As we arrive at the end of the first week of Jimmy Kimmel’s new time period, it may seem a tad premature to start affixing a position to Kimmel in the constellation of 11:30 p.m. late-night stars. But already, trends in the viewership of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and The Late Show with David Letterman, as well as the personalities of their hosts, suggest a few interesting things.
Kimmel’s first week in his earlier time period has proven pretty quickly that he will be comfortable in this space (he doesn’t need to fine-tune his show much) and he is as adroit as anyone in his field at extracting an entertaining interview from guests booked primarily to hawk their latest products. Kimmel is particularly good at convincing celebs to be sports about giving a bit extra, as when, this week, Ryan Gosling, present to plug Gangster Squad, took part in a bit that included Will Ferrell. Kimmel will probably continue to draw an audience close to the same size as, and occasionally larger than, Letterman’s, while not defeating Leno. He’ll also doubtless make good on the delivery of a (slightly) younger demo than those other two.
Now for the stickier stuff. Given Kimmel’s extravagant, sincere appreciation of Letterman, it is ironic, even poignant, that he may end up hurting his hero. That is to say, it’s conceivable that if Jimmy Kimmel Live! continues to beat The Late Show, running in third place might hasten either CBS or Letterman himself to take Dave out of the competition, either when Letterman’s contract expires or sooner.
The flaw in Kimmel’s trick-bag as a long-time host is his blind spot for a crucial aspect of Letterman’s enduring allure as a great TV personality. Since he was a kid, Kimmel “got” Letterman’s irony, the early edge Dave applied to the talk show format. Kimmel has emulated Letterman’s deconstructive approach to the job. (This is in contrast to Jimmy Fallon, who — shrewdly, it now is now clear — has taken the opposite approach, opting for an unironic enthusiasm that continues to distinguish the atmosphere of his show from all the others, just as Craig Ferguson’s outsider-art, imported absurdism approach places him in a context uniquely his own.)
But while Kimmel has proven to have a talent for Letterman-esque sarcasm, impish impudence, and an insistence upon calling attention to the tropes of talk-show structure in order to make fun of them, he’s never picked up on the other side of Dave. Which is the Letterman who exhibits an interest in things outside of show business, be it (in the early days) shortwave radio or (in his latterday years) family and, occasionally, the political issues of the day. Like his hero Johnny Carson, Letterman arrived at his post a grounded Midwesterner, a wiseguy raised with good manners, with hobbies that could have become career paths. Unlike Carson — and this is where, I think, Letterman ascends to the top of the talk-show-host list — Dave has used his natural reticence, his peevish temperament, and his sense of civic decency to seep into some aspects of his performance, particularly in his post-monologue desk comments and his interviews with public figures ranging from politicians to Donald Trump. There is a core of seriousness to Letterman that has enabled him to surge ahead of his genre colleagues in moments of national drama, whether it was the entertainment industry’s vexed reassertion into post-9/11 American culture, or Presidential politics. (No one’s saying Letterman had any effect on an election, but his persistent, focused swipes at Mitt Romney as an aloof aristo, a vaguely out-of-it figure who declined to appear on The Late Show, certainly helped create a pop image of Romney as surely as anything Jon Stewart did.)
Kimmel, by contrast, has thus far displayed no public evidence of interest in anything beyond show business… which is of course a trait he shares with his now-time-period competitor, Leno, unless you want to give added weight to Jay’s interest in collecting cars. Ironic indeed, given that the one thing Kimmel has been seriously vehement about in his professional life is his contempt for Leno, whom he sees as having inflicted unnecessary pain upon both Letterman and Conan O’Brien. In an interview in the current Rolling Stone, Kimmel, between bong hits, displays a gift for hitting where it hurts, saying of Leno’s abilities as a club comic — the extracurricular activity for which Leno is still most often praised, as evidence of his work ethic and enduring chops despite his soft TV show — that “Leno hasn’t been a good standup in 20 years.”
But the scenario I sketched at the top of this piece — Kimmel as an agent of inadvertent change? There’s a rosier way to look at this possible outcome, which is that Dave decides when he’s good and ready that he’s good and ready, and passes the mantle of Genial Grumpiness to Kimmel with his blessing. Thus Jimmy would achieve succession in a way Letterman was never blessed to receive from Carson thanks to Leno.
I hope it works out that way for Jimmy, and wish him luck. I also hope he starts consuming something besides the sports page, weed, and reality TV; the fiber of firm opinions could work fresh wonders in his new position.