Jimmy Kimmel: The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business

Find out the secret behind the funnyman’s legendary work ethic.
July 6, 2014

It’s a little before 9 on a scorching Los Angeles morning, and I  wonder if ABC’s prince of late- night TV might have thought our interview was scheduled for 9 at night. After all, what nightlife denizen thinks there is a 9 in the morning? But before the hour strikes, Jimmy Kimmel’s assistant escorts me into his man den of an office at Hollywood’s historic El Capitan Theatre, next door to where his talk show tapes.

Kimmel’s office sits at the top of several flights of stairs and is filled with artwork, bobbleheads and other tchotchkes. His desk is in the elbow of the L-shaped room, and around the corner, there’s a treadmill and a kitchen complete with a SousVide Supreme water oven. Kimmel has slimmed down considerably in the past few years, but he still loves to eat and cook.

A slightly disheveled Kimmel offers coffee and quickly apologizes for “looking like a hobo” with a scruff of facial hair almost obscuring those famous dimples. He’s just returned the night before from a rare weekend off, which he spent fly fishing—his latest obsession—with son Kevin, 20, and childhood pal and bandleader Cleto Escobedo III at his friend Huey Lewis’s Montana home.

“When I’m really busy, I look forward to something like that. I put it on my calendar and try to focus on it when it gets really stressful,” says Kimmel, 46. “It’s great to have downtimes. I almost never have them. There’s always a charity event to host or preparation for the show. If this job was just the show, I could do it pretty easily, but all the extra things add up.”

As much as Kimmel the entertainer comes across as a subversive prankster, the real-life Kimmel could win the title for the hardest-working man in show business. He not only hosts the weeknight show, he’s the hands-on executive producer, runs Jackhole Productions and seldom turns down an opportunity to help a charitable organization. He’s a perennial awards show host, actor and voice actor whose work includes twice voicing Passive-Aggressive Smurf on the big screen.

Veteran New York Times TV reporter and author Bill Carter credits Kimmel with reshaping both late-night talk and his frat-guy persona with uncommon skill and savvy. “He plays well in both the mainstream and streaming online,” says Carter, author of The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night. “His bits have been among the most creative and original on the web, where so much of the new generation is being played. And he still has enough edge to bring a bit of danger to his show.”

Kimmel’s humor has evolved from his early TV days, when women jumping on trampolines were a mainstay on The Man Show in 1999 and crank phone calls to random people was the gist of Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers in 2002. But he still enjoys a good stunt, and he still gets in trouble, as with the video showing kids dissolving into tears after their parents lied that they’d eaten all the kids’ Halloween candy, which drew fire from parenting groups.

Around the Jimmy Kimmel Live! offices, hijinks only contribute to a family atmosphere—that and the fact that family and longtime friends actually work here. Last summer, Kimmel married head writer Molly McNearney, who worked on the show for a decade and began dating him a few years ago. Kimmel and McNearney, his second wife, were expecting their first child in July.

For years, Kimmel has exploited the innate hilarity of relatives like Aunt Chippy and his late Uncle Frank, a former New York City cop and security guard who was a fan favorite on the talk show. Kimmel’s cousin Sal Iacono is a writer and frequent on-air talent who has been with Kimmel since his early TV days with Win Ben Stein’s Money starting in 1997 and The Man Show.

Kimmel’s friend Escobedo became his bandleader, and Escobedo’s dad, Cleto Jr., a band member. The elder Escobedo had put aside his musical aspirations to support his family as a bus boy, waiter and, ultimately, head butler at Caesar’s Palace.

“Of course Jimmy has his new fancy friends, but he still keeps all the old clunkers around too,” says the younger Escobedo. “To be able to have this time with my dad is priceless. Jimmy’s loyal to a fault, but he also hires people who can do the job.”

Leave it to jokester Kimmel to brush off a compliment about his loyalty to friends, family and co-workers with a comedy bit about what makes an employee loyal to him. “I mean, if you were offered a dream job and decided to stay with me, then I’m going with loyalty,” Kimmel says. “But if you have never had another job offer and stay, well, that’s just job security.”

Kimmel’s kidding, of course. But Escobedo says getting to know everyone when the show began was a priority for Kimmel, who made a board with everyone’s faces and names so he would remember them all when he met them.

I ask Kimmel what’s involved in being a good leader. “Can you spread that around the office and see how many chuckles you get?” he asks in reply. “The only thing that I think I  did right is that I always try to work harder than anyone else. It eliminates a lot of excuses from people if they see me working very hard.”

Among other habits, Kimmel is a stickler for being on time. “I think it is disrespectful when you are late,” he says. “My boss, Bob Iger, is probably the only person who gets more done than I  do, and he’s usually at his office at 5 a.m. every day.”

Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co., is unaware that Kimmel has been playing a little game with him for years. When the two have breakfast together, Kimmel always tries to beat him to the restaurant. He never does. “He’s always there before me, and it drives me crazy, because I’m always the one sitting in the restaurant waiting for people,” Kimmel says. “It’s also the reason why he’s my boss and not the other way around.”

There were many years in the early days of his late-night program when Kimmel would pull into the parking lot and his car would be the only one there. “I would beat everyone in by hours. And it is not a great feeling, I must say,” Kimmel quips. “If you ever want to feel alone, pull into a parking lot at your own show and note that your car is the only one there.”

Kimmel’s work ethic was honed early on, with a father who toiled long hours to support his family, which included Jimmy and his younger siblings Jonathan and Jill. Jim and Joan Kimmel moved the kids from their Brooklyn, N.Y., home in search of a better life in Las Vegas when Jimmy was just 9. That same year, he met best friend Escobedo, who was 10.

“He’s always been strong, decisive. There’s not a lot of wishy-washiness about him,” Escobedo says. “He works a lot, from the time he gets up until he goes to bed. His dad was a good example for him. He never takes anything for granted.”

Kimmel tells the story about his father working as a short-order cook with two other guys. When one quit, the elder Kimmel asked if he could earn a little extra if he took over his shift. When the third man left, Kimmel picked up more cash by taking over that work as well.

“I’ve always been a hard worker. I just always had that DNA. You always look to your parents and kind of take a cue from them,” the younger Kimmel says. “My mother will climb up on a ladder to take the popcorn stucco off the ceiling. There is no job too dangerous for her. My mother owns a table saw.”

Kimmel’s dad was a high school dropout who got his general equivalency diploma, joined the Army, got married and had a family, worked several different jobs and then went to college. After getting his degree at age 27, he worked his way up the corporate ladder, ultimately becoming a senior vice president with American Express.

After his retirement, the CEO of American Express, Ken Chenault, got in touch with the younger Kimmel, who initially thought he must want tickets to the show or help with a charity event. Instead, Chenault gave Kimmel a gift that touched his heart.

“The only reason why he contacted me was to tell me how much, how well-liked my father was and how hard a worker he was,” Kimmel says, beginning to tear up, his voice softly breaking. “I’m sorry—I’m very emotional about this because it was a very cool thing to do. And to a larger point, it was a great lesson for bosses.

“My dad doesn’t even work for him anymore. He was not in the stratosphere at American Express. He came from nothing. But this man reached out to me to let me know how valuable he was to the company.”

Later in life, Kimmel discovered how guilty his father felt for working so much. He told his dad he never held it against him, and in fact, as an adult, he realized just how hard it is to keep a job.

“You have to eat a lot of [stuff] sometimes, and it would be easy to tell someone to go screw themselves and storm out of the building,” Kimmel says. “But you have to keep the good of the family in mind. I have to swallow my pride a little, too. And when your kids appreciate that, it means a lot.”

Then Kimmel’s comic side kicks in: “To be honest, when he was at home on the weekends, he would make me help him in the garden. There’s nothing like pulling weeds in Las Vegas in the summertime,” he says. “If I had the choice then of making him work seven days a week, he would’ve gone right back to the office.”

Kimmel actually was fairly motivated—except for a short period in college, “when I found it difficult to pry myself away from my brother’s Nintendo.” He was an excellent student otherwise. The day he turned 16 he got a job working at a clothing store. Then about six months later, he took a job at a pizza place. During his senior year in high school, he only had three classes from 7 to 10 a.m. and worked the rest of the day.

“I loved it because I would stack my money up in cash, and I had a little ledger that I wrote in every night. I was like the bank; people would come to me for loans,” Kimmel says. “I took pleasure in it. It’s funny, I never felt wealthier than when I was in high school because I was independent.”

And he hated asking his parents for anything. “Getting a new pair of sneakers out of them was like a parable from the Bible—it was all about guilt, sacrifice and ritual,” Kimmel says. “It was ingrained into us that you never ask for anything.”

Kimmel knew early on he wanted to be in radio. He worked for stations for free just to get his foot in the door and eventually left Arizona State University to concentrate on his radio career. “For the most part, from the moment I got a job in radio, I had to work very hard to make a living.”

Kimmel married college sweetheart Gina in 1988 when he was just 20. They had their first child, Katie, three years later, and son Kevin came two years after his sister. They moved every year for the first six years of marriage. Kimmel often worked a second job to provide for his growing family.

When he moved to Los Angeles, he supplemented his radio job by producing and editing sports content every day for $100. At the end of the month, he had $2,000, and that represented his rent.

“Being successful means earning the respect of your peers and co-workers, but it’s also making enough money that you don’t have to go to the ATM and worry if there is $20 in there so you can have lunch,” Kimmel says. “That was always a source of great stress for me, to pay the bills. They say money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a lot of peace of mind, especially if you are as anxious a person as I am.”

That anxiety was made worse by the mercurial nature of radio work. The first time Kimmel was fired from a radio job, he says he was devastated. He was working at a classic rock station in Seattle just after he was married. He and partner Kent Voss did some crazy things that the audience appreciated. Their ratings went up steadily for the 10 months they were on the air, but management just didn’t care for their antics.

When they were called into the office, Kimmel was sure he could talk the manager out of firing them because he had prepared a paper showing how popular the show was in terms of ratings and its appeal to a younger demographic.

“It’s not like we were doing drugs in the control room. We never missed a show, were polite to our co-workers, but they just didn’t like us and they didn’t get us,” Kimmel says. “It was like a punch in the stomach. My wife and I had to move in with my parents in Phoenix. It was a humiliating experience. And it took another nine months to get another job.’’

Kimmel has been let go at other stations, and every time it was bad. “Being fired is the worst thing. You are surrounded by your friends and co-workers and then you are being escorted out of the building with your stuff,” he says. “I felt worthless and all those things that people—especially men with families—feel when they are unemployed, and I hope never to experience that again.”

As an employer, Kimmel has had to fire people—a job he does himself, even though he admits it makes him sick to his stomach. He says it’s almost impossible to get fired from his company, and those who do “deserve it six times over.” He says there’s a right and wrong way to do it.

“You have to be honest with them, and be encouraging that maybe this wasn’t the best fit for them, and hopefully leave them with a lesson of some kind,” Kimmel says. “I don’t think anyone felt they were fired unfairly by me. And I  tell them to use this to prove us wrong. There’s some satisfaction in that, because it has happened to me. A lot of times.”

And sometimes the firing ends up being a good thing. Kimmel says that, looking at the trajectory of his career, probably all of his firings set him up for his eventual success.

“One time I got fired in Tampa, and the same day got offered a job hosting my own show in Palm Springs. Because I was fired, I got severance, which gave me enough money to move,” Kimmel says. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the money to move out to California. But the rest were awful.”

Eventually he found work at KROQ radio in Los Angeles. It was there the struggling Kimmel finally began his successful career on television when producers heard him on the air and liked  him.

KROQ’s legendary Kevin Weatherly, who is still at the station, also taught him a valuable lesson on how to be a good boss. The morning team, Kevin and Bean, had a ratings bonus structure in their contract, but Kimmel didn’t. In 1995, program director Weatherly took him into the office, told him he was doing a great job and handed Kimmel a check from his personal account for $500.

“It’s one thing to give out raises someone else is paying for, but when you reach into your own pocket, well, that’s something I’ll never forget,” Kimmel  says.

Two years later, Kimmel was offered his own show at another radio station for more than four times what he was making at KROQ. He turned it down because he couldn’t imagine competing against the man who treated him so well.

“And that $500 cost me $140,000. Actually $280,000, because it was a two-year contract,” Kimmel says. “So it was an excellent investment on his part.”

On his recent fishing trip, Kimmel says that he asked the guide what was the best thing about his boss. The man answered that his boss was very appreciative of his work.

“There are a lot of ways to show your appreciation. Pay is one of them,” Kimmel says, “and just a simple thank-you is another.”

Discover the secret science of happiness in the August 2014 issue of SUCCESS, available on newsstands this week.

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