NEW YORK — Jimmy Kimmel is headed home again.
The late-night host of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! (weeknights, 11:35 ET/PT), who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Las Vegas, takes his show to his birthplace for a third time this week with a guest lineup that includes Billy Joel and David Letterman, who's making his first late-night appearance since retiring from the Late Show in 2015.
Kimmel, 49, hit a four-month ratings high this month thanks in part to impassioned segments calling for universal healthcare and gun control. He sat down with USA TODAY Sunday to chat about upcoming shows and his more political bent.
You first appeared on Letterman in 1999 and said you were "extremely nervous" to be there.
That was actually my second time there — I got bumped the first time. But I was doing the same bit, so I had the same tattoo drawn on my body and a little tattoo of Paul (Shaffer) drawn on my shoulder. We went out to dinner with my agent, had a few drinks and I got back to the hotel and forgot I had Dave's face drawn on my body. So when I went to the bathroom and took off my shirt, I was like, "Oh, boy, that's right. There you are!"
Do you still get starstruck sitting down with him?
Very much so. I've been on his show five or six times, and it does make me nervous, not just to talk to him on the air, but off as well.
You also have a great lineup with Amy Schumer, Howard Stern and Tracy Morgan. Who's the most unpredictable guest?
Oh, as far as unpredictability goes, Tracy has that cornered. Tracy's a friend of mine, so we spend a good amount of time together. The first night we met, we stayed up talking in a hotel room from midnight until six in the morning. We really hit it off. I've had a number of experiences with him. Most of them, he winds up taking off his shirt in a public place.
What kinds of segments outside the studio do you have planned?
We have a couple of things. Paul Shaffer and I rode around in a cab, and did a little talk show for people as we picked them up, passengers who were unsuspecting. Guillermo and I visited a fortune cookie factory, which was a lot of fun.
You said on Good Morning America last week that you'd like to have Donald Trump on your show.
I just feel like if he was surrounded by a lot of good people, we'd be in a much better position. I think he's a people pleaser. You see that when he goes to one of these rallies, and I think he's the sort of man that will say whatever gets a big cheer. And if people were cheering for things like universal healthcare and real action on climate change, he would gravitate toward those things. I think we need a way to make that happen. We need a big rally for him in which positive things are rewarded with praise.
Who else in politics would you like to invite on the show?
I would be interested in interviewing Mike Pence, for sure. Not that he'd be candid, but I'd love to know what's going on. In a way, I think he's the most interesting character in this whole story, just the position he's put himself in. I wonder what his goals are, what his ambitions and what his real beliefs are. I feel we don't necessarily know.
Universal healthcare is a very personal issue for you because of your six-month-old son, Billy (who was born with a congenital heart defect). But otherwise, how do you decide when to get political?
A lot less thought is put into it than you might imagine. I don't really consult with anyone, other than my wife. I decide what's in the monologue every night. I'm very hands-on when it comes to that. I woke up in the morning and found out what happened in Las Vegas, and I knew that would be what I'd be talking about. Some things are obvious and some things aren't. When your son has an open-heart surgery, that's obvious; when your hometown is attacked in the way that Vegas was, it's obvious. It's just a matter of feel, really — what feels right.
Do you ever worry about alienating viewers?
I don't worry about that kind of stuff. I feel that's the wrong way to approach comedy and being on television. I'll leave that kind of thing to big corporations. If you pasteurize your show, you'll be the worse for it.
How has your role as a late-night host changed since Trump was elected?
My philosophy, if I have such a thing, has always been to give my take on the news of the day, and that goes back to when I was in radio. It just so happens that our president is a very interesting character and is dominating the news, and will sometimes do three or four remarkable things in a day's time. I wish he would slow down a little, because it's hard keeping up with him. You thought the Kardashians were hard to keep up with — Mr. Trump is even cagier.
Have any of the reactions to your more political segments surprised you?
Yeah, there's been a lot of negativity when it comes to gun control. I guess it's to be expected, although until you're really on the other end of it, you don't realize — people always tell me, "I just ignore it," but it's hard to ignore. For me, it's impossible to ignore.
But as far as on healthcare, what surprised me more than anything was how many people are similarly affected. Also, just the outpouring of good thoughts and prayers and kindness. Even when I spoke about children's hospitals, the amount of money that people donated was so impressive and meaningful. For me, I feel like, thank God some good came out of that situation.
How is your son doing now?
He's doing well. He's going to have another operation soon, but he's healthy and he's up to the weight he needs to be to have his next operation, so we're very optimistic.