LOS ANGELES – Jimmy Kimmel looked beat. He had just wrapped up an episode of his late-night talk show — mixing it up with actor Chris Hemworth, a montage of President Donald Trump sound bites, Elvis Costello singing “Alison” — followed by a video shoot for the cover story of this month’s GQ magazine.
The obligations didn’t stop there, of course. As he loosened his tie on his office couch last month, sitting below a comically large portrait of himself and Howard Stern, Kimmel mentioned that he had just met the night before with his writing team for the 2018 Academy Awards, which he will host Sunday for the second year.
He also had signed up to make an unannounced cameo on the wildly popular game-show app HQ Trivia the next day, but promised his wife he’d be home for dinner to spend time with his 3-year-old daughter Jane, who spent the previous evening throwing up, and 9-month-old son Billy, who almost died from a congenital heart defect shortly after his birth.
Kimmel’s emotional narration of Billy’s ordeal and his heart-on-a-sleeve commentary on the day’s events have struck a deep chord in the past year. While his late-night peers Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert have lost viewers in the key 18-49 age group, ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” has enjoyed a 4 percent bump in that demographic and is catching up with Fallon in the overall ratings, an almost unthinkable scenario a year ago. Time magazine even considered him for its annual Person of the Year honors.
A week after our interview, I shot Kimmel an e-mail, telling him how exhausted he seemed during our hour together.
He responded within five minutes: “I only look tired because I am tired.”
I met Kimmel in 2000 while he was the needling sidekick on “Win Ben Stein’s Money” and kept in touch as he parlayed his image as an amiable frat guy into “The Man Show,” a Comedy Central spoof of male behavior that included models bouncing on trampolines, and “Crank Yankers,” in which puppets made juvenile prank phone calls.
But over the course of many visits, I got to see a savvier, more sensitive side to the comedian. About a decade ago, Kimmel surprised a group of high school students I was teaching in Los Angeles, popping by for a Q&A session in which he pressed the importance of working harder than the colleague in the next cubicle, digging deeper and being passionate about your beliefs.
The Kimmel those teenagers met on that summer afternoon is the Kimmel the rest of the country got to know in 2017.
Q: Does doing the Oscars for the second time alleviate some of the pressure?
A: In some ways, it makes it worse. But it does relieve some of it. There’s not so much of the unknown. You’re not going to please everybody, and this idea that you should only please yourself is ridiculous. There were some things last year that went great and others things that people picked apart, but they did some audience testing and almost everything that people said was in poor taste, like bringing a bus full of people into the theater, the home audience really liked.
Q: What are your thoughts now on the wrong film being called out as best picture last year?
A: I don’t think of it as the Titanic-caliber disaster that most people do when they reflect on it. Ultimately, it’s just a bunch of celebrities handing each other trophies. Let’s be honest. If it happens again, literally everyone at ABC should be fired. But I don’t think it will. If it does, I’ll admit, it would tickle me deeply.
Q: For a long time, it seemed like you would never get the Oscar gig, even though it airs on your network.
A: I thought I had missed the window on it, to be honest. I enjoyed the speculation. Personally, the best case scenario as a performer is to not have to do something and everybody says how great you would have been. I liked being in that position.
Q: It seems to be that viewers have seen a more serious, emotional side of you since last year’s Oscars. Has that always been there, or it just a sign of maturity?
A: No, that was always me. I’ve very hesitant to admit this, and people may have forgotten it, but I cried on the last episode of “The Man Show,” which is not exactly “Man Show”-caliber behavior. I cry easily. I try to come up with ways to avoid it. I even looked into medication I could take. It’s almost like seeing your beloved uncle at a funeral, where you see a side of him you don’t usually get at family dinners. It can be jarring when people see someone they know on TV cry, but people like seeing real emotions.
Q: Was there any hesitation in sharing details about something as personal as almost losing your son?
A: You know, when something bad happens to me, I always make an effort to turn it into something good, if I can. I think that’s served me well. I run out of gas and I get a funny story out of it. I approach everything in life that way.
Q: Do you feel more comfortable sharing that part of you now that the talk show is 15 years old? It feels like your desire to make points rather than make jokes is one reason Time put you on their Person of the Year poll.
A: That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen this decade.
I do feel a responsibility to remind people on a nightly basis what we’re facing. All the hosts process in a different way. I think Stephen [Colbert] is so angry, he’s shot out of a cannon and that translates into energy. For me, it translates more maybe into a little bit of depression. It makes me anxious.
When I was a kid working in radio in Palm Springs, I went through an earthquake and I was so freaked out about it that I grabbed my daughter Katie, who was a baby at the time, like she was a football and ran out on the lawn in my underwear. My wife hadn’t even stirred. The next day, I went on the air and I was screaming.
The general manager called me up on the hotline during the commercial and told me I had to calm down. But after he got to work, he pulled me into the office and said a friend of his had actually felt comforted by my screaming because he was happy that someone else was more upset than he was. I think that’s when I realized you can be a little bit of an outlet for people without even knowing that you are.
Q: But you also seem to have fun getting into the thick of things. I’m thinking about your Twitter war with Roy Moore [the Alabamian who ran for U.S. Senate amid allegations of sexual misconduct].
A: I don’t know who in Roy Moore’s camp thought it would be a good idea to challenge me to a fight and that I wouldn’t be happy about it.
When we were exchanging tweets, my wife walked into the room and said she had never seen me so happy. I could barely sit in my chair. It was cold in the room, so I was sweating and freezing at the same time. That’s the kind of confrontation I miss from radio.
Q: There are reports that you patched up your differences with former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno. True?
A: I wouldn’t say we’re pals, but he called me after Billy’s surgery and he was very nice. I take it at face value. It’s interesting that he’s openly critical of Donald Trump. He doesn’t see it as good comedy. I think he hates the idea that all these late-night talk shows are talking about Trump the whole time, but I do think he hates Trump as much as anyone I’ve ever spoken to.
Q: You also had David Letterman on your show last year. What did that mean to you?
A: Dave was very complimentary after I did the Oscars. He was touched that I mentioned him. You don’t think of Dave as a sentimental guy, but he says he’s a different person and I actually believe it. I did the Mark Twain Award with him and he was very warm, dragging me over to talk to his kid and his kid’s friends. It was all I ever dreamed.
Q: Letterman used his clout to produce a number of other shows. Now that you have more power, do you want to follow suit?
A: I don’t feel like I have any more clout than I used to. I’ve always felt that if I was excited about something and I pitched it, I could get someone to make it. I just try to be realistic about my life and how much time I have. I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak, but I just can’t leave things alone. I always regret it when I take on other things during the show.
We did a game show recently with Andy Richter. He did a good job, but just booking it was a pain, so much energy I didn’t want to spend. You’ve got a different crew. Everyone here [working on “Jimmy Kimmel Live”] knows what I hate; there’s not a lot of breaking in. Here, I don’t have to be nice.
Q: Considering your workload and everything that’s gone on in your personal life, have you given any thought to how much longer you want to do the show?
A: It is a grind. Right now, if you asked me, I’d say not a ton longer, but that’s because I’m so tired having two kids in my life. Maybe in two years, when they’re a little bit older and I’m not waking up in the middle of the night over and over again, and they’re not sucking every moment of my free time, I might have a different take on it.