By this point, you’ve seen Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue from earlier in the week. And if you haven’t, then you’ve heard about it and are probably meaning to see it, so go ahead and watch it now, because it’s worth the 11 minutes.
It’s become pretty politicized in the few days since it first aired, but this isn’t about politics. This is about a father almost losing his son, being scared witless by the experience, and having a platform with which to share this story with millions of others. And, by so doing, calling attention to an issue that affects every single person living in this country.
I’ve written a fair amount about the late night landscape over the last year, how it’s changed and what it means and the influence it has and so on, but one thing I haven’t really addressed is the idea of how many personalities we are now welcoming into our homes on a nightly basis. For decades, it was just Johnny Carson. Then, there was David Letterman, and eventually Jay Leno followed him, then Conan O’Brien, and it exploded exponentially from there.
See, the thing about a late night host is, we welcome them into our homes every night, at a very vulnerable time, bringing them into the places where we sleep. It’s extremely personal, which is why I think people so loved Johnny and Dave and Jay, and to a lesser extent, the current crop of hosts who do their best to entertain us in the midnight hour. Each of them has his — or, in the case of my personal favorite, Samantha Bee, her — particular style or stock in trade.
Seth Meyers, for instance, has taken on Letterman’s role of social conscience, while Kimmel sticks with Dave’s wry meta playfulness. Stephen Colbert has gone full-on attack dog, while Jimmy Fallon is more of a game show host and James Corden brings a sort of British carnival feel to the proceedings. John Oliver is a comedic Woodward and Bernstein, and Bee is a whip-cracking human alarm clock trying to rouse people into understanding the madness that’s happening around them. Each, in their way, does this brilliantly, and each has mobs of fans who will follow them anywhere.
Which is why what Kimmel did was so off the beaten path for him, and why the reaction was so strong. Aside from the emotional impact of the speech — a speech that even Colbert told his viewers that they needed to watch — there was the political aspect of it, in which he talked about how this shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and that, prior to 2014, his son would have had trouble getting health insurance for his entire life because of a pre-existing condition, and, most importantly, this: “If your baby is going to die, and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make.”
If there was any single line that people seemed to isolate from the whole thing, that was it, and it has led to all the responses, both good and bad. Again, Kimmel had to know that there would be those who would scold him for this, just as he knew plenty would celebrate him, but that probably didn’t matter a whole lot to him. The reasoning could have had something to do with wanting to get ahead of the story before it became news, or wanting to gain sympathy from his viewers, or, if you’re overly cynical, to goose ratings, or to remind us that celebrities face crises, too, but I don’t think any of that had anything to do with it.
Honestly, I think Kimmel and his family lived through something terrifying, came out of it okay, and he wanted to share the story with his fans, because that’s what we do now. The YouTubificiation of our society has made us all into over-sharers, who feel the need to tell each other about everything that happens to us.
Mind you, I don’t say this as a critique against Kimmel, because I would be awfully hypocritical if I did, considering how much of my own personal stuff I air in this space here. I’m simply pointing out that, just as David Letterman found that the best way to combat a blackmailer a few years ago was to admit that he’d been cheating on his wife, so did Kimmel see an opportunity to perhaps help others and potentially shape a debate by sharing a personal tale of trauma.
So, will the incredible reaction to Kimmel’s monologue lead to other such confessionals? Will Colbert and Meyers and Fallon start telling more personal tales from their own lives so as to better connect with their audiences? I don’t think so. I think this was a unique instance that everyone recognizes as such, and that’s how it will remain.
Celebrities have long been known to get up on their soapboxes to blast out their political opinions to the masses, whether the masses were interested or not, and over the years, the response to that has varied greatly. Recently, the reaction has tended towards the negative, and famous folks have taken a fair amount of guff just for having the gall to express their feelings about the real world in a public forum. I personally have no issue with this, because if you have a voice, you have the right to use it, whether I agree with what you’re saying or not. That’s what’s great about America.
Ultimately, the moment itself, though, is less important to me than what it says. Regardless of your politics, I think we can all agree that we’re a country in crisis. At times like this, we often turn to entertainment to help us through it. In this instance, one of those entertainers gave us all something to think about and gave us a personal prism through which to view it, thus allowing us to truly feel something genuine and true, while also forcing us to ponder how it is we react to such a thing.
There’s something refreshing about that, when entertainment can do more than just entertain. When it can actually have a deeper impact and, in fact, put a real face on an issue.
When that happens, it’s not just entertainment anymore. It’s real life. And that should hit home with all of us.