Jimmy Kimmel talks hosting Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and taping his show from home
Who wants to watch as celebrities earn money for charity on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
If your final answer is "Me!" you're in luck. On Wednesday night, Jimmy Kimmel will settle into the host's heat seat on a celebrity edition of the beloved game show for an eight-episode 20th-anniversary revival run. The late-night host is no stranger to the show, having taken part as a contestant back in 2008, but now he has to keep a cool head when stars — some of whom are his friends— stare into his eyes wishing he'd give up the answers.
Ahead of the show's return, we caught up with Kimmel about hosting the quiz show (audience-less due to the coronavirus crisis, though Kimmel and the contestants shot the episodes prior to strict social distancing guidelines), working with Lady Gaga on the upcoming One World: Together at Home telecast, and keeping his kids occupied while he tries to shoot his late-night show from home.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When they asked you to come on as host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, was your final answer an immediate yes?
JIMMY KIMMEL: I actually know how I feel about something one way or the other immediately. It doesn't take a lot of thinking for me to make a decision. So I was on board for it right away. I love the original show — obviously a lot of people did. I got to be a contestant on the original show, and I like game shows in general. I started as a game show host, on a show called Win Ben Stein's Money. I think that a great game show is rare. You have the great bones of a game show, and so many people tried to come up with a new one. The truth is it's almost like a board game: The classics are usually the classics. And for me, being able to sit there and read questions and crack jokes is a great opportunity. The tension lends itself to humor. Now, not having an audience changed that significantly, but it is fun to be sitting across from a person who is completely absorbed and the audience is completely absorbed, and to be able to break that tension is a great environment for jokes.
Is it nerve-racking for you too, though? Sitting there under the lights, with the music?
I do get a little nervous for them, but what really makes me nervous is not revealing what I know. Sometimes they want to talk things through, and sometimes I do know the answer. I'm not given the answers, but sometimes I know. There was one particular cooking question that one of the contestants struggled with and I knew the answer, and he didn't get it and I was just doing my best not to ruin the game. I know a lot of these people, so they're looking deep into my eyes to read what I'm thinking, and I do want to keep it fair even though it's for charity.
There's also an interactive component this time, right? So people can play along at home?
Yeah, there's an app, and depending upon how much the contestant wins — if a contestant wins $125,000 that night, you can play on your own for a chance to win $125,000, or if it's $250,000, the amount goes up — after the show, people can play on their own by themselves.
Very cool. Is there also an Ask the Host lifeline this time around, since there's no studio audience to turn to?
Yeah, that's for real. That's something that they added into the show and it was an option for the players, but then we got rid of Ask the Audience because we had no audience to ask, so it became a much more present danger to me. That would be the worst, for me to steer somebody the wrong way. Even though everyone knows intellectually that you aren't given the answers to the questions, not everybody believes that 100 percent — even though it is true. So you know, I just had to be very clear when I think I know the answer and when I'm not sure if I have the answer correct. I think it might be more stressful to be advising someone, because if you screw yourself up, there's nobody to be mad at.
Exactly! That's why I would hate for someone to put me down as their Phone a Friend.
Phone a Friend is the most terrifying 30 seconds of television. Half of the time people don't even get to their answer. They start thinking about it and then they're cut off before they give their answer. Phone a Friend sometimes isn't the best lifeline.
Agreed. Did you go back and watch old episodes with Regis Philbin before you got in the chair for some tips?
I actually didn't do that. I remember the show well and I'd seen a clip of the episode which I was the guest on — they released that for publicity purposes, I guess — but no, I didn't go back and look at it. I figured it would be better not to imitate. It's hard enough not to imitate when you have phrases like "Is that your final answer?" or "Do you want to go 50/50?" So I decided to go into it somewhat fresh.
Do you feel like you started any catchphrases of your own? Maybe even unwittingly?
Well, there's one thing that's not a catchphrase, but when Regis hosted the show, his ties became a national sensation — those monochromatic ties. I went a slightly different way: I wore the same suit and tie for every single day. So there will be no a fashion sensation unless people decide to just start wearing black suits with medium black ties. I don't know that I can take credit for that.
Let's talk about some of the celebrities you have as contestants: There's Jane Fonda, Anderson Cooper, Eric Stonestreet, Anthony Anderson, Catherine O’Hara, Will Forte. Did anyone really surprise you with their vast general knowledge, or maybe how cool they stayed under pressure?
The one thing that really surprised me was Anderson Cooper — how much he knows about important news and how little he knows about unimportant news. Anderson Cooper did not know that the Bachelor is a pilot, which really made me envious of him. He just did not take any of that in. Things like geography, he has no problem, but what is Peter doing after the show? He doesn't know.
Was anyone particularly nervous?
Everyone was nervous except for Jane Fonda. She just rattled through the questions. She oftentimes did not even pause to ask her expert for advice.
We also got to see your kids give it a shot on your from-home show the other night.
Yeah! I've been doing this with them at breakfast just for fun. I make up questions and let them answer. The money keeps getting higher and higher and higher, and they really love it. It's funny because they clammed up a little on camera, but when we do it at the breakfast table they go crazy.
It's also a great take on homeschooling!
Yeah, they're learning to be game show contestants. One day, I hope they are Jeopardy champions.
Also have to ask you about the One World: Together at Home telecast that's going to span the major networks and features so many amazing artists — Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, Lizzo, Billie Eilish, to name a few. How excited are you to be part of that and host alongside Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert?
Yeah, I think it's a great idea. I love the idea that it's not a telethon so it's just there to entertain people, and I think it will be fun to do it with Jimmy and Stephen. We haven't exactly figured out what we're going to do yet. It's obviously somewhat challenging being in different locations. I wish we could just do this together in the same room, but obviously that can't happen because both of those guys are pretty heavily diseased. I don't know what diseases they have, but I just know I don't want any part of it. But it should be amazing. I don't know how they're going to squeeze all those great artists into two hours, and I would imagine the list is ever-growing as the show grows.
Have you figured out a way to make yourself the head host?
I really went over a lot of options: alphabetical order, that didn't come out well. I'm not the oldest. I think I've been on the longest? But I'm not even entirely sure of that, if you count The Colbert Report. So I think any way you slice it, I come out last.
Ah, too bad. How has it been doing your show from home these past few weeks? Is there something surprising that you didn't even think you'd miss about being in the studio but now do?
The thing that I miss the most is that work is work and home is home. That division is nice. It is weird to be writing a monologue or jokes or whatever or trying to have a meeting and also it's time for the kids to eat dinner. The kids could not care less about the show or any work that my wife and I have to do, so they are constantly on top of us. So what I miss most is being alone in a room — being alone has made me miss being alone more than anything.
Is there one thing you're actually kind of enjoying about working from home, though?
Well, the commute is nice. I mean, it is nice to be able to be here with the kids. It's just hard. And at least it's a little bit different. One of the challenges you face when you do a show like this is the grind, and at least I guess we've mixed it up. The good news is when we eventually go back to work, I think everybody's going to be pretty happy to see each other and grateful. It's easy to get into that, "Uh, sh—, it's Monday"-type mode, so I think that will be the silver lining.
I also think you're going to end up being really good a video-calling. Like, you'll be a pro at not talking over people in these kinds of situations.
I think you're right. I'm still amazed when I watch cable news. I watch Jake Tapper and I now know how much harder it is to interview someone electronically. There's no timing; you have to sit there and wait for them to finish their sentence and then begin your sentence. That's not exactly great when you're trying to be funny. That really is the hardest part of it, the teleconference. It's not being able to sit next to a person and talk over each other sometimes.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire premieres Wednesday, April 8, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire