something you agree with, but it’s kind of somber.” The game audience delivered a warm, polite round of applause.
Over the last few months, Kimmel’s live audience has been called upon to react in this fashion numerous times. Since May, when he delivered a deeply personal monologue about his newborn son who was born with heart disease, Kimmel has been a changed man. Billy Kimmel politicized his father, who has become a vehement and persuasive defender of Obamacare, regularly turning his opening monologue into a jeremiad against looming repeal bills. More recently, he wept while speaking about the victims of the Las Vegas massacre, angrily condemning politicians who let the NRA put “their balls in a money clip” and crying, “I just want to, you know, laugh about things every night. But that seems to be becoming increasingly difficult lately. It feels like someone has opened a window into hell.”
Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers have done fervent and impassioned work since before Trump was elected, but they would be talking about politics no matter what. Kimmel seems genuine when he says, “You know, I want this to be a comedy show, I hate talking about stuff like this.” He has done so anyway, with the hint of reluctance that has made him this moment’s quintessential host: the man who, like the rest of us, can’t escape politics even though he desperately wishes he could. Kimmel’s work has brought him a burst of buzz and notoriety, interviews on CBS Sunday Morning and in the New York Times, the attention of politicians and Trump’s children, viral monologues watched by upward of 9 million people, and a sense that he’s the pre-eminent Jimmy, eclipsing the former king of late night, Jimmy Fallon—who hasn’t moved past his own disinterest in politics, give or take a hair muss, and has seen his ratings sink as a result.
“These days,” wrote Mark Harris on Vulture, “Kimmel feels like the real thing—shaky, flummoxed at the way things are going, and increasingly insistent that our elected officials be better people.” Kimmel has been so effective because of his reluctance, his passion, his edge of meanness—and because he seems like the undecided voter of late night, a man who recently made up his mind. His new partisanship is evidence that minds can still be changed. His was, after all. But what happens if and when Kimmel tries to go back to normal? What does normal even look like on late night anymore?
Kimmel has always been a crier—he cried about Letterman’s retirement, about Cecil the Lion—but in the context of health care and mass shootings, the tears as much as the words are signifiers in the culture wars. By letting himself cry freely, he is signaling an approval for a world in which men publically feel stuff, a position that has inspired fake ads for the Jimmy Kimmel Estrogen Hour. If you credit Jon Stewart, and his tears after 9/11, for making space on late night for the host as an emotional divining rod for his audience, then Kimmel isn’t just performing female emotionality, but also an ethnic volubility, a mouthiness not often associated with WASP-y televised authority figures, from Walter Cronkite to David Letterman, who tried to hold back their tears in the face of crisis. Add to that his strong sense of domestic responsibility—he was awakened by his newborn son’s health crisis, after all—and Kimmel is a male authority figure at odds with the macho, ethnonationalist, never-change-a-diaper masculinity of our cartoonish president.
That the former co-host of the deeply bro-ish and “ironically” misogynist The Man Show, a series that concluded every episode with a segment of girls jumping on trampolines, should find himself on the other side of the culture wars from Donald Trump would be surprising if the bar for surprising hadn’t recently been raised to the heavens. Though Kimmel has become one of Trump’s great antagonists—the president has taken to tweeting about the “bias” on late night, alluding to Kimmel’s conversations with Sen. Chuck Schumer—he, like the president, is a rich member of the coastal elite who nonetheless has white middle-class credibility. Kimmel is the least polished of late night hosts: urgently moved to share his feelings, stumbling over his words, grasping for the facts, crying. He never feels like he’s condescending or preaching to the converted, a vibe that the converted love as much as the unconverted. Wonky and furious liberals might prefer to watch Colbert (or Meyers or Oliver or Noah or Bee), but it’s Kimmel who makes us feel like something is really changing.
Kimmel’s regular Jim quality was on display in September during the two monologues he devoted to halting the Graham–Cassidy bill. “I did more homework this week than in all my years of college combined. This bill is confusing, especially for people who aren’t experts in the field,” he said in the second, implicitly including himself in that category. He did a clunky bit called “barista theater” where he ordered a coffee that was poured through a cup with no bottom, an extremely basic metaphor for the GOP health plan. Almost any other late night host would be talking down if he did a segment like this, but not Kimmel: You get the feeling this helped him to understand the proposal, too.
Though Kimmel’s values have come a long way since he and Adam Carolla made a living cracking jokes about juggs, he retains a trace of meanness that insulates him from appearing politically correct. He’s still the late night host who has a recurring segment about ruthlessly disappointing small children. In his Graham–Cassidy monologue, you can see flashes of his nasty humor. He compared the bill to a baseball, then cut to a clip from a Yankees game in which a pitch veered off-course and slammed the hitter in the groin. At the moment the the ball hit the player, Kimmel let out a little snicker.
He showed a clip from Fox & Friends in which host Brian Kilmeade tarred Kimmel as a member of the Hollywood elite. His response was unrestrained and personal. “The reason I found this comment to be really annoying is because whenever I see this guy, he kisses my ass like a little boy meeting Batman,” Kimmel said with just a touch of malice that went beyond merry mischief. “Brian, you phony little creep! Oh, I’ll pound you when I see you.” The occasional forays over the line of good taste only make him seem more genuine, which is perhaps why he is such a powerful foil for Trump, who has weaponized this same trick.
Kimmel’s politics have the bent of evolution, if not downright revelation: He was blind and now he sees, and what he sees is gutting him. This is part of what makes Kimmel so hopeful even when he, himself, is hopeless: Who, in this America, is really open to having their minds changed? Who, in this America, thinks we share anything, let alone common sense? Jimmy Kimmel, that’s who. The irony of Kimmel’s recent shows is that he is probably losing his bipartisan audience, though it is his presumption that he has a bipartisan audience—that he has viewers whose minds are not made up—that gives his show the unique quality of feeling like it is for all Americans.
A version of this trap looms for all of late night: It has never been more relevant, but in making itself so relevant, it undermines what used to recommend it. Instead of a collective way to process the news of the world and be distracted from it, late night has, like everything else in our lives, been swallowed by the political hellmouth. “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,” Kimmel recently told the New York Times. “If I do that, no one will be interested. You can overdo it.”
Maybe that’s why on Monday night in Brooklyn, despite Trump’s recent move to abandon Obamacare subsidies, Kimmel didn’t get political at all, but just reveled in being in Brooklyn: riding around in taxis, cracking jokes about gentrification and Whole Foods. The approving-but-somber applause the audience practiced never came into use. The only mention of Kimmel’s recent exploits came from his guest, DJ Khaled, who was wearing a plaid shirt with “Good American” emblazoned across its back and told Kimmel, “I wanna praise you because you’re such a great father. … Shouts to Jimmy because he uses his platform to show love.” When Kimmel does a show like this, a regular show, it’s a let-down.
Topical one-liners were already on the outs before Trump. Now they feel like confetti in a war zone. But if Kimmel, spurred by ratings and current events, eschews these tired forms, late night will be just another once-relaxing ritual that has become an agitation. One day, hopefully, our politics will slow down long enough for late night hosts to figure out how to frivolously entertain us again. Until then, The Daily Show’s brief of providing emotional catharsis to stressed liberals will continue to permeate the form. It might be more productive, if terrifying, to think hard about the window into hell our country has opened with the television off, but it’s more comforting to watch Kimmel feel that for us and with us—a broadcast reminder that there are honest people in the world, if not in Congress.