Jimmy Kimmel's empathy touches a chord with late night viewers

The host's success, observers say, comes from finding personal connections to complex policies, and talking through partisan issues such as health care and gun control just like an average voter trying to understand politics.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Jimmy Kimmel appears at the Oscars in Los Angeles in February. The late night host has taken a personal approach to speaking out on recent issues, such as gun control and health care.

Before he finished saying, “Hello, everyone,” Jimmy Kimmel was crying.

Following Sunday’s shooting in Las Vegas, the late-night comedian devoted his almost 10-minute monologue Monday to the shooting.

“I want this to be a comedy show. I hate talking about stuff like this. I just want to laugh about things every night, but that — it seems to becoming increasingly difficult lately,” said a choked-up Mr. Kimmel to an unusually silent studio audience.

This is the second time since May, when Kimmel tearfully defended the Affordable Care Act after the complicated birth of his son Billy, that the comedian has made his political position clear. Before he found himself personally affected by expensive US health care and gun violence (Las Vegas is his hometown), Kimmel was far more apolitical than his late-night counterparts like Stephen Colbert or John Oliver – he was in it for laughs. Increasingly, however, Kimmel has become a lightning rod of the left.

The YouTube clip of Kimmel’s monologue remained the top trending video through Wednesday, the Facebook clip had garnered more than 30 million views and nearly 553,000 shares as of Friday, and news networks from CNN to Fox News devoted segments to discuss Kimmel.

As the networks’ varying commentary suggests, Kimmel’s monologue on gun control wasn’t uniting: Many conservatives continue to say that late night comedy shows are not the place for political debate. Despite that pushback, Kimmel is bringing in his highest ratings yet for adults under 50.

Talking like an average voter

Kimmel’s success, observers say, comes from finding personal connections to complex policies, and talking through partisan issues such as health care and gun control just like an average voter trying to understand politics. He is connecting with viewers in a more personal way than other late-night comedians because of his visible empathy – something many Americans feel is missing in Washington.

“There was something qualitatively different about his monologue,” says Eric Kasper, associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and author of several books on politics and pop culture. “Other late-night hosts also began with somber openings, but more quickly they got to focusing on the politics or policy aspects of it. Whereas Kimmel’s connected on an emotional level in a way the others didn't.”

Every late-night comic on the air Monday got serious. Jimmy Fallon forwent a typical opening for a rendition of “No Freedom” by Miley Cyrus and Adam Sandler. Stephen Colbert went as far as to tell President Trump that doing nothing is cowardice.” Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah commented on the unfortunate predictability of mass shootings, and NBC’s Seth Meyers had a powerful message for Congress.

Unafraid to be emotional

But there was something special about Kimmel’s piece Monday, say viewers. Unlike the other late-night hosts, viewers say Kimmel doesn’t talks like a celebrity, instead, he speaks like a dad, brother, or friend grappling with the same issues.

Grace Amato, a college student from Long Island, N.Y., says Kimmel isn’t usually her favorite – she prefers Mr. Fallon. But Kimmel hasn’t been afraid to be emotional lately, says Ms. Amato, and that’s made his monologues more moving than others, including Fallon.

“Where most talk show guys are more ‘We can’t let this happen anymore...’ Kimmel got teary-eyed and showed the same frustration and sadness that I felt,” says Amato. “We’re just as sick of this stuff as he is. We know Congress is doing nothing, we don’t need lessons on how to change that, à la [Stephen] Colbert’s monologue.”

Fallon and Mr. Colbert, who also air at 11:35 p.m., typically beat out Kimmel in the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic. However Kimmel’s summer of back-and-forth with congressmen and -women on the Affordable Care Act, has recently pushed him to the top. And for the first time this week, before his comments on the Las Vegas shooting, Kimmel topped the Hollywood Reporter’s weekly chart as the most popular TV personality based off of positive engagement on social media.

“People are starting to think of him as a bellwether because of what he said about healthcare,” says Carrie, a restaurant manager from Charlottesville, Va., who declined to give her last name. “Because he took the risk and made the commentary, people are watching him.”

Emboldened commentary 

Mr. Trump's presidency emboldens celebrities, including comedians like Kimmel, to voice comments previously considered off-limits, says Martin Cohen, associate professor of political science at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.

“ ‘You're just an actor you don't know about politics,’ might have held them back. Well now you can say ‘I’m entitled because I have just as much insight as someone who was elected president,’ ” says Dr. Cohen. “It gives celebrities license to speak out and consider themselves political figures.”

“It goes back to the tone of [Kimmel’s] voice – it was almost difficult for him to get the words out. It affected him on a personal level. The emotional appeal certainly matters in politics,” says University of Wisconsin's Dr. Kasper. “It's clear that that's part of the draw to the public.”

Conservatives commentators, such as Carrie Sheffield, say late-night hosts should leave the policy to experts and politicians. And while comedians may feel it’s tone-deaf to start their shows with slapstick after a shooting, Johnny Carson showed a third-way, says Fox News host Brian Kilmeade. He explained on a recent broadcast, that after a particularly bad day of the Vietnam War, Mr. Carson ceded his hour-long segment to newscasters, who were trained and able to discuss the serious issues at hand. 

“So in times of horror, maybe the responsible thing is to throw it to '20/20' and not keep it on Jimmy Kimmel,” said Mr. Kilmeade.

But many Americans want to hear what Kimmel has to say about policy. Voters trust Jimmy Kimmel more than Congress when it comes to shaping health care, according to a recent poll by Public Policy Polling, and Americans like Kimmel more too: the study reports a 47 percent favorability rating for Kimmel – more than five times greater than Congress.

“Kimmel naturally has the just-one-of-you thing that many politicians spend lifetimes poorly faking,” Matt Zoller Seitz writes for Vulture. “He connects as a person, not a commodity, image, or aspirational ideal.... He turns his own (apparent) struggle to understand things into a bonding experience with viewers who are as intimidated by the unknown as he is.”

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