Jimmy Kimmel celebrates 20 years as a late night host Kimmel says he thought he was going to stop; then he didn't.

Jimmy Kimmel celebrates 20 years as a (reluctant) late night TV institution

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Hard to believe, but the late-night show "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" turns 20 years old today. It's being celebrated in a special primetime episode on ABC. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans visited Kimmel in Los Angeles to learn how he's lasted so long.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Host with the most.


DEGGANS: How's it going, man?


DEGGANS: Walk into Jimmy Kimmel's cluttered office, and you'll see a space filled with a showbiz nerd's knickknacks, like a portrait of famed comic Don Rickles and framed graphics from David Letterman's show "Late Night." So it's not surprising that a guy who grew up worshipping late-night TV legends resists the idea he's an institution himself, the longest tenured late-night TV host currently on the air.

KIMMEL: The institution I admired was David Letterman. So, yes, I will never compare myself favorably to Dave. It is interesting when people tell me, yeah, I've been watching since I was 8 (laughter).


LOU WILSON: From Hollywood, it's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"

DEGGANS: Earlier in the day, Kimmel deftly hosted an episode featuring jokes about a recent loss by quarterback Tom Brady.


KIMMEL: Brady was reportedly so upset after the game, he ate a carb - just one, but...


DEGGANS: But Kimmel almost quit this job late last year, hesitating before agreeing to stay on as host and executive producer for three more years.

KIMMEL: I was almost sure I was going to stop. I was nearly positive because part of it is just OCD. Just 20 years sounds right.

DEGGANS: What drove him to nearly quit was the grind. Working with writers and producers to create a nightly show filled with guest interviews, pre-taped comedy bits and a long opening monologue requires lots of material.

KIMMEL: It's relentless. If you want to do a good job, you have to work all the time. You have to - you can't even watch television without thinking, is there something here that I can use on my show, because great ideas are hard to come by.

DEGGANS: Kimmel is surrounded by friends and family. His wife, Molly McNearney, is co-head writer and an executive producer. His late uncle, Frank Potenza, a cousin and an aunt have appeared on camera. And there's his sidekick, a chubby, loveable teddy bear of a guy named Guillermo Rodriguez. Rodriguez was an actual security guard at the show's studio who started doing comedy bits on air in 2004, like offering John Oliver a shot of tequila backstage at the "Emmy Awards."


GUILLERMO RODRIGUEZ: Would you like a spot of tea?

JOHN OLIVER: Sorry, I just (laughter)...

RODRIGUEZ: How do you say?

OLIVER: Yeah. This is English breakfast tequila, right?



OLIVER: Cheers.

DEGGANS: But does it bother Rodriguez that the show often mines humor from his weight, heavy accent and drinking habits?

RODRIGUEZ: It's comedy, so I laugh my way all the way to the bank. I did so many jobs. I did construction. I did gardening. I did painting. So this job - they make fun of me. I make fun of them. I'm having fun. They're having fun. And they pay me.

DEGGANS: Kimmel says keeping this family of collaborators employed was another reason he decided to keep doing the job.

KIMMEL: A lot of these people I won't see much if I'm - if I stop doing the show, when I stop doing the show. And it all added up to stay.

DEGGANS: Even Kimmel wasn't expecting a 20-year tenure when "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" debuted on January 26, 2003, preceded by this announcement from "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel.


TED KOPPEL: There will be no special post-Super Bowl edition of "Nightline" tonight so that ABC can bring you the following piece of garbage.

KIMMEL: Welcome to "Enjoy It While It Lasts," my new talk show.


KIMMEL: It's on. I mean, this is it. This is the real thing right here.

DEGGANS: Early on, the show struggled for guests and relevance as Kimmel developed a snarky everyman style of comedy influenced by his early days as a radio DJ, including elaborate pranks and a long-running fake rivalry with movie star Matt Damon. Then, in April 2017, his son Billy was born with heart problems, and Kimmel teared up while talking about a proposal from then-President Donald Trump to cut billions from the National Institutes of Health.


KIMMEL: If your baby is going to die and it doesn't have to, it shouldn't matter how much money you make. I think that's something that - whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right? I mean, we do.


DEGGANS: Later that year, after he offered a similarly emotional take on gun control following a mass shooting in his Las Vegas hometown, perceptions about Kimmel changed. He was doing what his idols like Letterman had done before him - helping people make sense of a confusing world.

KIMMEL: A big part of what we do with this job is we put it in relatable terms. And I think it is always comforting to hear that somebody else is going through something that you're going through.

DEGGANS: Now he's preparing to host the Oscars for a third time, balancing work as a producer of other TV series with "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Even as big names like Trevor Noah and James Corden leave the late-night genre, Kimmel has faith it will stick around. He admits viewers today often watch parts of the shows online, which brings smaller ratings for the network. But he expects that'll be a problem mostly for whoever replaces him. And when will he eventually stop? As a sort of answer, Kimmel recalls a joke he used to warm up audiences that reliably got big laughs until it didn't.

KIMMEL: There was something about it that just stopped working. And, you know, you always have that fear like, when does it stop working? It's going to stop working eventually. I want to be ahead of that. I want to stop before it stops.

DEGGANS: Eric Deggans, NPR News.

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