Television

CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK | MATTHEW GILBERT

Jimmy Kimmel’s an unlikely advocate, but he’s got everyone’s attention

Jimmy Kimmel has criticized the GOP health care bill on his show.

Randy Holmes/ABC

Jimmy Kimmel has criticized the GOP health care bill on his show.

Jimmy Kimmel for president?

It’s a funny thought, though maybe not as absurd as it seems; after all, we’ve already elected a movie actor and a wealthy reality TV host to the land’s highest office.

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But the ABC late-night host and comic has been rousing and relentless on the topic of American health care, beginning in May when he spoke emotionally about his infant son’s open-heart surgery and continuing this week with two passionate monologues against a Republican-sponsored health care bill.

Yes, the Democrats in Congress have been fighting mightily against the Graham-Cassidy bill, the latest attempt to undo Obamacare, but, arguably, it has been Kimmel who has put the issue front and center, and in human terms, for most Americans. The world of entertainment can have that power, as it reaches even the most apolitical among us. We’ve known that for years, as candidates do rounds of talk shows and drop into “Saturday Night Live” to reach voters, channeling pop culture into political support.

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Kimmel isn’t just complaining about the health care bill and making jokes about the politicians who support it. He’s crossed over into advocacy. Wednesday night, before putting the numbers of swing-vote senators on the screen, he urged, “Please stop texting for five seconds and make a phone call.”

There used to be a stronger wall between politics and mainstream entertainment, including on late night; Johnny Carson rarely made his leanings clear. There was a predominant sense that TV shows were meant for escape, that viewers didn’t really want to think about legislation, economic plans, and elections while trying to relax. They wanted Carnac the Magnificent and a witch with a twitchy nose. Now, TV is no longer a tool merely for distraction; entertainment has become a critical part of our political conversation. It’s hard to imagine a Trump presidency without it.

Kimmel hasn’t only just reached viewers with his health care concerns. He has also provoked Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy — first, to coin the phrase “the Jimmy Kimmel test” in May, meaning Cassidy would only support a bill that would meet Kimmel’s standards for care, and then, when Kimmel called him a liar this week, to respond that Kimmel “does not understand” what his bill would do. Kimmel has also triggered public dissings by the bill’s cosponsor, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, and the likes of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade, who said on Wednesday, “Hollywood elites like comedian Jimmy Kimmel” are “pushing their politics on the rest of the country.”

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Clearly Kimmel is not looking for a place on the 2020 ballot. But his shift to a more partisan persona is telling, as it reflects the fact that, during the Trump presidency, entertainment has been even more preoccupied with politics than ever before. Until his son’s health issues turned him into an advocate, Kimmel was the guy least likely to sound off. He was the neutral one in the middle of the late-night spectrum, with the sharply political Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers on one end, and the Trump-hair-fluffing Jimmy Fallon at the other. Since his 2003 debut on ABC, he has solidified his image as the Average Joe of late night, never eager to provoke, always ready with a joke.

But the health care issue has pushed him out of his comfort zone at a time when political comedy has become the name of the ratings game. The numbers for the politically pointed “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” have risen this year, while those of the goofy “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” have gone down. This past season, “Saturday Night Live” hit its highest ratings in decades, thanks to its fierce political satire before and after the election, most notably Alec Baldwin’s repeated impersonations of Trump. Even “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” which initially disappointed those still pining for Jon Stewart, has gained viewers — particularly among millennials — as well as the confidence of Comedy Central, which just extended Noah’s contract through 2022. In other words, getting political won’t hurt Kimmel’s ratings.

Some on the right, including Trump, have said that Sunday night’s Emmy Awards ratings were so low because of all the Trump-bashing and political content this year, with Colbert as the host. As one Twitter user put it to me, “Most of the country is not interested in what a bunch of spoiled brat actors think about anything.” But the truth is, the Emmys drew similarly low numbers last year, when Kimmel hosted. Its declining ratings precede Trump’s administration and have more to do with the oversaturation of awards shows on TV and the niche-ification of movie, TV, and music audiences.

“Brat actors,” late-night hosts, and reality TV figures aren’t about to shut up. And even those who have steered clear of controversy, as Kimmel had until his son was born with a heart defect, may find they have something to say.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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