Funny thing, but new ABC late-night talk host Jimmy Kimmel and I were thinking the same thing.
Of all the people on Earth, why did ABC hire Mr. Kimmel from cable's raunchy The Man Show to compete with Letterman and Leno?
"It explained why they weren't doing well (in the ratings) to me," Mr. Kimmel said.
He may have been joking. It can be hard to tell with Mr. Kimmel, 35, the low-key sidekick from Win Ben Stein's Money and The Man Show.
But after touring his new Hollywood studio recently, and hearing his plans for today's Jimmy Kimmel Live premiere (approximately 12:05 a.m., Channel 9), I think Mr. Kimmel could have a shot - a small shot - at late-night success.
So does he.
"You really never know what could happen," he said, "so I just hope that it goes well enough that I'm able to get good at it."
Unlike Jay and Dave, Mr. Kimmel will be live at 12:05 a.m. weekdays. That could be a very distinctive difference on late-night TV.
"We want to be able to react to things as they happen," said executive producer Daniel Kellison, who wrote for David Letterman's show and produced Rosie O'Donnell's daytime talk show.
Mr. Kimmel won't try to match punch lines with Jay Leno, host of the top-rated Tonight Show. In fact, he doesn't plan on doing an opening monologue. (He doesn't have much respect for Mr. Leno, telling TV Guide that he was "going to do a comedy version of The Tonight Show.")
"Structurally, it will be more like Regis, I think, than any of the other shows," Mr. Kimmel said. "I'll come out and then talk, and there will be bands and ... comics."
And a guest host. Rapper Snoop Dogg will be his sidekick for the first week.
He knows he can't compete with Mr. Leno for guests, so he'll invite his old comedy pals - Bernie Mac, Adam Carolla, Janeane Garofalo, Norm MacDonald, Tracy Morgan - to the show.
"We know we're not going to win the battle of the big names, so we're just going to try to get funnier people," he said.
Like Mr. Letterman, he'll look for laughs in the neighborhood shops and color characters. Hollywood Boulevard is the West Coast equivalent of Times Square.
If this description sounds similar to Mr. Letterman's Late Show on CBS, that's no coincidence. The Brooklyn native grew up in Las Vegas watching Dave and dreaming of hosting his own late-night comedy show.
"I actually do my best not to emulate him because my reaction is to just copy him exactly," Mr. Kimmel said.
Broadcasting from the heart of Hollywood should give the show energy. Disney renovated an old Masonic lodge next to the El Capitan Theater along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, across the street from Grauman's Theater. Outside the Kimmel theater are stars for Jane Russell, Rod Serling, Paul Anka and Harold Lloyd.
Some nights those famous names could be covered by people attending free rock concerts on Hollywood Boulevard during Kimmel Live. While Jay and Dave bury musical guests in the closing minutes of their shows, Kimmel Live will showcase rock bands. And he promises to speak to them.
"We know our audience likes music," Mr. Kellison said. "It's been the shortcoming of other shows, and I think we'll put a lot of emphasis in this show (on music)."
Outside the studio's back door, ABC has built a huge performance stage facing a parking lot.
"We'll be able to do anything from Cirque du Soleil to motorcycle jumps, Evel Knievel-type stuff, to concerts," Mr. Kellison said.
Knowing the Disney-owned network has poured millions into the program has given Mr. Kimmel confidence. Kimmel Live is a pet project of ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun, who admittedly doesn't have high expectations for the start-up.
"We don't have the expectation of this thing coming out of the box and becoming a ratings dynamo," Mr. Braun said at the TV critics' press tour earlier this month.
"I promise you, we will be third or fourth (in the time period)," Mr. Braun said.
Fourth behind Leno, Letterman and somebody else? Mr. Braun doesn't care.
"There are people we could have put on this network who would do a bigger (ratings) number. It's not about that," Mr. Braun said.
ABC wanted someone ... (to) grow a franchise that hopefully we could have for 20 (or) 25 years," Mr. Braun said.
Right on target audience
Mr. Braun described his new late-night star as "endearing and fun." While older viewers may say, "Jimmy Who?," ABC executives know Mr. Kimmel is popular with male viewers, particularly men 18-34 who watch The Man Show and the Fox NFL Sunday pregame show. (Mr. Kimmel said his real personality is closer to the Fox NFL contributor, not the adolescent sexist on The Man Show.)
"Hopefully, when people sample him, they're going to enjoy it and come back," Mr. Braun said. "But it's tough out there."
Tough? Late-night TV has been unkind to many big stars: Dennis Miller, Whoopi Goldberg, Chevy Chase, David Brenner, Magic Johnson, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Dick Cavett, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak, Rick Dees and Sinbad.
To name a few.
But the comic remains positive.
"(ABC ) spent a lot of money redoing this (theater), which makes me hopeful ... that I'm on for a little while," Mr. Kimmel said.
Then again, Chevy Chase has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - and his late-night Fox show lasted only seven weeks in 1993.
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