When pol­i­tics gets per­sonal, late-night host Jimmy Kim­mel leans in with hon­esty and some­times even a tear

InStyle (USA) - - Directory - by ALEX BHATTACHARJI pho­tographed by MARTIN SCHOELLER styled by ROD­NEY MUNOZ

I“I’m not go­ing to shower for a week,” Jimmy Kim­mel says, scarcely con­tain­ing his de­light.

To­day is the be­gin­ning of a break for Jimmy Kim­mel Live!, and with his show on hia­tus, Kim­mel’s hy­giene will be as well. The late-night talk-show host is about to de­part for a seven-day fly-fish­ing trip on Mon­tana’s Flat­head River with Kevin, his son from his first mar­riage who works on Live!, and a crew of friends in­clud­ing celebrity chef Adam Perry Lang and Huey Lewis ( yes, that one).

“It was a 50th-birth­day gift from my wife,” says Kim­mel. “Ba­si­cally the gift of never show­er­ing.”

The fact that Kim­mel is al­ready turn­ing 51 in Novem­ber sug­gests he’s very much in need of a va­ca­tion. As we or­der brunch at a Los An­ge­les restau­rant, Kim­mel’s nor­mally heavy-lid­ded eyes are puffier than usual from fa­tigue. “There’s a fresh new batch of hor­rors ev­ery sin­gle day,” he says. “I don’t want to start the show with Don­ald Trump ev­ery night. Some­times I’m just giv­ing my­self a break, but I do think it’s a relief for peo­ple to be re­minded that life con­tin­ues de­spite his pres­ence.”

Kim­mel’s stances on health care, gun laws, and the pol­icy of fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion make him the rare, re­lat­able ad­vo­cate for the main­stream. Yet the ev­ery­man­nish fa­ther of four has be­come a de­spised tar­get of the right and a dis­ap­point­ment to the left, who crit­i­cize him for not cham­pi­oning ev­ery item on their agenda.

“There’s no one worse than lib­er­als,” Kim­mel sighs. “Con­ser­va­tives stick to­gether. Lib­er­als will eat their own. They’re like an aquar­ium full of pi­ra­nhas.”

Most of all, Kim­mel chafes at be­ing used by both sides. “I would love if one day my point of view could be taken as my point of view rather than some kind of po­lit­i­cal weapon,” he says. “Be­cause that’s not what I am, and that’s not ever what I in­tended.”

The turn­ing point came last year in May, when Kim­mel stood on­stage at his stu­dio and bared his soul to the au­di­ence and mil­lions of view­ers at home. “I have a story to tell,” he be­gan. “I’ll try not to get emo­tional, but it’s a scary story. Be­fore I get into it, I want you to know it has a happy end­ing.” Kim­mel tried to keep his com­po­sure as he de­scribed his new­born son Billy’s di­ag­no­sis of a rare and fre­quently fa­tal heart con­di­tion and the re­sult­ing emer­gency surgery. He de­voted the fi­nal three min­utes of his mono­logue to health-

care ad­vo­cacy. “I saw a lot of fam­i­lies [at the hospi­tal],” Kim­mel said through sobs. “No par­ent should ever have to de­cide if they can af­ford to save their child’s life. It just shouldn’t hap­pen. Not here,” he con­cluded.

“I’m an emo­tional per­son. I’m a crier,” says Kim­mel, ex­plain­ing the wa­ter­works that be­came his wa­ter­shed mo­ment. “Peo­ple don’t ex­pect it be­cause I talk about sports and I’m a lout. But I can’t get through a wed­ding toast with­out shed­ding tears.”

That largely un­scripted mono­logue was pro­found and per­sonal. It went vi­ral, res­onat­ing with the pub­lic and ce­ment­ing sup­port for the Af­ford­able Care Act. Se­na­tors sought his ap­proval, and his ad­vo­cacy helped de­feat a re­peal of Oba­macare. “I never in my life thought my name would be in­voked on the floor of Congress,” Kim­mel says. “Un­less I com­mit­ted some kind of hor­ri­ble crime.”

Kim­mel welled up again five months later, after the mass shoot­ing in his home­town of Las Ve­gas. He pleaded for ban­ning as­sault weapons, man­dat­ing uni­ver­sal back­ground checks, and clos­ing the gun-show loop­hole, and called out mem­bers of Congress for their in­volve­ment with the NRA.

Nearly a year on, Kim­mel’s ar­dor con­tin­ues. It’s rea­son­able to de­bate what it means that the guy be­hind­crank Yankers andthe Man Show is one of our lead­ing voices of moral out­rage, and yet Kim­mel’s role is in­dis­putable.

He has be­come the late-night host Amer­ica didn’t know it needed. Jimmy Fal­lon found him­self out­side the zeit­geist when he play­fully tou­sled Trump’s pom­padour. James Cor­den’s car­pool karaoke is pure es­capism. Stephen Col­bert and Seth Mey­ers have piv­oted to­ward po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary, reach­ing back to their an­chor­man al­ter egos. By con­trast, Kim­mel is em­pha­siz­ing his au­then­tic self, speak­ing his mind (and, more of­ten than not, his heart). Oprah her­self has dubbed him an Amer­i­can Hero.

Not so long ago, Kim­mel might have been re­mem­bered as the host who had to apol­o­gize for the big­gest screwup in Os­car his­tory. Hav­ing to ex­plain that­moon­light, notla La Land, won best pic­ture seems quaint com­pared with what Kim­mel tack­les on a nightly ba­sis now. “He’s be­come a real au­thor­ity fig­ure on es­sen­tial is­sues,” says his friend Lena Dun­ham. “And he’s done that be­cause he has ex­pe­ri­enced true pain. He won’t let peo­ple feel alone.”

“I’m not look­ing to be a leader,” Kim­mel says. “I’m com­pelled to speak, and peo­ple shouldn’t read any more into it than that. I hear peo­ple say­ing smart, mean­ing­ful things ev­ery day. I just hap­pen to have a tele­vi­sion show.

“A lot of peo­ple who used to like me don’t any­more, and I’m OK with that,” he con­tin­ues. He’s paid a price for his princi- ples in other ways, like los­ing a lu­cra­tive ad cam­paign he’d booked. “I’m sure there are cor­po­ra­tions that are think­ing, ‘Hands off,’ ” he says, “but there are more im­por­tant things.” Of course, Live! airs on ABC, which this year re­booted (and can­celed) Roseanne and spiked an episode of Black-ishthat tack­led race re­la­tions and Black Lives Mat­ter. When I ask Kim­mel if he gets crit­i­cism or edicts from the net­work brass, he shrugs. “Some­times a lit­tle bit,” he says. “For the most part, I never lis­ten. They can pres­sure me all they want, but I still say what I want to say. I still do what I want to do.”

In April he waged a Twit­ter bat­tle with Fox News fire­brand Sean Han­nity, though ul­ti­mately Kim­mel ended it with an apol­ogy. Win­ning the war of words but not the larger bat­tle proves he has no prob­lem be­ing the big­ger per­son. When he called Texas sen­a­tor Ted Cruz “a blob­fish” on air after cam­eras showed him at an NBA play­off game, the Repub­li­can law­maker chal­lenged him to a game of one on one. Kim­mel scored points for his on-court com­men­tary— on health care and im­mi­gra­tion— but Cruz ended up de­feat­ing Kim­mel 11 to 9, in what was dubbed the Blob­fish Bas­ket­ball Clas­sic.

“I made a cou­ple of mis­takes,” says Kim­mel of the game, which raised tens of thou­sands of dol­lars for Texas Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal and Gen­er­a­tion One. “There should have been some penalty for foul­ing, be­cause they added it up, and he fouled me, like, 70 times.”

Kim­mel had hoped to serve up an as­sist for Cruz’s Demo­cratic chal­lenger, Beto O’rourke. “I fig­ured it was worth a roll of the dice,” Kim­mel says. “If Cruz had vom­ited on the court, I think Beto would win the elec­tion hands down.”

When Kim­mel was given the chance to create a late-night show from scratch in 2003, he bor­rowed from his big­gest in­flu­ences (and now friends), Howard Stern and David Let­ter­man, but made Live! his own. His hu­mor was harder-edged and more ma­li­cious in the early days but evolved as Kim­mel got more com­fort­able. As Kim­mel puts it: “The num­ber-one most im­por­tant qual­ity for a talk-show host is lik­a­bil­ity. You can be funny, you can be smart, you can be a lot of dif­fer­ent things. But if they don’t like you, there’s not gonna be any kind of con­nec­tion.”

A few mo­ments later two col­lege-aged women stop by our ta­ble and ask whether Kim­mel would take a selfie with them. “I am so sorry,” one says. “My mother is the big­gest Jimmy Kim­mel fan.” “I’m not Jimmy Kim­mel. How dare you!” Ac­com­mo­dat­ing and­warm, Kim­mel obliges their re­quest for sev­eral more snapshots. “Tell your mother I said hello,” he says as they de­part. Sit­ting back down, he turns to me and says, “I bet her mom

“I’m com­pelled to speak, and peo­ple shouldn’t read any more into it than that. I hear peo­ple say­ing smart, mean­ing­ful things ev­ery day. I just hap­pen to have a tele­vi­sion show.”

wants to ask me about the in­di­vid­ual man­date.”

There was a time when Kim­mel would be bom­barded with ques­tions about Hol­ly­wood and celebri­ties. Now he gets asked about the Af­ford­able Care Act. “I’ve been to par­ties where all the talk is about health care the whole night,” Kim­mel says. “It’s some­thing I’m pas­sion­ate about, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean I want to talk about it for hours at a cock­tail party. But I know there’s a rea­son they share these sto­ries with me. It kinda keeps me go­ing, be­cause I do get a lot of neg­a­tiv­ity.”

The at­tacks on Kim­mel have been both pre­dictable and un­fore­seen. The worst of­fenses come from on­line trolls that reg­u­larly wish his son Billy harm. Kim­mel has re­ceived nu­mer­ous death threats through so­cial me­dia and, more omi­nously, let­ters sent to his home. “I don’t give it much en­ergy,” he says. “Some­times it’ll up­set my wife, but I

know those peo­ple are cow­ards.”

Kim­mel is mar­ried to Molly Mc­n­ear­ney, one of the head writ­ers of Live! and a driv­ing force be­hind the de­ci­sion to dis­cuss Billy’s healthand­toad­vo­cate forhealth­care. “Molly is very, very ac­tive,” says Kim­mel. “What you’ve seen on tele­vi­sion isn’t all of it. We are work­ing to the best of our abil­i­ties to help and ac­ti­vate peo­ple.”

The two be­gan dat­ing in 2009 and wed in 2013, but their dy­namic is ba­si­cally the same. “The only way it’s changed,” Kim­mel says, “is that Molly dis­re­gards my po­si­tion as the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and host of the show com­pletely now. There used to be some kind of brief ac­knowl­edge­ment of it.” Mc­n­ear­ney is an ac­com­plished comedic mind in her own right, with the moxie and hu­mor to match Kim­mel’s. “I’ve re­ally had three re­la­tion­ships,” Kim­mel ex­plains. “My first wife, Gina, who’s very funny. Next was Sarah Sil­ver­man, who’s very funny. And my wife. All the women in my fam­ily are funny, so I think that’s prob­a­bly the rea­son I’m at­tracted to funny women.”

In ad­di­tion to Billy, who’s now a lit­tle over a year old, Kim­mel and Mc­n­ear­ney have a daugh­ter, Jane, age 4 ( Kim­mel’s other two chil­dren, from his first mar­riage, are grownup). Each morn­ing Kim­mel wakes up by 7 and makes the kids break­fast—of­ten Jane’s fa­vorite, in­tri­cate pan­cakes painted with or­ganic food col­or­ing in the shapes of clowns, Peanuts char­ac­ters, or on the morn­ing he hosted the Os­cars, Light­ning Mcqueen from the Cars films. Then he gets to work, sift­ing through 40 pages of jokes, skits, and rou­tines his writ­ers, Mc­n­ear­ney among them, send for his pe­rusal. Un­less the staff are prank­ing him (which they do about once a year on his birth­day), Kim­mel has had a hand in ev­ery joke that’s aired since the show be­gan 15 years ago.

Al­though drained at the mo­ment—hence the ex­cite­ment over Mc­n­ear­ney’s bathingfree birth­day present—kim­mel is also clearly still en­gaged. How­ever, he con­fesses, he has given thought to the end of his run. “This will not be a sit­u­a­tion where any­one ever has to ask me to leave,” he says. “I will leave on my own terms when I feel the time is right. And that day will come.”

Kim­mel seems de­ter­mined to keep go­ing un­til he can re­turn to do­ing what he wanted. He’s tired of moral vic­to­ries and wars of words. “It’s like there are wild an­i­mals loose in the house, and they’re break­ing ev­ery­thing,” he says. “We just need to open all the win­dows and force them out.

“I hope and I trust that we will get past this,” he con­tin­ues, “and we’ll go back to the old way, where we could just talk about dumb things.” n

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