Jimmy Kimmel has been on TV since Win Ben Stein’s Money made its droll debut in 1997 and on late night TV since 2003, when Jimmy Kimmel Live! hit the air. But it wasn’t until he recently started speaking about his son’s frightening health complications that the host came into his own as American’s late night dad, the first person to fill those particularly suitpants. Traditionally, late night talk show hosts haven’t spoken much about their personal lives and it feels both logical and surprising that the Man Show alumnus would subvert that norm. Kimmel’s comedy is and always has been about the interplay between bluster and vulnerability. He can talk about his son Billy in a way that Johnny Carson could never talk about his kids (or his marriages) because he’s not trying to project strength or even intelligence.
Jimmy Kimmel plays Jimmy Kimmel on TV. He’s like Mr. Rogers in that regard. He’s just nothing like Mr. Rogers.
Kimmel is also in a unique position. His wife Molly McNearney is the co-head writer of the show, which means that jokes about his family are not only in play, but can be workshopped within the studio. When he opted to explain why he hadn’t returned from paternity leave as planned and make an impassioned plea for healthcare, Kimmel was laying himself bare, but he wasn’t doing so alone. And when that broadcast turned into a crusade against Trumpcare, a poorly considered constellation of non-solutions derided by doctors, Kimmel went to war with the ferocity of a family man. The punchlines were for the audience, sure, but they landed because they felt like — and kind of were — inside jokes.
In the past, late night hosts have been able to hide behind crisp suits and monologue jokes, and keep the details of their personal lives to a minimum. Carson famously refused to respond to questions that had to do with him at all. The only time Carson talked about his kids was to pay tribute to his son Richard when he was killed in a car accident in 1991. Jay Leno wasn’t a family man. David Letterman made less of an effort to hide his private life, but rarely spoke about the people he was related to that weren’t his mom. Jimmy Fallon writes children’s books and makes children’s music, but his children seem to live entirely in the hermetically sealed confines of funny anecdotes.
Stephen Colbert, who has ridden Trump rage to prominence along with Kimmel, has three children. He doesn’t avoid talking about them, but he’s sentimental about his personal life and his background. He does not look to his family for humor. He can’t. He’s at his best when he’s skewering people.
James Corden is locked in a car doing karaoke. Fortunately, someone cracked a window.
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Part of Kimmel’s appeal is that he’s never tried to be the smartest guy in the room. Or even the funniest. Consider his “war” with Matt Damon or his prior feud with his ex-girlfriend Sarah Silverman. They got the best lines. Kimmel isn’t exactly a straight man, but he is a straight white man. He is an avatar of averageness, albeit with a sharp tongue, and so his attacks feel particularly profound and cutting. He leverages what seems like innate decency against his opponents and never really comes across as a Hollywood type even though he’s probably the only late night host who wouldn’t flee that characterization.
Now that he’s decided to lead with fatherhood, he has started to seem more and more like the father next door. This puts him in a powerful position because America no longer has a father figure. In critiquing Trump for his utter failure to fill that role, Kimmel may have accidentally assumed it.
Still, Kimmel’s approach has him tacking into unknown waters and backtracking on some of his prior bits. Now that dadness is part of the brand, Kimmel can’t be the guy telling parents to prank their kids on Halloween anymore (it was kind of cruel in the first place). He has to be the guy that cares. He’s doing well in that role, but that’s a hard job to do for years and years, which is presumably why Jon Stewart looks so old. Kimmel is trying to do a very hard thing well. He’s trying to tuck America in with a joke and a bit of tenderness.
It’s working — for now.