Every year during May’s upfronts week, buyers and advertisers eagerly look forward to Jimmy Kimmel’s annual ABC appearance, in which he roasts both his own network and other broadcasters. The comedian told Adweek in this week’s cover story that ABC gives him a lot of leeway to make jokes about networks, execs and celebrities—usually.
Sometimes, however, the network draws the line—as it did in 2011, when news broke around the time of the upfront that Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was married to Maria Shriver at the time, fathered a son 14 years earlier with the family’s housekeeper.
“I had a joke about Arnold Schwarzenegger impregnating his maid, and it turned out that one of the executives was good friends with Maria Shriver at the time. And without explanation, she insisted that I remove that joke,” said Kimmel.
Six years later, the comedian still laments the joke that got away. “I still regret not doing it. I should have done it,” he said. “It was like the day after that whole Schwarzenegger-maid situation, and I was pretty sure it would have killed.”
Even after 15 years, Kimmel says he takes his annual upfront monologue very seriously, especially now that several of the other broadcast upfronts now feature comedians—including NBC’s Seth Meyers—who also crack jokes about the networks and upfront week.
“Now there are other people doing what I am at the upfronts, and sometimes I have to follow them,” said Kimmel. “I’m fairly competitive, so I always want to make sure that I do the best job of anyone. Because I feel like, this is something that I started. It’s my thing, roasting my network and the other networks.”
While Kimmel has been making annual upfront appearances since he began hosting Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2003, he admitted in this week’s cover story that he had “no idea” what the upfront was during his first year.
“…I will say even into the third year, I still wasn’t quite sure about what it was,” he admitted, laughing. “I was told that I needed to go on stage, and I wrote a bunch of jokes. Right before I went onstage, one of the executives said, ‘This needs to be a home run’…That’s not what you say to somebody as they walk onto a stage trying to be funny!”
Kimmel added that he “didn’t know much of anything” about what he was doing, and no one even looked at his script before he hit the stage. Luckily, it was a gamble that paid off. “One of the executives at ABC, [then ABC president] Alex Wallau, who I love, said to me after it, ‘That was great. If you had showed me the script beforehand, I would not have let you do it. I’m glad I didn’t see it,'” Kimmel said.
In fact, his first upfront performance was such a success “that they expected it the next year,” Kimmel said. “And I learned that, with all the bullshit that the ad-marketing people have to eat that week, putting a pin in it was a welcome event.”
These days, Kimmel’s upfront jokes are “lightly vetted, but for the most part nobody makes me change anything,” he said. (Well, aside from the Schwarzenegger joke, that is.) “They just want to see what’s coming.”
While Kimmel’s writers are “always” working on his upfront material, “I have a tendency to stay up all night the night before, because I don’t know what NBC and Fox have up their sleeves until they reveal it,” he said. “So there’s a lot of last minute writing that goes on. Usually, I’ll stay up most of the night the night before, rewriting and coming up with new stuff. I almost always find that a joke that I come up with at 4 a.m. just before I collapse turns out to be one of the highlight jokes of the night.”
Kimmel skipped May’s upfront to stay in L.A. with his then-newborn son Billy, who was recovering from emergency open-heart surgery at just three days old. “Weirdly, I absolutely missed it,” said Kimmel, who said that “barring some unforeseen circumstance,” he’ll be back onstage at ABC’s event next year.
“In fact, even in the years when I’m not working on ABC or in television at all, I’m planning to come anyway,” he said. “I’ll be out in Central Park, doing jokes about the new Fox fall season.”