“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 healthcare 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 behind Crank Yankers and The 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 screw-up in Oscar history. Having to explain that Moonlight, not La 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 principles 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-ish that 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 and warm, 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 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 health and to advocate for health care. “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 grown-up). 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 bathing-free 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.”
Photographer: Martin Schoeller. Fashion editor: Rodney Munoz. Grooming: Stephanie Fowler. Set design: Jesse Nemeth. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 10.