Jimmy Kimmel inadvertently presided over the greatest mix-up in Oscar history. But getting the envelopes right when best picture is announced should be a relatively minor issue for a host who approaches this year’s ceremony with a vastly different profile than he possessed a year ago.
ABC’s late-night star hasn’t been a stranger to political humor, but he enjoyed a genial, even-handed persona. Donald Trump appeared as a guest during the campaign, in a playful May 2016 appearance that prompted the planned musical guests, The Weeknd and Belly, to back out of their bookings.
Still, if Kimmel looked like a safe hosting choice back in 2017 – defined by lighthearted touches like his faux feud with Matt Damon and having celebrities read mean Tweets – a different version of the comic steps into this year’s Oscar spotlight.
The past year has seen Kimmel aggressively enter the political fray, beginning with his advocacy regarding healthcare, after a harrowing personal experience with his newborn son Billy requiring open-heart surgery.
Kimmel turned that into a searing monologue last May, demanding that other children have the same access to healthcare as his child. He has since revisited the issue, blasting Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy after he stated that any healthcare legislation should pass the “Jimmy Kimmel test,” then crafted a bill that seemingly didn’t.
Cassidy “lied right to my face,” Kimmel said.
Kimmel took on another hot-button issue after the mass shooting in his home town, Las Vegas, in October. “Common sense says no good will ever come from allowing a person to have weapons that can take down 527 Americans at a concert,” Kimmel said, in a monologue that, like the healthcare material, quickly went viral. “Common sense says you don’t let those who suffer from mental illness buy guns.”
More recently, the host delivered another tearful commentary about the Parkland school shooting, chiding President Trump by saying that he had “literally done nothing” to address the problem.
The Oscars traditionally featured high-profile stars as host. ABC, however, secured greater creative input in negotiating an extension of its broadcast deal with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences through 2028, using the event as a platform to promote its late-night host.
The tradeoff is that Oscars put Kimmel under a microscope, simply by virtue of the size of the stage. Last year’s telecast notched 32.9 million viewers, per Nielsen – slightly down from 2016, but roughly 15 times the audience that “Jimmy Kimmel Live” reaches on an average night.
Kimmel might run third in late night – behind Jimmy Fallon and an invigorated Stephen Colbert – but his ratings have held steady, at times benefiting from his enhanced profile.
In this age of politically-minded latenight, he’s clearly an asset for ABC. While forays into politics risk alienating some viewers, they have also built admiration for the host among the portion of the audience that shares his views.
Kimmel’s outspokenness has already brought criticism. Writing on the conservative website Newsbusters, Kristine Marsh dismissed him as “a comedian who is aiding the left-wing media’s mission to mislead viewers.”
At this point, though, the partisan divide has been pretty well baked into the late-night numbers, as well as the award-show audience. Anyone who professes shock about President Trump being lampooned or (in the case of acceptance speeches) criticized either hasn’t been paying attention or likely isn’t much of a candidate to watch anyway.
Despite all the attention he’s received, Kimmel has sounded like a somewhat reluctant cultural warrior – drawn into these conversations by personal experience and passion, but not eager, say, like a Bill Maher, to make a career out of it.
As Kimmel told Vulture in October regarding late-night TV’s serious turn, “Maybe the days of fun are over, but I like to think that they aren’t.”