ABC’s Whiskey Cavalier, the Butt of Jimmy Kimmel’s Upfront Jokes, Hopes to Get the Last Laugh

A sneak preview of the show will air after Sunday’s Oscars

Buyers laughed at Whiskey Cavalier during last May's upfront, but had no hesitation about buying spots in the show. Jeff Neira/ABC
Headshot of Jason Lynch

For buyers who attended ABC’s upfront event last May, the prognosis for the network’s just-announced midseason series Whiskey Cavalier seemed suddenly grim, thanks to a particularly withering routine from Jimmy Kimmel.

But nine months later, Kimmel’s barbs are a distant memory as ABC is putting the biggest spotlight possible on the dramedy, about an FBI agent (Scott Foley) who teams up with a CIA operative (Lauren Cohan) to lead an inter-agency team of spies. The network is giving Whiskey Cavalier a sneak preview after Sunday’s Oscars, ahead of its official debut next Wednesday, marking the first time its has aired a scripted drama following the Academy Awards telecast.

Karey Burke, who took over as ABC Entertainment president in November after Channing Dungey stepped down, told Adweek she’s not worried that Kimmel’s upfront jokes will have a carryover effect, and pointed out that she asked Kimmel to introduce her earlier this month at her Television Critics Association’s winter press tour executive session.

“If I were worried about the lasting effects of Jimmy’s jokes, I wouldn’t have [done that],” said Burke. “I’m really not worried, moreso now that I’ve seen the show. The show’s good and has a lot of humor; it doesn’t take itself too seriously. So it’s a show that I think can survive a jab and still succeed.”

While Kimmel always takes shot at the network and its lineup during his annual upfront roast, his most excoriating material last May was directed at Whiskey Cavalier. “It took a while. We finally came up with a title worse than Cougar Town,” Kimmel said. Then, after reading the show’s description, he said, “Should we cancel it now?”

Kimmel’s bit was so cutting that the audience laughed when the title flashed on the screen minutes later. Dungey did her best to salvage the situation, telling the audience, “When we’re here celebrating Season 10 of Whiskey Cavalier, I’m going to bring Jimmy back out, and we will talk about it.”

But even back in May, few buyers expected that Kimmel’s barbs would have a lasting impact. As one buyer told Adweek at the time, “the general audience has no idea about [Kimmel’s roast], so once it premieres, if it does well, I think it will be forgotten.”

More recently, buyers told Adweek they had “no hesitation” about buying ad time on Whiskey Cavalier, and the network said advertising demand for the series has been on par with ABC’s other midseason shows.

The advertiser mix for Sunday’s sneak preview includes the auto, tech, telecom and pharmaceutical categories, according to ABC. Some of the brands appearing in the post-Oscars show are also sponsors of the Academy Awards telecast, including Cadillac. (The ad load for Wednesday’s official premiere will be slightly different, the network said.)

No hard feelings

Whiskey Cavalier executive producer Bill Lawrence said he was actually a fan of Kimmel’s upfront routine about his show, and had received an early heads-up about the jokes.

“I’ve known Jimmy forever, and one of his writers, Josh [Halloway], was hired off of our show, Cougar Town; he was our assistant. So we were aware of it—and I don’t care. Friends can take shots at shows of mine; I don’t give a shit. I don’t even care if enemies do it,” said Lawrence.

The producer appreciates the irony in having another series at ABC with a title that people are making fun of, as had been the case a decade earlier with his Courteney Cox comedy, Cougar Town.

“I know. I’m not going to fight for a lot of things, but I’ll go to my grave saying that Cougar Town was a much worse title than Whiskey Cavalier,” Lawrence said, laughing.

Upfront jokes aside, Lawrence is grateful to be getting the post-Oscars slot to debut Whiskey Cavalier, which the network is putting its marketing muscle behind.

“I was laughing with the other producers who haven’t been through this. You get taken into the network for their marketing presentation, and the one for this show is ‘The Oscars and Disney Parks,’ [and took] a good hour. And I’ve been on the other side, where I’ve taken a show in, and it’s like an eight-minute presentation and then ‘Thank you’ comes up on the screen, and I’m like, ‘Oh no, this show’s [in trouble],’” said Lawrence. “They’re giving us every opportunity in a crowded landscape to succeed, and that’s all you can hope for nowadays.”

The marketing campaign is leaning heavily into the show’s comic elements. “The tagline is ‘Danger just got fun,’ so it is having fun with itself,” said Burke.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.