Enter TV’s newest sandman at 11:35 Tuesday night.
Jimmy Kimmel himself is not so new, really — though at 45 he’s two decades younger than the other guys at that time. His show has also been on the air since January 2003. He is a known commodity, and has been for years.
But what makes this approaching moment in late-night TV history so new and bracing is simply this: A generational shift is about to take place that could anticipate, or very well force, changes on the other networks. Except for the brief and unfortunate detour on “Tonight” in 2009 — Conan O’Brien (remember?) — that hasn’t happened in 20 years.
Late night — for your purposes here defined as 11:35, or the house that Johnny Carson built — moves more deliberately, more cautiously than any other time of day on TV. Dopey experiments or bad ideas are quickly rolled up (Chevy Chase), while those who succeed — Jay Leno, David Letterman — stay and stay. A nation turns its lonely eyes to them and not just for jokes, guests, pop culture, current affairs and politics, but for comfort — and, after 20 years, Letterman and Leno are supremely comfortable presences.
But change is coming, and a successful challenge by Kimmel on ABC at 11:35 could hasten it. Letterman has already indicated that he is prepared to step down in 2014, when his current CBS contract ends. Leno has been beset by reports — doubtless partly true — that NBC is considering a succession plan in a couple of years as well, possibly moving Jimmy Fallon up an hour. Meanwhile, “Nightline” — a reliable presence for 32 years, since the Iranian hostage crisis — soon moves deeper into the night. Its future remains very much in doubt.
How will Kimmel do at 11:35? All indications so far seem to indicate that he’ll do fine. As a talk-show host, he’s self-aware without being self-conscious, ironic without being sarcastic, has more breadbasket appeal than Letterman — and yet more urban appeal than Leno. He has none of Letterman’s acerbity, or any of Leno’s amiable factory-line functionality. He knows pop culture better than any of the other late-night hosts — with the possible exception of Fallon — and knows TV better than most TV executives.