“I feel like what I do best is take a strong stand against stupid things, like, for instance, pumpkin-spice pizza.”— Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel quoted in David Marchese, “In Conversation: Jimmy Kimmel,” New York Magazine, Oct. 30-Nov. 12, 2017
In a recent cover story for New York Magazine, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel—who turned 50 last week—reflected frankly on this unusual point in his life and in that of the country.
I am ambivalent about comedians wading into politics. To the extent that they do it at all, I prefer that politics be one of many subjects tackled and that comics be bipartisan in their targets, whether in a joshing (Will Rogers) or savage (Mark Twain) spirit. Virtue does not wholly reside in one party any more than it does in one religion, and ignoring one group of politicos automatically eliminates incredibly inviting satiric fodder.
But these times are like none that I have ever witnessed—nor, in a lifetime devoted to reading history, in any prior American era that I know of. It’s not just that the human instincts for power, greed and lust that have always posed obstacles for candidates and officeholders, nor even the smooth spin cycles that have made the last generation of politicians often unworthy of being taken at their word.
No, it is the daily meanness and mendacity and the shredded constitutional protections coming from the Oval Office that make this moment unprecedented in our history. And the GOP, in firm control of every branch of the U.S. government, yet fearful of losing congressional seats, has now gone all in with a President unchastened by political experience and swollen by the powers of his office.
In this era, it’s no longer poets who are, in Shelley’s phrase, the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” It’s the comedians who, by virtue of their large audiences, can speak truth to power, the electronic era’s counterpart to King Lear’s fool.
nd so, we have Jimmy Kimmel, previously a largely apolitical late-night host, entering the health-care debate after his baby son needed open-heart surgery to repair a congenital defect. His remarks that night explaining his recent absence--“No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life”—might not have been funny, but they were appropriate and genuine.
As a parent, Kimmel has also felt compelled to weigh in on gun control. (Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, he noted bitingly in his post-Vegas-shooting monologue, “sent their thoughts and their prayers today, which is good. They should be praying. They should be praying for God to forgive them for letting the gun lobby run this country.”)
But looming over all has been the specter of President Trump.
“I never imagined he [Trump] would actually be elected,” Kimmel said in his New York interview. “I remember joking about it: If you tried to think of the most extreme example of someone who would never be elected president, Trump was a name you’d throw in there. There was a time when I thought this country was much more likely to elect Maury [Povich] as president than Donald Trump. His election was shocking. It makes me question everything.”
Kimmel responded thoughtfully to a wide range of other topics in his sit-down, including the surprising durability of the late-night talk-show format.
But what remains most indelibly in the memory, after several pages, are his deep-bone concern about the direction of America under its new leadership (“I go to bed worried, and I wake up worried, and I honestly don’t know if things are going to be okay”) and his sense that he has crossed a comic Rubicon with his swerve away from his formerly apolitical style (“I think I’ve alienated more people than I’ve brought onboard. But what I thought was important was telling the truth.”)