Kimmel demonstrates comedy’s new role in debate

NEW YORK — If the latest Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare doesn’t work, it may become known as the Jimmy Kimmel Non-Law.

The comic’s withering attacks this week have transformed the debate over the bill (sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy) and, in the process, illustrated how thoroughly late-night talk shows have changed and become homes for potent points of view.

“Late-night has really become an important part of the civic conversation,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

Kimmel’s monologues on Tuesday and Wednesday were deeply personal. His newborn son underwent surgery in May for a heart defect and faces two more operations. He felt a sense of personal betrayal from Sen. Bill Cassidy, who was on the show this spring after Kimmel talked about his son’s medical problems, and felt that Cassidy lied to him about Republican health care plans. Cassidy said the comedian was misinformed.

Kimmel’s initial speech on his ABC show, where a phone number to Congress was flashed on the screen to urge viewers to get involved, quickly spread online and became a focus of news coverage. Cassidy was asked to respond to Kimmel when he appeared later in the week on CNN’s “New Day.”

After Fox News Channel’s Brian Kilmeade criticized members of the Hollywood elite “like comedian Jimmy Kimmel for pushing their politics on the rest of the country,” Kimmel blasted him the next night as a “phony little creep” who “whenever I see him, kisses my (expletive) like a little boy meeting Batman.”

Rob Burnett, filmmaker and former executive producer of David Letterman’s “Late Show,” said Kimmel’s monologues were some of the most important things he’s ever seen in late-night television.

“I found myself deeply moved by them and also entertained,” he said. “It’s the full experience.”

The talk shows have become deeply political in the past few years with many and varied voices including Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah. Trace the turn to former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, whose advocacy for legislation to help first responders at the World Trade Center was a precedent for Kimmel. Virtually all of the comedy comes from a liberal point of view; Peter Hasson, an editor at the conservative Daily Caller website grumbled on Twitter that “being a comedian now means actually being a lobbyist.”

Kimmel hasn’t steered away from politics in the manner of NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, but he has not made it as big a part of his comedy as many of his colleagues.

Generations ago, late-night comics like Johnny Carson tended to keep their political comedy non-offensive, Thompson said. Their networks didn’t want it; no sense in turning off potential viewers. Now the comics appeal to smaller, niche audiences who are attracted by their passion. Burnett calls it a golden age for late-night comedy.

“As a person who wrote many thousands of jokes for late-night television, they’ve taken it to a whole other level,” he said.

Burnett’s old boss, Letterman, straddled the generations. He was aggressively non-political in the early years of his career, and became quite pointed at the end of his time on the “Late Show.”

Kimmel also gave attention to an issue, attention Republican leaders surely didn’t want to see, at a time cable television was preoccupied with hurricanes and the Mexican earthquake.