How Jimmy Kimmel Ended Up an Unlikely Hero—and a Magnet for Controversy

Late-night host has been praised and pilloried for opening up about his views on health care, gun control & the current state of politics

By Natalie Finn Oct 03, 2017 9:18 PMTags
Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Kimmel LiveRandy Holmes/ABC

Remember when the most controversial thing about Jimmy Kimmel was that he sometimes made kids think that their Halloween candy had been eaten already?

And for some, that's still the only debate people have about him, whether that prank is more mean-spirited than funny. But for others...

The man who brought you "The Week in Unnecessary Censorship" and celebs reading mean tweets (not to mention The Man Show back in the day) has gone off the rails with his concern for his fellow humans.

It didn't entirely all start when, in May, Kimmel impassionedly expressed support for affordable health care for all, inspired by his newborn son needing emergency surgery for a heart defect when he was just hours out of the womb—a confluence of circumstances that would have saddled him for life with what in insurance parlance is known as a "preexisting condition." 

Though that's when the backlash began.

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Rather, Kimmel has always been a surprisingly-at-first but then reliably sensitive soul, first memorably shedding tears on Jimmy Kimmel Live when his Uncle Frank died back in 2011. He even choked up talking about Cecil the Lion in 2015.

And he's not the only late-night host who's had to start far too many shows by acknowledging that a terrorist attack had occurred somewhere in the world earlier that day, or that they were taping in the wake of a mass shooting in the U.S. And we know he's not the only late-night host who's grown increasingly political over the last 10 months.

But he is the one most likely to shed real, human tears on TV—and as someone who never considered himself a political comedian before, his forays into public policy debate have drawn more scrutiny than Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers' reliably barbed nightly takes on the Trump administration.

Seemingly, watching a guy get emotional on TV talking about his baby boy and saying that there should be no haves and have-nots in society when it comes to quality medical care wouldn't be a lightning rod for controversy. One would think that's a sentiment everyone, no matter who you voted for, could get on board with.

Au contraire. 

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Buoyed by an op-ed in the right-wing Washington Times titled, "Shut up, Jimmy Kimmel, you elitist creep," so came the backlash over Kimmel—an admittedly rich Hollywood celebrity (he copped to being wealthy in his monologue) who probably votes all lefty 'n' stuff—weighing in on the health care debate that has dominated the conversation (or at least the serious policy talk) coming out of Washington, D.C., since President Donald Trump's inauguration in January.

Twitter was split right down the aisle, with a veritable standing ovation for Kimmel coming from one side and people more in agreement with the aforementioned column coming down hard on the comedian's altruistic ways on the other. It ultimately became hard to tell, the invective was so diseased, whether critics really did disagree with the message or just the messenger, the "Hollywood elite" having gotten a worse rap than usual in certain circles (such as those who conduct White House press briefings) in recent months.

Kimmel, though surprised that his comments proved so offensive to some, of course took the criticism in stride and held fast to his convictions that the government should be helping to make health care more affordable for everyone.

Republican lawmakers have been thwarted at least three times this year in their attempts to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. The most recent misfire was last month, when the Senate ended up not voting on the Graham-Cassidy bill—and Kimmel couldn't help but find himself back in the fray again, because while the pundits may have dismissed him as just "some celebrity who should keep his mouth shut," Rep. Bill Cassidy had seen an opportunity. In fact, the Republican congressman from Louisiana—after talking to Kimmel on his show—had gone around saying he wouldn't support any new health care legislation unless it passed the "Jimmy Kimmel test" (meaning it had to protect people with pre-existing conditions from being priced out of, or being otherwise screwed by, the insurance market).

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But when the particulars of the Graham-Cassidy bill became public, Kimmel quickly zeroed in on the pre-existing condition portion of the program—namely that the bill, co-authored by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, left pre-existing conditions up to the states, meaning state leaders could let the insurance companies resort back to high-risk pools or otherwise stand idly by while prices are jacked up for people with any one of countless ailments considered a pre-existing condition.

And since some state leaders refused to expand Medicaid and adopt other portions of Obamacare, there's reason to believe that those leaders might not be so keen to weigh in on the private insurance companies' pricing plans.


We won't say Jimmy Kimmel had a field day calling out Cassidy as a liar, exposing the rampant hypocrisy (and more lies) coming out of Washington and reiterating his bewilderment over why affordable health care (he's not even going so far as to tout universal, single-payer health care) isn't something that everyone wants. As Kimmel himself has said, he doesn't want to be the guy who has to deliver this message.

"Health care is complicated," he said on Jimmy Kimmel Live on Sept. 19. "It's boring. I don't want to talk about it. The details are confusing. And that's what these guys are relying on. They're counting on you to be so overwhelmed with all the information, you just trust them to take care of you. But they're not taking care of you. They're taking care of the people who give them money. Like insurance companies."

"By the way," he also said. "Before you post a nasty Facebook message saying I'm politicizing my son's health problems, I want you to know: I am politicizing my son's health problems."   

So let's say Jimmy Kimmel's fans—and those who've become more enamored of the veteran entertainer in recent months thanks to his stance on health care and his like-minded political views—were the ones having a field day watching him rip Congress, particularly Cassidy, a new one.

"There's a new Jimmy Kimmel test for you," he informed the congressman, staring into the camera. "It's called the lie detector test. You're welcome to stop by the studio and take it anytime."

Until the bill was scrapped, Kimmel was regularly encouraging viewers to call their senators to register their concerns.

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Yet obviously Kimmel's side of the story, no matter how lucid it is to some, was laughed off by select conservative pundits as the ravings of some comedian who doesn't know what he's talking about—leave it to the experts, stay in your lane, shut up you richie-rich richster.

And the anti-Hollywood branch of Twitter that's been picking up steam, ever since Meryl Streep anti-endorsed the president during the Golden Globes and earned herself the national medal of mediocrity from Donald Trump, followed suit.

Once again, while some don't care for Kimmel's message, others are merely insistent upon not having celebrities (including athletes, as it turns out) get mixed up in politics. Particularly the celebrities who don't agree with them.

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That presumably includes the people who responded to Jimmy Fallon uncharacteristically opening his Aug. 14 show by addressing the white supremacists' march in Charlottesville, Va., and the violence that ensued with comments like, "well, I'm never watching this again!" The Tonight Show host, who took a lot of heat for his light-hearted sit-down with then-candidate Trump last year, has purposely stayed out of politics because he knows it doesn't mix with the silly-fun vibe he's created and is hoping to maintain.

And some viewers claimed they were changing the channel for good after one segment of serious talk.

Well, Fallon had to cold-open his show again last night, as did Stephen Colbert and James Corden. Seth Meyers and Conan O'Brien let the credits roll but then started with pointed acknowledgment of the Sunday night massacre in Las Vegas that left 59 people dead and more than 500 wounded when a man (a lone shooter, as far as authorities know) opened fire on an audience of thousands at a country music festival on the Vegas Strip. He checked into a 32nd-floor room at Mandalay Bay, broke a couple of windows and sprayed bullets into the crowd below while they were watching Jason Aldean perform.

All were in agreement: what happened was a senseless, disgusting act of violence. Fallon kept it brief, perhaps influenced by those who couldn't even handle him condemning white supremacists, but the others all agreed on another point too: Something has got to change in this country when it comes to gun laws.

"We've talked about gun violence before and I'm not sure what else I can say," Meyers said. "I also know nothing I say will make any difference at all. But to Congress I'd just like to say, are there no steps we can take as a nation to prevent gun violence? Or, is this just how it is and how it's going to continue to be? Because when you say, which you always say, 'now is not the time to talk about it,' what you really mean is, 'there is never a time to talk about it.'

"And it would be so much more honest," the Late Night host continued, "if you would just admit that your plan is to never talk about it and never take any action."

But even Seth Meyers, who cut his teeth doing "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live, has always had more of a political bent about him, and his "A Closer Look" segments have been a standout feature on his show for viewers who like their warm milk laced with a pointed message.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas is Jimmy Kimmel's hometown.

To the many—Jimmy Kimmel Live  hit a three-month high in September amid the latest health care back and forth—who now consider his take on the day's most pressing issues to be must-see TV, his reaction to the horror in Vegas was appointment viewing. (And thanks to the Internet, West Coast viewers are usually treated to a pre-bedtime clip, or at least get to see the wave of adulation crest on Twitter, before the show even airs.)

There was no way that Kimmel—who zinged Washington in 2013 when he brutally poked fun at the gun lobby in an ad for "Americans Against Context"—was going to hold back.

"Here we are again in the aftermath of another terrible, inexplicable, shocking and painful tragedy," he said emotionally, the tears welled in his eyes before he even started talking. "This time in Las Vegas, which happens to be my home town...As you know, at least 59 people are dead, hundreds of people were wounded in what they say was the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, coming about a year and a half after the previous deadliest shooting in modern American history, in Orlando, where 49 people lost their lives. Of course, we pray for the victims and for their families and friends, and we wonder why—even though there's probably no way to ever know why a human being would do something like this to other human beings who were at a concert having fun, listening to music."

In a nearly 10-minute monologue, he talked about the senseless crime and the victims, and about the first responders, the accidental heroes who helped others get out of harms way and who tried to do what they could for the wounded on the spot, and the hundreds of people, everyday residents of Vegas, who lined up to donate blood on Monday morning.

He also talked about guns. At one point he put up photos of the 56 U.S. senators who, days after the Orlando shooting, voted against a bill that would have closed loopholes that allow people buying guns privately, online or at gun shows to avoid background checks. He cracked some jokes—"Second Amendment, I guess our forefathers wanted us to have AK-47s, is the argument"—but he was deadly serious.

"It feels like someone has opened a window into hell," Kimmel observed, his voice catching. "And what I'm talking about tonight isn't about gun control. It's about common sense."

There are plenty of folks who don't like that sort of talk, plenty of people on Twitter chalking it up to some left-wing elitist not knowing what he's talking about again. 

But while late-night talk show hosts like Stephen Colbert (and, it goes without saying, Trevor Noah over at The Daily Show and his predecessor, Jon Stewart) have their fans expressly because they focus on political humor, so too does Jimmy Kimmel have his fans, old and new, for—wealth and fame aside—being most like themselves.

Because like Jimmy Kimmel, no one tuning in for late-night jokes really wants to talk about this stuff either. It's complicated and boring, and often infuriating and, in weeks like these, utterly depressing.

But we have to.