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Late Night Show Sharpens Tone As Jimmy Kimmel Revives Health Care Debate


We're going back to politics now, at least we think it's politics. We want to talk about the late night host Jimmy Kimmel, who's made headlines in both political and entertainment news this past week when he spent a good chunk of time on three different episodes of his show criticizing the latest efforts by GOP senators to replace the Obama administration health insurance initiative the Affordable Care Act. Jimmy Kimmel accused one of the GOP bill's co-sponsors, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, of lying when Cassidy said the bill met a standard Cassidy had called the Jimmy Kimmel test.


JIMMY KIMMEL: There's a new Jimmy Kimmel test for you. It's called the lie detector test. You're welcome to stop by the studio and take it anytime.

MARTIN: Kimmel also pushed back against President Trump when the president defended Cassidy on Twitter.


KIMMEL: He doesn't know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid. He barely knows the difference between Melania and Ivanka, so.

MARTIN: The New York Times says Kimmel has become, quote, "the unlikely face of opposition to the bill," unquote. The comic has been vocal about health care insurance issues on his show since his infant son needed open-heart surgery and Kimmel realized people who aren't wealthy might not have access to the level of care his child received. We wanted to talk about all this, so we called NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hi, Eric.


MARTIN: So, you know, a number of late-night hosts have made a name for themselves talking politics night after night. You know, I'm thinking about Seth Myers or Samantha Bee or Stephen Colbert certainly. Jimmy Kimmel really hasn't been one of them, so I'm wondering what you make of what he's done this week. And I'm wondering why you think it's having the impact that it is having.

DEGGANS: Well, you know, I think he's viewed as an every man. And, you know, he's smarter, I think, than a lot of people give him credit for. And I think he's also concerned about the way that politicians like Cassidy used his name when he first started speaking out about health care issues to make it seem as if he might endorse something they would do later. He's spoken out in a very detailed and thoughtful way.

You know, he's pointing out concerns about lifetime caps on spending for pre-existing conditions and the overall funding for Medicaid and other issues. And because he's this every-man comic who doesn't often talk about politics in a detailed way, I think it resonates a little bit more in the public. And there's been all of this coverage, including folks like us talking about it.

MARTIN: You know, when he was asked about Jimmy Kimmel's criticism, Senator Cassidy said that the comic didn't understand the bill. And that's something that a number of other pundits have said. But at NPR, we pointed out on Twitter that Kimmel was right that the proposed legislation would remove guarantees of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. And I wondered, is it odd to see a legislator on the losing end of a policy debate like that with a late-night comic?

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Well, it seems we're in this odd political and media moment where celebrity and fame counts for a lot in these policy debates. You know, we've got a reality TV star as a president. He's speaking to his people on Twitter a lot. There's a sense that if you're able to galvanize public opinion through fame, that accounts for a lot.

And Cassidy himself sort of attached Jimmy Kimmel to his work on health care by coining the phrase the Jimmy Kimmel test. And now he's reaping the results of that, given that Kimmel feels the senator hasn't been truthful about what his bill does. And what's interesting is that Kimmel is coming across as the honest broker because he doesn't really stand to directly benefit from this. He's picking a fight with legislators. He's not necessarily going to get anything out of it.

It's an example of how a media figure with a certain constituency can make arguments with the persuasiveness that maybe like pundits who are, you know, perceived to be too, you know, liberally biased or whatever, they might not have the same impact. So it's been really fascinating to see how Kimmel has affected this debate.

MARTIN: I want to take that stay-in-your lane argument from a different side. I mean, the fact is that people are criticizing Jimmy Kimmel, saying, well, you don't know that much about it so whatever. But a number of people are defending him, saying that, look, he's like a lot of people. He educated himself about this because he had to.

DEGGANS: Yeah. I mean, that's a double-edged sword in a way because you want people to speak out on issues even when they don't necessarily directly affect them. And I'm hoping that maybe Kimmel might learn from this and pay a little more attention to issues that don't directly come into his world because there's a lot of debates out there about stuff like transgender people in the military and Muslims and undocumented immigrants. And we're all trying to figure out where to go on these things, and it might help to have somebody as smart and capable as Kimmel join the discussion.

MARTIN: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thank you.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.