The other night, says Jimmy Kimmel, "I put my kid to bed and he goes, 'Dad, your breath smells like goat's milk!' " It's a good thing that the host of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live doesn't let Kevin, 9, or daughter Katie, 11, stay up to watch his new late-night talk show. Otherwise Dad would have to explain why he was pouring vodka out of a milk carton into shot glasses for himself, his cohost of the week, Snoop Dogg, and guest Adam Carolla on Jan. 29.

Kimmel's "Got booze?" gag came in response to ABC censors who had complained, among other things, about the show's serving liquor to the studio audience during its Super Bowl Sunday debut. One inebriated woman had to be helped out after throwing up. The milk-carton pour three nights later did not amuse the network suits, and since then Kimmel, 35, and his guests have gone dry. They have also refrained from flashing obscene hand gestures toward the audience as Snoop did during his cohosting stint.

But things can still get out of control. On the Feb. 27 show Kimmel's cousin Sal (a staff writer and occasional sidekick) grabbed a cake that had been baked for Anna Nicole Smith and playfully threw it at another guest, heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis, who then slipped on a piece of it. "It was just total chaos," says executive producer Daniel Kellison. "We try to have a moment like that every night."

Kimmel's midnight jousts, while hardly a Cakewalk, have drawn some 1.9 million viewers, edging out Craig Kilborn while lagging behind Conan O'Brien in the same time slot.

Catching up with his idol, David Letterman, remains Kimmel's ultimate fantasy. The oldest of three children of Jim, 57, an IBM executive, and Joan, 55, a homemaker, Kimmel was 9 when the family moved from Brooklyn to Las Vegas and 15 when he discovered Dave's irreverent wit. "He was so reserved to the point where he made everyone [else] look foolish," says Kimmel. Then a straight-A student at Las Vegas's Clark High School, Kimmel thought it was Lettermania that caused him to stagger bleary-eyed to class each day. Instead he might have had narcolepsy, a sleep disorder he was diagnosed with only a few years ago. (Now it's "no big deal," he says. At midday "I get very tired, I take a [prescription drug], and I'm all right.")

Like Letterman, Kimmel not only got his start on college radio but shared similar career goals, evident in the L8NITE vanity plate he flashed while driving around the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. At 19, after transferring to Arizona State University, he fell in love with a classmate, Gina Maddy. "I think Gina Mi was the third woman he ever dated," says his aunt Conchetta "Chippy" Potenza. They wed two years later.

Following a string of radio gigs in the '90s, Kimmel landed on TV, hosting Win Ben Stein's Money on Comedy Central and appearing as a smart-mouthed jock baiter on Fox NFL Sunday. In 1999 he pitched ABC The Man Show—what he calls "the anti-Oprah"—offering such stunts as bikini-clad women on trampolines. The network nixed it as "too dirty," says Kimmel, but it became a ratings hit for Comedy Central. (So did Kimmel's Crank Yankers, in which puppets reenact crank phone calls.)

ABC didn't forget. After failing to sign Letterman last spring, the network went after Kimmel. He jumped at the chance. Meanwhile his marriage to Gina, 38, was on the rocks. After 14 years together the couple separated last fall. They share custody of the kids, and she lives around the corner from the four-bedroom L.A. house Kimmel shares with his brother Jonathan, 26, a writer-producer with Jimmy on Crank Yankers. "We had a lot of great years," says Kimmel, now dating actress Sarah Silverman (Greg the Bunny), 31. "But people grow apart, especially if you're forced to live with me. I'm kind of crazy."

How crazy? On one show Kimmel called up QVC to order a birthday gift for Oprah. Or tried to. None of his calls went through. "We've got the crappiest $9 phone," he says. "The show's not running smoothly, but it's fun to do." The weird thing, he says, "is going home and turning on the TV, and there's Leno, Letterman and you! You're like, 'This is not right! This should not have happened!' "

Michael A. Lipton
Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Cynthia Wang.