This wasn’t the year Jimmy Kimmel expected to have. He’d hoped to host the Oscars without a hitch (mission accomplished, until that final envelope, though not his fault), decry the rise of celebrity promposals, maybe urge more parents to fool their kids into believing that their Halloween candy had vanished, and leave the political screeds to the Bees, Olivers, Meyerses, and Colberts. But then his infant son needed emergency surgery, so he fought through scared tears to deliver a potent monologue on Jimmy Kimmel Live about the need for affordable healthcare. And then his hometown of Las Vegas was shot up in a horrific massacre, so he fought through angry tears to plead for gun control and blast lawmakers “who won’t do anything about this because the NRA has their balls in a money clip.” To a nation increasingly fractured by politics, his message was simple: Let’s pledge allegiance to common sense. Through a series of heartfelt, often raw monologues — his eulogy for friend/mentor Don Rickles radiated a perfect mix of warmth, pain, and humor — the sharp Everyman truly realized his powers of persuasion.
What did Kimmel, 50, glean from this year that he calls a “tsunami”? “I learned there are people whose voices are not heard, and I hope that other people grab this baton and run with it, because it’s not enough to watch Rachel Maddow and nod along at home,” he says. “I learned that I can’t keep it together on television. I learned that it really makes an impression when someone most of the country believes is a moron speaks intelligently for a change. It’s like watching a chimpanzee do math. It’s going to be a viral video, simple as that.” And for our part, we didn’t know how much we needed to hear from Jimmy Kimmel — yes, the former co-host of The Man Show — until Jimmy Kimmel needed to talk to us, about so much more. “Maybe there’s a little bit more to me than railing against pumpkin spice lattes,” he says. “Make no mistake, I’m still anti–pumpkin spice latte. I don’t want to diminish silly things. Not everything is a mountain. The molehills need to be taken care of too.” In 2017, Kimmel — one of EW’s Entertainers of the Year — scaled them all.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s the first thing that pops in your head when you try to wrap your head around the year you just had?
JIMMY KIMMEL: One word? It’s like a tsunami, actually. On one hand, you have friends pass away and you have a baby, but then the baby goes through this rollercoaster and you go through it with the baby. It’s definitely been the most stressful year of my life — and then we have Donald Trump adding to the overall level of nervousness. [Laughs.] So, it hasn’t been a great year, to be honest with you.
In terms of the work you put out there, though — the Oscars, the monologues — do you feel that it was one of the more rewarding years for you, professionally speaking?
Isn’t it funny that you mentioned the Oscars? I keep forgetting that I hosted the Oscars this year. So many things have happened, so many moments that I’ll never forget. That continually slips my mind. I’m hoping I don’t forget to show up for the next Oscars. [Laughs.]
That’d be nice.
It should have been a great year, I guess. The Oscars went well and with the baby and everything, it’s definitely been an interesting year. That’s probably the best way I can characterize it.
You’ve always enjoyed taking stands on silly issues like hating eCards, but this was also the year you came out swinging on some substantial issues, such as healthcare and gun control. During these monologues, you mentioned how you didn’t want to be doing this and that you’d rather be doing a comedy show. But it turned out to suit you very well. How apprehensive were you about wading into these complex, charged areas? And was it just a matter of feeling like common sense outweighed comedy at those times?
Well, the first thing you need to know about me is I don’t really think before I speak, so I don’t think I knew what I was getting into. Even just talking about a family health situation, I did not realize that I would be asked about that family health situation 10 times a day for the next… who knows, maybe the rest of my life. Thank god things are going well, but if they weren’t, it would be very, very difficult. Actually, I was surprised there was anyone that was mad at me when I talked about health care. To me, it’s such a no-brainer that I knew there’d be CEOs in towers somewhere glaring disapprovingly, but the idea that regular people would get upset with me — that did not occur to me. And that was dwarfed by the number of people who were angry about my position on automatic weapons, which is also mind-boggling to me…
I didn’t know that people would be sending letters to my house, wishing death upon my family. I would have hoped that they understand that whether they agree with me or not, it’s coming from a good place. I’m not making any money off of this, or at least I’m not making money opposing gun control. I’m not making money supporting healthcare. They’re just things that I think are important, and that doesn’t seem to be factored in as far as a lot of people go. But most of those people can’t spell the word you’re —they don’t know the difference between the e and the apostrophe — so I do take some comfort in that. If you’re looking for a common denominator, the people who are angry at me on gun control and healthcare don’t know how to spell the word you’re.
Isn’t it at least rewarding to hear from all of these people who thanked you for shining a light on these issues?
Yeah, it is. I mean, it just seems like simple common sense, but what it did do is, it gave me resolve. We went to church and a guy came up to me, and he said he’s a veteran and he thanked me so much for helping with the Affordable Care Act, because he said it’s kept him alive. So many people say things like that, that I have to believe that there are good things happening as a result of Obamacare, and it is scary to imagine what might happen if that treatment and those drugs aren’t available to them. Especially people with children who write me, whether it be on social media or write letter or people I just run into, and they tell me how important it is. I wish everyone could hear these stories and really be open and listen to them, because it isn’t a red-versus-blue thing. I think anytime you see an opinion poll on something like this, the vast majority of Americans like this idea. We’ve been poisoned in whatever way to believe that one way is the right way and the other way is the wrong way.
You knew that you’d probably alienate parts of your fan base that were skewing more right-wing. How did you seek to fine-tune the message so that it wouldn’t just be dismissed as partisan rhetoric?
Well, I think it started that way. When I spoke about healthcare, it was accepted by the left and right, and that’s what scared the right wing. That’s when they decided to go on the attack and create these stories about me taking talking points from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — which is nonsense — and being some kind of mouthpiece for the Democratic party, which I am not. My goal, when I spoke, was to convince the people who don’t agree with me and I think that that happened to a certain extent, and that’s what scared some of these Republican politicians and media outlets. And to this day they’re digging through my whole life, desperately trying to come up with something to discredit me.
Don’t screw up, Jimmy.
Luckily, all of my misbehavior has taken place on television.
Even if you lost some of those viewers, you’ve seen a ratings bump this year, too. What does your gut tell you about what actually happened?
Well, I don’t know. I had a certain fan base from The Man Show and Fox football that may have been surprised in a negative way by position as a… I think “leftard” is what they—
That’s the technical term, yes.
But this has always been me. I just didn’t feel like I needed to speak seriously about this thing in the past. I have, from time to time, spoken about serious things, but they weren’t necessarily controversial, and I think that’s the difference. And also the country is very different over the last 18 months, so I think that makes a big difference, too. I think people are just fighting all the time and it’s getting worse and worse and worse. You get branded one thing or the other, and if you’re branded one thing, the other side discounts everything you say, and that’s a terrible way to go about being a country.
What did you hear from ABC as you were doing these monologues? Was it a relatively hands-off situation?
We don’t really discuss content as far as the show goes. We’ve been on so long and the show is daily, and it moves so quickly that they pretty much leave me to my own devices. I also think they know I’m pretty set in my ways and even if they did want me to tone it down, telling me to tone it down would probably have the opposite effect. They also wanted me to shave my beard.
You’re holding hard on that, right?
I’m going to stick to this for a while.
The big turning point came earlier this year with your newborn son, Billy, having this massive health scare. [He had a second successful heart surgery earlier this month.] How challenging was it to take something so personal to you onto national television? What tipped the scales for you to talk?
Well, it really hit me in the elevator at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, seeing these low-income families with very sick children being wheeled around the hospital, and I was just looking at them and wondering how they’re able to continue to work. Do they have jobs that their employer is good enough to give them paid time off? It seemed unlikely to me. I just was thinking about how hard it was for us as a family with health insurance and a great support system and we all have jobs and we all have great and understanding employers who support us in times like this, and I was just looking at these people and wondering what their situation was, and then finding out that Children’s Hospital will take care of these kids regardless of whether their parents can pay for it or not. It just seems very unfair to put that burden exclusively on private donors. I spoke to the people who run Children’s Hospital, and they were very fearful that the Affordable Care Act would go by the wayside because they felt that it would really hurt the hospital and how many patients they’re able to treat.
I also felt like I had to say something because I’d been talking about the fact that my wife was pregnant for six months on the air and you can’t just come back and not say anything — at least I can’t. It’s not my way, and I just wouldn’t have been able to keep it bottled up, so I just decided to tell my story and to try to make something good come out of something that was very difficult, which is what I always try to do. But usually they are much simpler situations and mere annoyances, not life-changing emergencies.
Let’s talk about another difficult monologue, about the Las Vegas massacre. That one obviously hit home for you and you didn’t want to let this attack simply be dismissed with “thoughts and prayers.” What was the trickiest part of crafting what you were going to say, knowing how divisive an issue gun control can be?
Well, for me the hardest thing is keeping my anger in check because when somebody is born with holes in their heart, like my son was, you know, that’s nature. There’s nothing you can do about it. If it’s something that we can act on, we should at least be trying to fix this. And just imagining all of those children losing their parents and parents losing their children, and knowing that there’s no reason for it at all. Something can be done about it, we just choose not to. And also that this has happened over and over and over again, and every time it does, we get upset and then we come to grips with it and then we forget about it. Now, not all of us, of course; there’s some organizations doing great things out there, but that’s just how human beings work, and I just felt like I had to say something. Obviously these are opinions I’ve had for a long time, but when something happens in your hometown, it hits harder.