Is ABC's new late-night host a big mistake? Not necessarily, says Ty Burr, who defends the choice of ''The Man Show'''s Jimmy Kimmel as Bill Maher's replacement
Jimmy Kimmel
Credit: Jimmy Kimmel: Stephanie Allespach/

Is ABC’s new late-night host a big mistake?

ABC has finally found its late-night savior and it is…Jimmy Kimmel?

Surely they must be joking, goes the conventional wisdom. The round-faced cohost of Comedy Central’s ”The Man Show,” Mr. Beer-and-Jiggle himself, hosting an hour-long desk-and-guest talk show? And they’re canning Bill Maher’s ”Politically Incorrect” to do it? Why, this guy makes Maher look like…well, actually, he makes Maher look like Ted Koppel.

To my way of thinking, it’s a hell of a smart move — provided that Kimmel, who’s a lot smarter than he lets on, is ready for (post)prime-time and that he doesn’t chase away his coveted demo of younger viewers by getting all serious.

There are warning signs, though: In a recent profile in the New York Observer, Kimmel made pains to distance himself from the whooping, hollering knuckleheads in his audience. ”I don’t like most of them, to be honest,” Kimmel said. ”I like a certain segment of them, but I don’t like them as a group … I definitely like sports and beer-drinking and all that, but I think I’m a little more well-rounded … I would never be in a fraternity.”

Is this guy nuts? With statements like this, he’s pouring warm beer on the heads of his core audience (few of whom read the Observer, admittedly). Clearly, Kimmel’s trying to spin himself into the mainstream as befits his new gig, but he should know that ABC doesn’t really care about HIM. They care about the people who WATCH him.

Maybe it makes sense, though. Kimmel has 24 more ”Man Show”s to shoot, meaning he’ll still be on the air waxing bibulous with cohost Adam Corolla when the ABC talkfest premieres on January 27, 2003. And he’ll keep his shock-jock rep intact by coproducing and providing voices for Comedy Central’s ”Crank Yankers,” in which puppets re-enact prank phone calls. That show premieres June 2 and should put all those viewers who miss the clever, witty stylings of the Jerky Boys in Kimmel’s corner.

And it’s a mighty interesting dance that the comedian and former radio jockey is doing. He’s not another Conan O’Brien — a total unknown who has to prove himself in the face of no expectations whatsoever. Kimmel comes with baggage, and he has to decide how much of it to keep. He certainly won over advertisers when he took the stage at ABC’s May 14 presentation of their fall slate in New York, cracking, ”I do plan on getting Barbara Walters on a trampoline.” He also begged the audience ”not to tell Ted Koppel.”

Koppel already knows — and he’s pretty persnickety about it. In fact, Mr. Hard News joked at the same presentation that Yasser Arafat ”told me he was sending one of his kids over here to do a show after ‘Nightline’ and I thought he was pulling my leg.” Meow!

Clearly, Koppel is still smarting over the inept, public way in which ABC tried to woo David Letterman for a show that would replace the ”irrelevant” ”Nightline.” Other people on the edges of this shuffle have burnt fingers too: One of Bill Maher’s producers sniped that ABC has ”no clue how to nurture a late-night franchise, and I wish Jimmy Kimmel the best of luck — he’s going to need it.”

Surprisingly, the one person who’s utterly sanguine about the turn of affairs is Bill Maher himself. He knows that ABC lost faith in him when advertisers fled his show after his ”unpatriotic” post-9/11 comments (check the name of the show, folks), and he seems glad to be leaving an environment where dissent is seen as a crippling, embarrassing liability. ”If it came down to a choice between losing my job and losing my soul,” Maher said recently, ”I’m glad I lost my job.”

Are you listening, Jimmy?

Politically Incorrect
  • TV Show