Jimmy Kimmel’s Emotional Story Might Just Change The Health Care Debate

On Monday’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Kimmel, flooded with emotion, shared the story of his newborn son’s heart condition. The condition required emergency surgery and, thankfully, the baby is doing well now. It’s impossible to watch the 12-minute clip and not get emotional. It’s a legitimately real moment in an entertainment landscape riddled with segments prepackaged and waiting for viral internet consumption.

This will now always be Jimmy Kimmel’s signature moment, for a few reasons. It will always be discussed when Kimmel’s name is mentioned. It’s reminiscent of Kimmel’s hero, David Letterman, when Letterman brought on the doctors who saved his life after open-heart surgery. It’s easy to have big comedy highlights – and Kimmel has had a lot of those – but this is an extremely rare thing: a human being opening up about one of the best, then worst experiences of his life. We don’t see this that often, at least anymore.

When articles are written about the current late night wars – specifically, the recent surge by Stephen Colbert in relation to Jimmy Fallon – Kimmel’s name is often left out. For the past few months I’ve been trying to figure out why and haven’t come up with a definitive answer. I do think with The Tonight Show back in New York – and most media based in New York (including this reporter) – it’s easy to overlook the host who isn’t here. The only LA-based host who seems to get constant coverage is James Corden, who also seems to be on a never-ending media blitz to make sure that stays true.

So that’s why between Colbert and Fallon and everyone else who is vying for that political edge under the Trump presidency – trying to find what might get people to finally listen in the midst of a a non-stop barrage of political comedy – it’s Jimmy Kimmel, of all people, who is going to have the biggest effect. No one saw this coming.

Kimmel has never shied away from political humor and he’s certainly a lot better at it than someone like Fallon. His political comedy isn’t prepackaged in a way that’s going to get a lot of attention online. Kimmel can be biting, but in sporadic way that’s also reminsicent of Letterman. He doesn’t create political comedy that’s easily digestible (and made for easy online consumption) like Seth Meyers’ always great “A Closer Look” segments, or the weekly, highly produced segments that we get from Samantha Bee or John Oliver. When Kimmel has a viral hit, it’s usually going to be some sort of prank he pulled.

But like Letterman, Kimmel has always been a little more at ease just being himself on the air than a lot of other hosts. He’s always personable, which is sometimes jarring now in comparison to other shows. He’s sarcastic, in that aloof Gen X way that anyone who grew up watching Letterman is going to be. He likes riffing with members of his staff on air (again, just like Letterman) and presents a mellower version of a late night talk show. It’s always kind of felt like the style of a show that aired 15 years ago – and I mean that as a compliment. And Kimmel seems perfectly fine with hosting that kind of show. And it’s this kind of freewheeling openness that can lead to such an emotional moment when something goes horribly wrong in Kimmel’s life.

Kimmel did a lot of good on Monday. A lot of people are watching this clip. And what makes it important – beyond what happened in Kimmel’s personal life – is his emotional plea to our elected leaders over the still-raging health care debate, many of whom are trying to repeal a health care law that’s now been in effect for seven years and is much more popular than our current president. Kimmel, visibly shaken, ended by saying, “No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life.” That’s going to stick with people. (Here’s Kimmel, openly weeping in one of the most human moments imaginable that anyone with a soul can relate to, while our president, who wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, is tweeting about the Civil War.)

Jimmy Kimmel just became the public face of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) just when it needed it most. The ACA now also has a signature moment with a story that people will remember to go along with it. And a lot of people are paying attention. (Heart problems with newborns are more common than you might think. My friend Rob, who texted me after watching the Kimmel clip, went through a similar situation with his son). This will be a big part of Jimmy Kimmel’s legacy.

I’ll admit, I wouldn’t have bet on Jimmy Kimmel being the late night comedian to break through the partisan muck – mostly because I got the sense this wasn’t really a goal of his. But after one of his worst personal moments, Kimmel has risen to the occasion and just had the most meaningful political moment of any late night talk show host of the Trump era. And he’s ignited a fire in people. It’s up to the rest of us to follow his lead.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.