Jimmy Kimmel's Tragic Real-Life Story

Jimmy Kimmel started off his entertainment career in a relatively humble and low-key way. After working in radio for years, he became a Fox NFL Sunday contributor as well as the host of quirky late-'90s Comedy Central shows like the game show Win Ben Stein's Money and the archly ironic sexist satire magazine The Man Show. In 2003, he entered the talk show fray as the host of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!. As of this writing, he's still hosting that show, making him one of the longest-serving performers on TV and the most tenured host in broadcast late night.

Not a seasoned stand-up or sketch performer like competitors Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert, Kimmel's regular guy approach resonates with audiences. He can be at turns crude, sarcastic, self-effacing, and heartfelt. That's all the result of being a person who's lived a real and full life, one that's been hardscrabble, traumatic, and even downright tragic. Kimmel has come a long way and endured a lot of psychological bumps and bruises on the way to becoming a king of late night. Here are some of the most harrowing things to ever happen to Jimmy Kimmel.

Jimmy Kimmel was fired from lots of early media jobs

Unlike his late-night talk show host brethren, Jimmy Kimmel didn't start his professional life as a comedian or comedy writer — he was a radio guy. At age 16, he landed a spot on a college radio station, a Sunday night interview program. "I would talk to local oddballs," Kimmel told HuffPost. While enrolled at Arizona State University in the late 1980s, he landed his first paid radio gig at a Phoenix, Ariz. station, which he took on full-time after he got married.

Radio can be an itinerant, feast-or-famine profession, with downsizing, format changes, and moving to where the jobs are all constant threat to job stability. About a year after he started working for that Phoenix station, the whole staff got laid off, and he jumped to a job in Seattle, Wash. He got fired from that gig after less than a year, and the same thing happened with his next job, at a Tampa, Fla. station. Kimmel then landed a spot in Palm Springs, Calif., and proved so popular that a larger radio station in Tucson, Ariz., lured him away...only to let him go after 11 months on the air. He finally found lasting success in Los Angeles radio (which led to his career-making TV gigs).

The sad reason Jimmy Kimmel's first marriage crumbled

After enrolling at Arizona State University, Jimmy Kimmel met a young woman named Gina Maddy. They soon became a couple — Maddy was his first girlfriend ever, and he so wanted to solidify things that he married her very quickly. At the time of their wedding, Kimmel was 20 years old. "We were both very young," Kimmel told HuffPost. "My mom was 19 when she got married, so it didn't seem unusual to me. It seemed unusual to all my friends, but not to me." 

By 1993, the Kimmels had two children: a daughter, Katie, and a son, Kevin. After a brief separation, Gina Maddy-Kimmel filed for divorce in June 2003, after she reportedly tired of her husband's self-professed "workaholic" ways. Not only did the stress and financial worry over moving around from radio job to radio job strain the marriage, but so did Kimmel never being around or having much of himself to offer his family after he became successful. While working the early morning shift at Los Angeles radio station KROQ, he'd commute to Comedy Central and put in another full-time shift hosting Win Ben Stein's Money.

Jimmy Kimmel Live! was initially a disaster

Jimmy Kimmel wasn't ABC's first choice for late-night — attempts to lure David Letterman and Jon Stewart in 2002 proved unsuccessful, so the network took a chance on Kimmel, at the time the host of Comedy Central's The Man Show. That relative obscurity contributed to the early, rocky run of Jimmy Kimmel Live!. As hinted in the name, it aired without a tape delay, meaning any mishaps or flop bits couldn't be edited out. And in those initial weeks of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, there were bad moves aplenty. 

On the first episode, guest co-host Snoop Dogg kept censors on their toes, flashing a middle-finger three times. "It's been reported that Kimmel has a budget for writers, but nothing in the premiere indicated any had been hired," quipped a Hollywood Reporter review. Two days after its debut, the network revoked JKL's liquor license. The set featured a bar where the studio audience could acquire boozy drinks...until a woman drank too much and "vomited on her chair," very close to a network executive.

Turning out a show every night — sometimes without much of anything planned — took a toll. In 2015, Kimmel told a SXSW panel (via The Hollywood Reporter) that he hoped for a cancellation that first year. "I was burnt out, exhausted, terrified," Kimmel said. "I wanted them to cancel it, so I didn't have to quit."

His baby was born with a serious heart problem

On April 21, 2017, Jimmy Kimmel and his wife, comedy writer Molly McNearney, welcomed their second child, a baby boy named William John Kimmel. What was a happy and wondrous event soon turned serious and frightening.

"He appeared to be a healthy normal baby until about three hours after he was born," Kimmel explained on Jimmy Kimmel Live! weeks later. That's when a pediatric nurse identified a heart murmur in the newborn, along with a slight purple tint to his skin. A swarm of doctors, nurses, machinery, and tests determined that William Kimmel didn't have enough oxygen in his blood. That suggested something wasn't right in either the lungs (such a buildup of fluid, relatively common right after birth), or in the heart. "But they did an X-ray and his lungs were fine, which meant his heart wasn't," Kimmel said. More examinations and tests followed, and neonatal staff finally pinpointed the issues: a blocked pulmonary valve and a hole in an interior wall of the heart. At just three days old, Kimmel's baby endured open-heart surgery. "It was the longest three hours of my life," Kimmel said.

Baby William made it through the surgery, along with a second surgery seven months later. On April 21, 2019, Kimmel marked the very happy occasion of his healthy son's second birthday on Instagram.

Jimmy Kimmel lost his TV sidekick, Uncle Frank

Part of what has made Jimmy Kimmel Live! so different from its slickly produced competition is its folksy, "let's put on a show" vibe, brought on by Kimmel stocking his staff with close associates and family members. His cousin, Sal Iacono, has frequently contributed to the show; bandleader Cleto Escobedo is Kimmel's childhood best friend; and for many years, the show's sidekick role was filled by the show's delighted, white-haired security guard "Uncle Frank." That's not just a nickname befitting the friendly, gregarious, goofy Frank — he was Kimmel's actual uncle, and an actual public protector, too. 

According to the New York Times, Frank Potenza, a veteran of the Korean War, worked as a police officer for 20 years along with stints doing security in Las Vegas and at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. His eight-year tenure as the most authentic presence in late night came to a sad and abrupt end in August 2011 when Potenza died of cancer at the age of 77. The death occurred during a Jimmy Kimmel Live! hiatus, and on the first episode back, the host delivered a tearful monologue eulogizing his uncle and co-worker.

"Uncle Frank loved being a part of this show," Kimmel said (via The Hollywood Reporter). "And I wanna say thanks to my co-workers who talked to him and visited him and picked him up 12 hours early for work. He loved you."

A joke on Jimmy Kimmel Live! led to protests

Jimmy Kimmel hasn't sparked many scandals, although a comment in an October 2013 episode of his late night show offended a lot of people. According to the Los Angeles Times, JKL aired a pre-taped bit in which the host interviewed a group of children about the United States' $1 trillion-plus debt to China. When Kimmel asked the kids how the federal government should go about relieving that debt, one child offered up their solution: "Kill everyone in China." The host then tried to get the kids to expand on that idea, asking them if killing Chinese people was or was not a reasonable idea. That sounds... not great, right?

Well, an Asian-American advocacy group called 80-20 ended up filing a complaint, and in response (per the Associated Press, via The Hollywood Reporter), Jimmy Kimmel Live!'s network, ABC, sent a letter of apology, promising to never air the segment in question again and remove it from online distribution. Meanwhile, 80-20 also demanded the network fire Kimmel, and staged a large protest on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, Calif., right in front of the El Capitan Theatre, where Jimmy Kimmel Live! produces its episodes. Kimmel emerged from the building to personally address picketers. "If I upset you, I'm very very sorry," he said (via KTLA). "I did not mean to upset you." After inviting a handful of protestors inside, Kimmel added, "I feel like we made a mistake putting it on the air."

Jimmy Kimmel suffers from narcolepsy

From his work in early morning radio shows to his long tenure as a late-night talk show host (whose show used to air live), Jimmy Kimmel's work life has often precluded working the common "9 to 5" workday, in which sleep happens in the consequently usual overnight time period. Plus there's all those side gigs, like hosting the Academy Awards and TV specials on occasion.

On top of all that, and somewhat ironically, Kimmel has a major sleep disorder. The New York Times reports that Kimmel sports a "perpetually sleepy look," which is an effect of narcolepsy. Per the Mayo Clinic, it's a chronic medical condition from which sufferers are excessively drowsy throughout the day and may suddenly fall asleep without warning. It's a condition at least somewhat manageable with the aid of medication, which Kimmel may take as needed. He says he doesn't believe it's affected his career much, although he has fallen asleep at the wheel and during Jimmy Kimmel Live! writers' meetings. That's "not the best way to make people feel good about their material," he quipped.

Kobe Bryant's death hit Jimmy Kimmel hard

One of the most frequent guests on Jimmy Kimmel Live! was Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, who appeared on the late-night talk show a whopping 15 times. Kimmel and Bryant were friends off-screen, and Kimmel was understandably devastated when a 2020 helicopter crash killed the NBA legend (along with eight others including Bryant's 13-year-old daughter, Gianna).

According to Vanity Fair, on the day after the tragedy, Kimmel called off the taping of a regular episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! in favor of an hourlong Bryant tribute. Along with footage from some of Bryant's numerous appearances on the show, Kimmel opened the episode with a tearful, heart-wrenching monologue, mainly about his friend's enthusiasm over being a father of four, and his acts of kindness. 

"I had many conversations with Kobe off television, and they always involved his daughters. Always," Kimmel remembered, adding that, "When my son had heart surgery, he checked in with me repeatedly." About a month later, per People, Kimmel spoke (and served as the de facto host) of the public Kobe and Gianna Bryant memorial service held at Staples Center, the Lakers' home arena. Kimmel held back tears as he praised his friend. "It seems to be all we can do is to be grateful for the time that we had with them, and for the time that we have left with each other. And that's all," Kimmel said through tears.