Arguably the stealthiest comedian in show business, Jimmy Kimmel started in radio when he was 21 and spent a decade moving between major markets while racking up TV time as the co-host of Win Ben Stein's Money on Comedy Central and a regular guest on Fox NFL Sunday. In 1999, Kimmel and Adam Carolla teamed up for The Man Show, a love-it-or-hate-it outlet for Kimmel's sleepily sardonic regular-guy persona; in 2002, he and Carolla helped create Crank Yankers, a prank-call show featuring cute puppets and a voice cast that includes nearly every all-star of mainstream and alternative comedy. (It recently began a new season on MTV2.) In 2003, after ABC failed to lure Kimmel's boyhood idol David Letterman for its new talk show, Kimmel stepped in to host Jimmy Kimmel Live, which started weakly but has steadily grown in viewership over the last three years, as Kimmel's mix of pop-culture savvy and populist appeal has become increasingly well-honed. The most successful comic that hardly anyone raves about recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the talk-show grind, his career ambitions, and the new season of Crank Yankers.
The A.V. Club: Do the voice actors on Crank Yankers help conceive the gags?
Jimmy Kimmel: Sometimes. Mostly it's just as simple as, if we make the calls from Vegas, I pick up a Thrifty Nickel or Penny Saver at 7-Eleven on the way in, and go through and randomly make calls to some of the phone numbers. Some people are not great at making crank calls, and you want to get a few phone numbers in advance so our writers can come up with a bunch of different concepts. But sometimes people do come in with their own ideas, like something they did as a kid that they want to do again, or something they just thought of.
AVC: Do you pre-call these places with a straight call just to see what they're like before the prank?
JK: No, but we do try to call a week ahead to make sure somebody's going to be there to answer the phone. Sometimes it takes 10 calls on the same premise to get it to work. It usually works.
AVC: How often do you record a really good call that you then can't get permission to use?
JK: Every once in a while. But we're relentless. And the truth is that people are always kind of relieved when they find out it's a joke, because they get so, so mad. When they get really mad, we usually wait a couple of days and then contact them. But we don't take no for an answer very often.
AVC: Do you ever feel bad for them?
JK: No, I never do. Some people have remorse when they're on the show, but I'm heartless when it comes to a prank. And it's just a telephone call. There's only so much damage you can really do.
AVC: If nothing else, you've given them something to talk about for the next few days.
JK: Yeah! People's lives are boring. You can really fire things up if you call a candy store and tell them Rosie O'Donnell wants to take the whole place over and bathe in the food.
AVC: You've used your own kids on the show.
JK: Yeah, my kids are too big to do it now, because they sound like adults. But that was the greatest, because when you got a kid's voice on the other line, you can get away with almost anything. It's also interesting to see how cruel people will be to children.
AVC: Are your kids that foul-mouthed in real life?
JK: They're not particularly foul-mouthed. My definition of cursing is probably different from what other people's definitions are. But I wouldn't ask them to say anything I don't hear them say already.
AVC: You were reportedly interested in being an artist when you were younger.
JK: Yeah, I'd draw cartoons. Really just very detailed line drawings. Like the sorts of things that insane autistic people draw on the street. As a kid, I drew a picture of Lech Walesa addressing a thousand Polish workers, and I drew every head of every worker in the drawing. I don't have time for that sort of thing anymore. It was more of an obsession than anything else.
I still love comic books. When you have a kid, that's an excuse to keep reading all the comic books. I read R. Crumb comics and stuff like that, but I also read my son's Spider-Man and X-Men comics. All the stuff that usually winds up on the floor of my bathroom.
AVC: Would you describe yourself primarily as a comedian?
JK: I describe myself as a human being. [Laughs.] I guess I would. I started out on the radio, but the object always was to make people laugh, so that's probably what I am. But I'm not a stand-up comedian in the traditional way.
AVC: Have you ever wanted to do stand-up?
JK: I did when I was a kid. I thought about it. I just hate the repetition. To be a really great stand-up, you go to a club, try out your material, and keep the things that work. People do the same stuff over and over again. For me, radio was always more interesting, because every morning was different, and it was never the same material. Creatively speaking, that's a lot more fun.
AVC: Isn't there a lot more pressure in radio, though? You yourself bounced around from station to station.
JK: Well, they both have pressures. It's just different. I mean, there's a lot of pressure in moving to a city, doing a job, and trying not to get fired so you don't have to move your family again. But there's just as much pressure at an Indian casino when you're speaking into a bingo mic and there are 14 people in the audience who don't know who you are and you have to try to make them laugh.
AVC: Was your goal always to have your own TV talk show some day?
JK: Not really. I never had any particular goals. It seems kind of stupid to have them. I just always wanted to do something that was fun, that I'd get paid for. And for people to tell me how funny I was all the time. [Laughs.] I think that's kind of what everybody looks for. It's interesting, you talk to comics, and maybe things aren't going so well for them, and the idea of getting a regular job is the most horrifying idea that they could ever imagine. I've been very lucky that I haven't had to go back to doing that.
AVC: Has there been any sort of disillusionment in reaching this high level of the business? Is it different than you thought it was going to be?
JK: I don't think I've reached any pinnacle. I continue to trick myself into thinking, "Well, if this happens, then things will be great, and if I can get that going, then things will really be something." I continually tell myself that, and nothing ever really meets my expectations. I suspect it will just be more of the same as I get older and older.
ANC: You have more in mind for yourself than hosting your own show?
JK: It's not that I have more in mind, it's that once you kind of do what you set out to do… I don't know. I don't stop and go, "Oh wow, this is really great." I go, "Well, what else can I do?" You get a talk show, and then you want it to be number one, and you want to do other things on the side. You want everything to work out perfectly, and you want to keep moving and moving. At some point, I'm just going to go, "All right, that's that." And I'll never be seen again. I'll be in a room making my insane drawings and showing them to my neighbors and looking for their approval.
AVC: A lot of people who have hosted talk shows for a long time become reclusive later on. Johnny Carson and Jack Parr, for example. It's like they've spent too much time in the public eye and don't ever want to be seen again.
JK: Yeah, I'd be surprised if Jay Leno goes that route. I think he'll still be driving around in his steam-powered car with the top down, waving to people. But that's definitely my plan. I don't know if you just get burned out, or if you get so rich that you don't have to deal with anybody. Either way, I'll be happy to take it.
AVC: Do you feel like you're too busy? You're also doing a game show sometime soon.
JK: You know how that works? It seems like a tremendous amount of effort, but the truth is that with a game show, you can do two or three of them in a day. I shot seven shows in a week, and yeah, that week sucked, but it's not that bad. I have a daily grind that I endure, but I've always been a workaholic, and I adapt to it pretty well.
AVC: Do you have a show to do tonight?
JK: Actually, no, but I gotta go tape shit on the street, which is actually more of a pain in the ass than the show itself.
AVC: A lot of your friends, like your girlfriend Sarah Silverman, are in the alternative-comedy world, but your own comedy doesn't seem to lean that way. Why?
JK: Well, part of it is doing the talk show on ABC. But I don't believe in any of that bullshit. "Alternative." These are the people who happen to be my friends, and I definitely prefer the non-mainstream, but I also have a real appreciation for people who are able to make a lot of people laugh on a mass level. I think a lot of comics sneer at somebody who achieves broad success, like he's somehow sold out or got lucky, or whatever the explanation is. The truth is, most of them wish it was them.
AVC: Do you feel like your talk show is in a good groove where it can run for a while?
JK: I do. The fewer meetings the network asks for, the better things are going, I think. We're down to just the bare minimum of meetings with the ABC executives, so I think things are heading in the right direction. Though I'm sure I'll do something stupid and everybody will be mad and then there will be a lot of meetings again. Really, my main goal on a day-to-day basis is to avoid meetings at all costs.