How Jimmy Kimmel Found His Political Voice

Jimmy Kimmel on night three of his health-care crusade this week. Photo: Jimmy Kimmel Live

“We haven’t seen this many groups come forward to come out against a bill since Cosby,” said Jimmy Kimmel on Jimmy Kimmel Live Thursday night.

It was one of dozens of barbed one-liners aimed at defeating Graham-Cassidy, a bill by senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy that aims to dismantle the Affordable Care Act of 2010, punt major health-care decisions to the states, let insurers refuse to cover preexisting conditions again, and potentially strip health care from as many as 32 million people. Countless pundits and talk-show hosts have been warning viewers about the ramifications of the hastily written bill, which is opposed by every reputable health-care group in the country. But only Kimmel managed to communicate why that was, to millions of people, in language everybody could understand.

This week was the high-water mark of Kimmel’s earnest, often devastating series of segments on the health-care crisis, which kicked off this past spring after the birth of his son, Billy. A series of operations prevented the boy from dying of heart complications; in the aftermath, Kimmel realized that the GOP’s attempts to undo the Affordable Care Act would make that level of care unreachable for anyone but people like him.

A feud began between the host and Cassidy a week after that, during an interview in which Kimmel and the senator bantered vaguely about legislation that would pass “the Jimmy Kimmel test” to ensure good coverage for every American, regardless of income. Cassidy dined out on the phrase “the Jimmy Kimmel test” in a subsequent round of interviews. Tuesday night, after Kimmel learned what the GOP’s latest “repeal and replace” legislation actually contained, he said, “The senator lied to my face,” proposed a “new Jimmy Kimmel test … a lie-detector test,” put the Senate switchboard number onscreen, and urged viewers to oppose this “scam” of a bill and “tell them that it doesn’t pass your test.” Later, he tore into his most prominent media critics, including Fox and Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade, who called him an “elitist.” Kimmel called Kilmeade a “phony creep” who “kisses my ass like a little boy meeting Batman” and promised to “pound” him. The most recent broadcast, Kimmel’s most confident to date, opened with a broadside against GOP partisans who had dismissed him as a mere entertainer and demanded that he stay in his lane; it was capped with a clip of Donald Trump on Celebrity Apprentice, firing Meatloaf.

Kimmel’s cohorts in late-night talk and news-driven comedy — including John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, and Stephen Colbert — have made their own assessments of the repeal effort night after night, via customized versions of the familiar Daily Show template, deploying charts, clips, snarky jokes, and visual non sequiturs to argue that Graham-Cassidy and earlier attempts to repeal ACA were half-baked and petty, and that bipartisan reform would be wiser and more compassionate. None have had the impact of Kimmel, an anti-hipster whose aesthetic is more Steve Allen than John Oliver, and who talks like a peppier Eeyore. Kimmel and his writing staff have been so effective at humanizing core issues that during his most recent run of health-care-dominated broadcasts — Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday — his show reframed the national discussion. Google “Graham-Cassidy” or any keyword related to health care and you’re likely to come up with an article or video that quotes Kimmel as well as legislators, doctors, and patient advocates.

Kimmel has repeatedly said he’s not a health-care expert and never pretended to be one — that he’s just a guy who’s smart enough to listen to people who are smarter than senators; that he’s never been especially political; that ultimately he’s just a father who realized that his infant son would be dead if his dad weren’t rich and famous.

But it’s those four factors in combination — his self-deprecating attitude, his informed-amateur status, his past avoidance of political opinions, and his wrenching personal story — that make him so effective. That, and his natural gift for communication.

Last night’s show ended with an appearance by Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, who, like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Donald Trump, came to politics via entertainment. Franken, a former Saturday Night Live star and the Senate’s drollest showman, noted that Kimmel made an impression not just because he spoke passionately yet clearly on a complex subject, but because his first and most emotional segment — taped mere days after his son’s near-death — marked the first time he’d expressed a strong point of view on any political issue in a monologue. To put it in crude showbiz terms, the buzz around Kimmel is that of a novelty act that can’t be repeated — the electric shock of seeing a moth emerge from a chrysalis. But it’s still fascinating to look at how Kimmel & Co. channeled it on behalf of people who aren’t Jimmy Kimmel, because it has already made a difference and could be put to other, equally fine uses.

Kimmel and his writing staff have done a better job of explaining the health-care battle in a handful of broadcasts than most of the supposed professionals who have been decrying or defending it since January, when President Donald Trump and the GOP made repealing Obamacare a top priority. Mainstream news outlets, Kimmel’s more politically focused late-night competitors, and the entire spectrum of the American left would do well to study what happened on ABC this week and steal pages from the host’s playbook.

Kimmel parried every blow that came his way, from politicians, Fox News personalities, and anonymous tweeters. Much of the time, he employed a sort of Will Rogers approach, staring into the camera and firing off perfectly calibrated one-liners in a faintly exasperated tone that was miles removed from the smarty-pants verbal volleys of Colbert, Bee, Oliver, Noah, and Meyers. The latter wear their center-left credentials like armor and lead with puffed-out chests. As a result, even when their material is clever and their delivery brisk, they end up preaching to the converted. None of them have Kimmel’s organic defensive shield of beer-and-barbecue averageness, which conservative icons from Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly to Kid Rock and the Duck Dynasty crew — one percenters all — treat as their own ideological Batman capes. He loves pranks and once told New York’s Jada Yuan that if he could make as much money fly-fishing as he could by hosting a talk show, “I would be fly-fishing every day.”

This can be a form of sociopolitical cosplay, of course. Former President George W. Bush grew up nearly as privileged as an English royal but convinced the world he was a good ol’ boy. And our current president convinced his cult that he was a regular guy who just happened to live in a gold tower, a conceptual feat on par with Bugs Bunny standing in midair beside a precipice and explaining that he could defy the law of gravity because he never studied law.

Nevertheless, Americans adore the Joe Sixpack routine and seem to need it from politicians and entertainers alike. The Democrats’ inability to field a presidential candidate after Bill Clinton who could even approximate it — Obama came from modest origins but cultivated a Kennedy vibe, rocking tan jackets and putting Dijon mustard on hot dogs — has been a longstanding agitprop liability: see John Kerry windsurfing, or Michael Dukakis poking his helmeted head out of a tank like Punxsutawney Phil. Kimmel naturally has the just-one-of-you thing that many politicians spend lifetimes poorly faking. A key part of it is the instinctive ability not just to identify the Little Guys in a given situation but communicate with them in meaningful ways, as demonstrated two months ago when Kimmel booked a high-school valedictorian whose speech had been cut short by school authorities and let him finish his speech on TV. There’s genius in a gesture like that. It originates in empathy, not intellect.

This is not to say that Kimmel should become a politician himself — just that he has that mysterious thing Democrats can’t seem to manufacture no matter how hard they try, and he’s been right there on our TVs for years and will be there for a while, so we might as well study him as diligently as he studied the policies that would’ve killed his son, if he weren’t rich.

For all we know, Kimmel could unwind by reading Schopenhauer in a smoking jacket while eating caviar and listening to Arvo Pärt, and despite his comfort with phrases like the “all-comedians-are-dummies card,” he’s clearly no dummy. He can hold his own in nerdy discussions of cooking and baseball and was a philosophy major in college. But he does not announce himself as such. This is not subterfuge or camouflage, it’s a mode of presentation. He is entirely free of the evangelical clown energy that makes other hosts a turnoff to viewers of different political stripes or cultural backgrounds. He connects as a person, not a commodity, image, or aspirational ideal. After hearing Kimmel discuss a subject that fascinates him, be it filmmaking, TV history, or the threat posed to low-income families by ACA repeal, you’d never peg him as a vain know-it-all who thinks he can win you over with sweaty sincerity. Any bits of knowledge he shares with guests or viewers are presented as gifts humbly offered rather than thunderbolts hurled from the summit of Mt. Enlightenment. He turns his own (apparent) struggle to understand things into a bonding experience with viewers who are as intimidated by the unknown as he is.

This is a classic rope-a-dope strategy — the teacher insisting he’s just another wide-eyed student — but it works, and Kimmel is very good at deploying it. Literal lives are at stake here, but he keeps his anger on low boil and concentrates on persuasion. As a David Mamet salesman would put it, he knows what the shot is. A clown like Kilmeade can be roughly dispatched, but other targets require finesse, even elegance. Kimmel can muster it. After playing a clip of Republican senator John Kennedy saying of Kimmel, “I don’t think anyone would confuse him with a well-respected health-care expert,” he asked why Kennedy wasn’t “listening to experts like the American Medical Association.” This self-deprecating twist knocked Kennedy off his high horse and placed him on the level of Kimmel and the viewer, looking up at those who deserve our trust and respect because they actually know what they’re talking about, and aren’t just faking it because they swore to scrub a black president’s name from a historic piece of legislation.

“If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make,” Kimmel told viewers this week. “I think that’s something, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that. Whatever you believe, whoever you support, we need to make sure the people who are supposed to represent us understand this very clearly. Let’s stop with the nonsense. This isn’t football. There are no teams. We are the team. Don’t let partisan squabbles divide us on something every decent person wants. We need to take care of each other.” This is how you talk to people, relate to people, if you want a message to stick.

Kimmel’s health-care crusade is the most arresting example of a boldfaced name casting aside his nonpolitical persona at a moment of national crisis since 1969, when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, a.k.a. “Uncle Walter,” who rarely editorialized, visited Vietnam after the Tet Offensive. He told viewers that he realized he’d been misleading them for years by accepting the official government narrative, and now believed the war would end in “a stalemate” and negotiation was the only way out. After watching the live broadcast, President Lyndon Johnson told aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” If there is any rationality left in this demented fun house of a country, Trump and the GOP lost middle America this week, Graham-Cassidy will end up on the ash heap of history, and a comedian will be holding the dustpan.

How Jimmy Kimmel Found His Political Voice