NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- When Jimmy Kimmel started his late-night career at ABC, I was anything but impressed. I wrote in this space that the show was boorish -- and so was he.
Five years later, I have come around. I now watch Kimmel as often as, if not more than, the other guys -- Jay, Dave, Conan and Craig.
Why had I been so bitter? In late 2002, I included Kimmel in a list of media and entertainment people to watch in 2003, saying his show would "shake up the formulaic world of late-night television." However, its debut on Disney's ABC was a major disappointment.
Within a week of the show's first airing, I found Kimmel's sophomoric humor and gimmicks annoying. I wrote in a Feb. 2, 2003, column: "It's hard to remember the last time a ballyhooed show landed with such a thud. Kimmel looks just about as ill at ease on the air as I feel watching him at home."
Anyone who loved him on Comedy Central's "The Man Show" could remember how funny he could be. I knew he was capable of more than witless pranks.
Since that time, I don't know if Kimmel has gotten better or if I've gotten much smarter. Regardless, he has emerged as my favorite late-night television host.
Kimmel, 40, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who grew up in Las Vegas, is consistently engaging, humble, easy to watch -- and, best of all, usually very funny. None of the current crop of late-night, comedy-oriented hosts seem more at ease with his guests. Kimmel doesn't talk down to them. He doesn't need to make them his foils or the butt of his jokes to get laughs.
Sometimes I watch Letterman interviewing Hollywood's Flavor of the Month and I imagine him secretly rolling his eyes, wishing he was somewhere else and wondering how much traffic he'll face on his drive home.
Leno, for his part, hosts with a frozen smile on his face. I suspect someone could build a fire on his desk and he'd continue to nod his head by rote.
What's best about Kimmel is that he doesn't really interview anyone - the segments aren't that formal and stiff. I particularly enjoyed watching Kimmel interview Don Rickles not long ago. Any talk-show host who dares to take on Mr. Warmth is basically jumping into the deep end of the pool.
Jimmy + Ben
What Kimmel did to spice up his post-Oscar show showed wit and inspired madness.
It started when his girlfriend, actress/comedian Sarah Silverman, kidded in a joke music video -- which she screened on his show -- that she was having a fling with actor Matt Damon. Kimmel, in a mock-serious tone, decided to get even -- and hit them where it hurt.
Kimmel showed his own joke video about having a fling with ... Ben Affleck, Damon's fellow Bostonian, best friend, co-Oscar winner and the other mastermind behind the movie "Good Will Hunting."
The spoof morphed incongruously -- and hilariously -- into a parody of the group vocal for the self-important "We Are the World" video and concluded by pointing out the whole production was "Dedicated to the Memory of Norman Mailer."
Incidentally, the clips have been a viral hit on the Web. According to a quick search on YouTube, Silverman's video has gotten more than 8 million hits, while Kimmel's more recent clip garnered roughly 7 million.
It underscored that Kimmel will do almost anything to have fun. In this age of corporate dominance over every aspect of the entertainment world, it's admirable when someone still seems to have a bit of a guerrilla mentality.
Kimmel has good instincts as well. He was one of the first major broadcast stars to appear on HBO's "Entourage" before it became a show biz and pop culture must-see.
He is fearless, and that is the trait every comedian should boast.
Leno and Letterman get better ratings and more erudite reviews than Kimmel -- and probably always will, because journalists tend to stick to the tried-and-true. But Kimmel shouldn't despair. He still has Sarah --and now Ben, too -- on his side.
One more thing Kimmel has going for him: He presides over the liveliest late-night show of them all.
: Whose show do you prefer: Letterman's, Leno's, O'Brien's, Ferguson's or Kimmel's?
: Katie Couric, the anchor of "The CBS Evening News," can't catch a break. Because she didn't host a presidential debate this year, some smart-alecky media critics acted like she deserved goat's horns. She didn't do anything wrong and shouldn't have been singled out as if she had become a pariah. I've been critical of Couric but in this case, I have two words for her critics: Back off.
to on foreign correspondents:
"I read your column on foreign correspondents and found the comments on their ranks thinning fascinating, but not everyone is so pessimistic. I've heard a lot of young people still eager -- even desperate -- to report overseas, and many have forsaken more lucrative opportunities to do so. There are a number of young foreign correspondents in Baghdad... As depressed as we all are about the collapse of this industry, I think it's important to note that not everyone is so pessimistic and that at least some young people still think there is a future in the profession."
-- John Smith
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By Jon Friedman