Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Q&A with Jimmy Kimmel: The Early Days--and How KROQ Propelled His Career


If you listened to KROQ's "Kevin and Bean Show" in the 1990s, you still remember Jimmy Kimmel as "Jimmy the Sports Guy," as well as all of the bits and voices he did for the show (like Snoop Dogg and Karl Malone, among others). It's been fascinating to watch Kimmel's rise, first moonlighting as the sidekick on Comedy Central's "Win Ben Stein's Money" to "The Man Show," co-hosted by another guy who got his start on KROQ, Adam Carolla. Then came the biggest leap of them all: ABC late night talk show host. It's been 10 years since the Super Bowl Sunday in 2003 when Kimmel took to the stage, live from Hollywood, with, yes, Snoop Dogg as his guest co-host. A lot has changed on the show: The audience wasn't allowed booze after an audience member barfed on night one; the show is no longer live (although it's still taped later than most talk shows) and the guest co-hosts were dropped long ago.

Oh, and now, as of Tuesday, Kimmel airs at 11:35 p.m., smack dab opposite Jay Leno and David Letterman. Last year, before he hosted the Emmys, I sat down with Kimmel for our TV Guide Magazine cover story on the star. (You may remember, he dressed up as all five drama TV series nominees. Read the story: Man of the Year: Jimmy Kimmel on the Emmys, Oprah and Going Head-to-Head With Leno and Letterman.) During the interview we talked a bit about his radio career, including his stint at KROQ. That wasn't really TV Guide Magazine material, but it was still interesting. Below, he talks about how he jumped from market to market as his radio career hit some bumps; how he arrived for his first day at "Kevin & Bean" only to learn that the hosts weren't informed of his hire; how he ate a piece of year-old bacon at KROQ and lived to tell the tell; and his terrible first on-air TV experience in Seattle. Here's an excerpt.

TV Guide Magazine: Let’s go back to the beginning. Talk about your early radio career, and how you were fired at virtually every radio station up until you got to KROQ.

I was. I was fired in Phoenix and then Seattle. Then I moved back in with my parents in Phoenix, where they didn’t fire me but I got a job in Tampa-- in which I was fired. I went from Tampa to Palm Springs, I did not get fired in that job. I met Carson Daly, who was my intern there, and I left. I went to a radio station in Tucson, they fired me there, and then I came to KROQ in L.A. and I worked there for five years. It’s weird though because when you quit you’ve got to carry your own stuff out of the building. Instead of security putting it in a box and taking you downstairs.

TV Guide Magazine: Radio is a notoriously fickle business, but why were you constantly shown the door?

It was a combination of things. For one thing, most of the people I worked for weren’t particularly bright. And didn’t have much tolerance for creativity. I did a lot of weird stuff and I tried to entertain not only on the air but off the air as well, always pulling pranks on my bosses, silly things that I always assumed that they would take. Some of them did, some of them were great and some of them I keep in touch with to this day. But some of them just didn’t get it and were not interested in my nonsense. They just wanted to do their jobs and get out of there with no problems. When you do a morning show that’s at all interesting, problems are going to come up. People are going to complain, sponsors are going to get angry. This is the baggage that comes along with doing a controversial show. Most program directors and general managers will tell you they want that but they really don’t.


TV Guide Magazine: So how did you finally end up at KROQ and "The Kevin & Bean Show"?

Through Kevin Weatherly, whom I went to college with. When I went to Arizona State Kevin was at the radio station in Phoenix, KZZP. That was and probably still is the best radio station in the country. (Weatherly then moved to modern rock titan KROQ.) I was dying to work [at KROQ] and I kind of just repeatedly presented myself to him, trying to get myself hired and finally they did hire me. But when I did get to the station, the first day I showed up to work with Kevin and Bean, I walked in the door and they said, "They hired you?" I thought "Oh my God, this is a disaster." I moved my whole family out to California and these guys didn’t even know that I had been hired. But it turned out we got along really well and we worked together very well.

I have a lot of energy. You need that when you’re doing five and a half hours of radio every day. And I brought Adam Carolla to the show, Ralph Garman, a lot of people, some behind the scenes. I was obsessed with making the show as good as it can be. It really was something I thought about all day, all the time. Just constantly evaluating material for the show. And I did characters on the show, I did sports 6 times a morning. As far as writing goes, it taught me to write a lot of material very very quickly. That was something that helped prepare me for this job.

TV Guide Magazine: Bean told me to ask you about the time you ate a piece of year-old bacon in the office.

Bean is a vegetarian so he pulled the bacon off his Egg McMuffin. I nailed it to the wall and said, "In one year’s time I will eat this piece of bacon." And then as it got nearer I started dreading the fact that I was going to have to eat the bacon, and it became almost a part of the wall. I did eat the bacon, and it tasted like paint. But I survived.

TV Guide Magazine: Did you always see radio as a springboard? Was it your plan all along to do TV?

No, it wasn’t. I hosted local TV interstitials when I worked in Seattle. Kent Voss and I hosted a movie. And I watched it afterwards on TV, and I was terrible. I was so stiff, and so bad, and I evaluated myself, "Well, I’ll never be on TV, so I really need to make this radio thing work."

I was on the radio here in L.A. and only wound up on TV because every once in a while an agent or a producer would call and ask me to audition for something. Doing the same thing in Chicago or Philadelphia, none of this probably would have ever happened. I’d probably still be on the radio. More likely, I’d probably be unemployed again. But because I was in L.A., people were driving to work and hearing me and they asked me to audition for a variety of things. I started doing promos for the Fox network as “Jimmy the Fox Guy.” And then I auditioned for "Win Ben Stein's Money." And then I thought, "All right, maybe I’m not terrible. People seem to be laughing, this seems to be going OK."

TV Guide Magazine: Are there any YouTube videos of your Seattle TV appearance?

I don’t think so. I’ve never showed them on the show, but I do have them somewhere. I remember I’m wearing a thick cable-knit sweater and Sally Jessy Raphael glasses. It’s funny, it’s so stiff it’s not even interesting. It’s so bad it’s not even bad enough to be funny. Just kind of boring.

TV Guide Magazine: Didn’t CBS Radio try to get you to replace Howard Stern? (The gig eventually went to Adam Carolla on some stations, including Los Angeles' 97.1 KLSX-FM, and David Lee Roth in East Coast markets. Neither are still on the air.)

They inquired about it, but it was never serious. I worked with Adam on his show as producer, but I was never offered (the job). I was working for ABC at the time. I think that CBS Radio thought there was a good chance my talk show would be canceled, and they wanted to have me under contract in case that happened, then I could join Adam on the show that replaced Howard Stern, but that never happened.

TV Guide Magazine: How did ABC first come calling, and what was your reaction?

It was very strange and it’s hard to believe it happened like this, but my agent told me that Lloyd Braun, the president of ABC, wanted to have a meeting with me about doing a variety show on Thursday nights. I had no interest. I didn’t think a variety show would work. Even though, no matter what position I’ve ever been in my life, I’ve never knowingly agreed to do something bad -- something that I knew was going to be bad.

I said, "I’m not really interested in that," but my agent said, "You have to meet with this guy. He’s the president of the network. He wants to meet with you." I went to meet with him, and not for one moment did we ever discuss a variety show on Thursday night. The whole time we talked about late night television, and I thought we were just shooting the breeze really. And I grew up idolizing David Letterman, very interested in that stuff. We just talked about the state of late night television.

I learned this later, but he and Bob Iger had watched hours of tape of me hosting different shows, and they agreed they would offer me the job. They asked me to come in the next week. I walked in the office and they said, "We’d like you to host our late night show on ABC." I was thoroughly confused. I didn’t know what was happening, I didn’t expect it, I didn’t know they were looking to put a show on ABC. The last I heard, Letterman had said "no" and that was that.

Of course I said yes, and I went home in shock. Adam Carolla’s wife already knew I had been offered the job. She knew before I knew. She worked at ABC as an assistant there. The next day we were trying to pick a name for the show and hiring people. It was crazy. I signed my contract at a diner one hour before the network upfront. They brought my contract and wanted it signed before I went on stage in front of the advertisers. It just happened like that. I still look back on it and can’t believe how little thought and research went into that decision. It really was largely a hunch. They invested millions of dollars in a hunch.

TV Guide Magazine: We used to joke that Lloyd had a man crush on you.

I love Lloyd, I still do, and I’m still in contact with him. But I think for him, our show was a lot of fun, as opposed to the kind of slavish process you go through to put a scripted show on TV.

For me, of course it was exciting but I felt a lot of pressure. My best friend going up through my whole childhood, the best man at my wedding, Cleto, he lived across from me in Vegas. We loved Letterman and would watch Letterman every night together and talk about it, and he is a very talented musician, he’s touring with Paula Abdul and a serious sax player. I was like, "He has to be my band leader, if I’m going to have a band he absolutely has to be my band leader." But I was nervous that ABC would say no to it. They immediately said yes, they loved the idea, so Cleto and his dad are in the band. Then of course there are a lot of people from "The Man Show," my cousin Sal and a lot of our writers that I wanted to bring along, and I was able to bring pretty much everybody that I wanted to.

More Kimmel Q&A can be found here.

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