Every late night host now gets a box. Corden is the Carpool Karaoke guy, Jimmy Fallon is Superlatives or Thank You Notes or Presidential Candidate Hair Toussle guy. For the longest time, Jimmy Kimmel has been Mr. Mean Tweets, but that’s begun to change due to a terrifying health scare with his newborn son and a massacre in his hometown of Las Vegas — developments that have pushed Kimmel into a new box, and unfamiliar territory.
Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Trevor Noah’s shows all carry a reputation born from their willingness to be guided by the typically heavier stories within the daily news cycle (even though they, like the above show, have fun breakout moments as well). That’s their box. And because of this, we look to them, above all others, for a bit of context as well as a laugh and a reason to roll our eyes after dealing with those same stories all day on Facebook, at work, and at the dinner table. It’s a stress reliever, the same as laughing at Jimmy Fallon pouring ice water down Michael Fassbender’s pants. You probably have your preference. I know I have mine. But sometimes late night’s separate halves come together.
Since 9/11 and the powerful returns of David Letterman and Jon Stewart, which dealt with the changed world head-on, late-night hosts have become more comfortable with their own emotional vulnerability and less comfortable pretending that everything is fine when it’s not. And now every late night host is looked to for (and graded on) their response following a tragedy now — even those who have to crossover from the lighter side. It’s not really fair. It just is.
Assessing how late night shows respond to a mass shooting isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it’s tied to a deeper issue about how we all respond to these things — or don’t respond to them. Are outrage and grief on the way toward becoming little more than a part of the show in the same way that terrifying reports of violence and cruelty have seemingly become a part of our normal daily struggle? Again, I don’t know. What I do know is that Kimmel, has been heard louder than others recently because his personal views and experience have forced him to comment on two issues — the health insurance fight and gun violence — through the filter of someone who has been profoundly touched by them.
When the next controversial healthcare bill, mass shooting, or other tragedy occurs, all eyes will be on him — in the press and in the audience — looking for a story and legitimately moving words that may turn heads and influence public debate. It’s an awesome responsibility that Kimmel doesn’t really want. On his Monday night show, Kimmel said he just wants to “laugh about things every night.” But in the same breath, he went on to explain why he was compelled to speak up. And it doesn’t seem like he’s about to stop anytime soon.
While they’re coming from a place of honest outrage, it’s possible that late night’s chorus of desk-pounding satirists are starting to drown each other out, at least when it comes to reaching those that aren’t already on board with what they’re saying. Is Jimmy Kimmel registering with people who aren’t already on his side? Maybe, maybe not. But as a relatable and reluctant warrior fueled by a personal kind of righteous indignation who has been dragged into a space where he feels compelled to scrap against dispatches from the halls of power that threaten to shame, sadden, and/or scare, he has the potential to change minds. And that’s not nothing.