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Jimmy Kimmel on His New Competitors, TV's Woes and Finding Talent on Twitter (Q&A)

"Sometimes I wish I was 17 -- I could start all over again, and instead of having to work in all these crappy radio markets, I would probably have my own little show on YouTube."

Jimmy Kimmel Live
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Last year Jimmy Kimmel moved his late-night show to Austin, Texas, timed to the South By Southwest festival, and we caught up with him for a fun chat about the future of TV and his embrace of the Web. Kimmel liked the Austin shows enough to repeat the experience this year, so we came back for more, too.

The big change in the past year: ABC and Kimmel now have a fierce new rival in NBC’s Jimmy Fallon*, and will soon be taking on Stephen Colbert over at CBS. And ratings for TV in general now seem in peril, as viewers appear to be fleeing for Web options like Netflix.

This would have been hard to predict in 2003, when “Jimmy Kimmel Live” got off to a rocky start, but Kimmel is now late night’s Establishment. That comes with perks — like the ability to get the President of the United States to join you for a comedy sketch — but it also means you have the most to lose.

We sat down in Kimmel’s temporary dressing room in Austin’s Long Center to talk about his new competitors, his use of the Internet as a comedy farm system and an unexpected tribute from Aaron Sorkin:

Peter Kafka: There’s a lot of flux in the late night landscape right now — Jon Stewart is leaving, Jimmy Fallon is on the rise, Stephen Colbert is replacing Letterman. What does that mean for you?

Jimmy Kimmel: It means I’m old. [Laughs]. You get used to being the young guy, and all of a sudden you’re not anymore. But it also gives me a sense of accomplishment. Most people still think of me as the new guy. Most people probably think Jay Leno is still on somewhere.

People say, “Did you ever expect to be on this long?” Not really. No one did. But I was one of the no one that did.

Fallon does one kind of show, you do something different. How do you think Colbert will try to distinguish himself?

I don’t know. For me personally, trying to figure out what you’re going to be is mistake number one. Stephen is very smart, and I think whatever he does will be very good. I know him well. I love the guy. I think he’s going to be very good at this.

Fallon’s show is wholesome and upbeat; some of your style is more acerbic. Do you think about that kind of difference in a deliberate way?

I recognize it. It doesn’t mean I ever feel like I should do anything about it. I think he’s doing the show that suits him, and I’m doing the show that suits me. I think he’s doing a great job, and he does some really great stuff. It definitely makes you raise your game when somebody is hitting a lot of home runs. I hope that many years from now, we have a Larry Bird/Magic Johnson-type situation.

The TV industry has been worried about viewers migrating from TV to the Web and other digital outlets for a while. In the summer, ratings fell off the cliff, especially for younger viewers. Do you worry about that?

I don’t worry about it too much. That’s a problem for the big corporations to deal with. For the on-air talent? It’s not a problem at all. I know there will always be a buyer for me and my show, or for some version of it, or for something.

And yeah, this is a problem for the television networks. But if you’re a 20-year-old comedian, there’s never been a time where you’ve had more opportunity. Sometimes I wish I was 17 — I could start all over again, and instead of having to work in all these crappy radio markets, I would probably have my own little show on YouTube. Or I’d be making Vine videos or something like that.

There’s no barrier to entry for that stuff, and so many people doing it. How do you think people will elevate themselves out of that giant pool?

You know what? I think one of the most heartening things is when something is really good, people will watch it, and they will share it. If you’re doing good work, people are going to see it if you keep at it. It’s just a fact.

I’ve hired writers and directors based on videos they posted online. People are in college, and the next thing they know they get an email from me, personally. And I say “Hey, I think your stuff is great.”

Someone on your staff flags this stuff for you? Or do you find it on your own?

In both cases I spotted them both on my own and called them in for a meeting. I hire writers based on what I see on Twitter sometimes. I feel like if you can write five very strong jokes a day on Twitter, you have what it takes to be a late-night television writer.

Did you see the last season of “The Newsroom”? The Gawker scene [where characters in the Aaron Sorkin drama recreate — in some cases word for word — a scathing on-air interview Kimmel conducted with Gawker editor Emily Gould, who was defending the site’s “Gawker Stalker” feature]?

Did they tell you about it in advance?

No, I didn’t know about it beforehand. I thought it was really good. It was fun to see.

It reminded me that you’ve always seemed to have a split approach to the Internet. You like it, you make stuff that’s popular on it, you find talent there. And then you also seem to think that it brings out our worst impulses.

I don’t know if it brings out our worst impulses. But we have a lot of bad impulses. You know, it’s funny, when you’re sitting in a room with another person, you are less inclined to say something nasty to them. One of the reasons is they may punch you in the face. [Laughs]. And it’s very easy to hide behind a keyboard, and write something shitty about another human being. It’s a cowardly thing to do, it really is.

But I know also most people don’t mean it. I have seen many times where after they’ve been featured on Mean Tweets, people felt bad about it. Because they never imagined that something they said about a celebrity would ever get to them.

You think we’ll see a reaction or correction to that kind of behavior? Or will we just go farther down that road, the more opportunities we have to behave badly?

It seems like we might be — I don’t know a whole lot about the technical end of any of this stuff — but I think that anonymity peaked. I think things are headed in the other direction right now. I think companies and technology are making it a little bit easier to figure out who said something.

And the government is working on that, too.

And the government too, yeah. Although they don’t participate in that kind of thing. At least publicly.

* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

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