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Monday Night kickoff

Confused Kimmel reacts to ESPN's decision to ban him

Posted: Wednesday October 17, 2007 9:59PM; Updated: Thursday October 18, 2007 6:52PM
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For a man banned from the most famous sports television property in history, Jimmy Kimmel seemed to be holding up fine Wednesday afternoon. "Technically, couldn't you say Joe Theismann has also been banned from Monday Night Football?" Kimmel told SI.com in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "If he showed up, they probably would not let him in. I was hoping to get banned from a casino first, but I suppose it's satisfying in a way to be banned from any television show. I don't know what I did exactly but apparently it was horrific."

What Kimmel did during his appearance this week on ESPN's Monday Night Football, according to the show's producer Jay Rothman, was "classless" and "disappointing." Appearing in the third quarter of a moribund game between the Falcons and Giants, Kimmel took multiple swipes at the not-so-smooth departure of Theismann from the broadcast ("I'd also like to welcome Joe Theismann, watching from his living room with steam coming from his ears") and zinged sacred cows Tom Brady ("What impressed me most is that he could impregnate two models"), Kelly Ripa ("Listen if we can have a Mormon President, I can marry Kelly") and sports betting ("Are you allowed to bet legally on this game?"). "It was cheap," Rothman told Richard Sandomir of The New York Times. "The more he went on, the worse he got."

Rothman told the newspaper Kimmel would not be invited back to the show. "I just can't imagine CBS Sports putting out a similar statement about David Letterman," Kimmel said, laughing.

Does Kimmel feel he stepped over the line with his remarks? "Absolutely not," he said. "I'll tell you something: You only get the audio portion for most of the game, but everyone (in the booth) was laughing whether you can hear it or not. If people were not laughing, I would not have continued with it. I don't know exactly what upset them, if it was the Joe Theismann stuff or something else. I didn't feel like I was making anyone uncomfortable when I was there. Apparently, I did. What I sensed was three guys to my right and left smiling and stopping themselves from saying anything."

He continued. "I was on for twice as long as I was expecting to be on," Kimmel said. "There was no set time on how long I was supposed to be in that booth and they could have removed me without me even knowing there was a problem."

Clearly, the nexis between sports and entertainment doesn't always flow smoothly. Take, for instance, the acting careers of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Dennis Rodman. Or the headache-inducing appearance of actor Christian Slater on MNF last year. Prior to the season ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson told SI.com that relevance would be the single most important factor when deciding on a celebrity guest on Monday Night Football. "Relevance can be described in a lot of ways," Williamson told SI.com. "Is there a connection to the two teams that are playing? Is there a connection to sports? Every guest that we tried did not work, but we succeeded on a number of platforms. They [the guest] have to make the viewer smarter or more engaged about that event. We hit the mark more often than not last year, but the barometer for us is going to be A-list relevant."

Kimmel fits that bill as ABC's late-night host and a former member of Fox's NFL Sunday crew. He said ESPN's executive vice president for content John Skipper reached out to him in a phone call on Wednesday in an attempt to smooth things over. "I got a call from John Skipper who I like a lot," said Kimmel. "He was apologetic. The unfortunate thing for people who did not see the broadcast is now it looks like I exposed myself on national television. Really, I wasn't even making fun of Joe. I just thought it was a funny and inappropriate but harmless thing to bring up in the booth."

On Wednesday night, an ESPN spokesperson emailed a statement to SI.com: "We have had a great relationship working with Jimmy and we will continue to work with him in the future."

Kimmel said he read the Times piece online after midnight on Tuesday and "was surprised to say the least." Last year he appeared on Monday Night Football and received universal praise, delivering to Theismann what many critics thought was the line of the year on the broadcast ("How's the leg, Joe?"). "I know (Skipper) was high on my appearance last year," said Kimmel. "The fact of the matter is, it's probably not the place for me. They have a way they go about doing things and I don't know what is expected. I always do pretty much the same thing. I don't really change my sense of humor for the venue."

"As far as sports journalism on television goes, there are so many parties attached to so many other parties that everything you say has major ramifications. When I was at Fox it was the same way. You can't make fun of Jerry Jones because he's the head of the committee that decides which network gets the NFL. There are sacred cows and that's just not honest broadcasting. There really isn't a place for honesty. That's why everyone goes so crazy when somebody like Mike Vick does something that is universally reviled. That's when everyone gets up on their high horse and lambastes him because they know that they can. Everybody is so careful the rest of the time. God forbid, you say something that is not part of the script. It might be the most politically correct of all arenas."

Kimmel repeated to SI.com several times that he has no personal animus for Theismann. When contacted by the Times, Theismann, who has been critical of ESPN executives for removing him for Ron Jaworski, took Kimmel's comments in stride, "I don't have an opinion about what people say, but it's nice to know you're missed," he said. "It's interesting that people remember me." Said Kimmel: "If I was taking shots at Theismann, I would agree with him [Rothman]. I wasn't. I knew it was a topic that had not been addressed and I asked questions. Sometimes I'll say things to break whatever tension there is in a foolish way. That's all I did. Believe me, I'm not trying to kick Joe Theismann when he is down. I didn't mean anything specifically about him. It's just the last time I was in the booth Joe was in there and that was a big part of what we talked about. This time Joe was not there. It seemed like something that should be mentioned."

Opinion on Kimmel's appearance seemed to split along old and new media lines. Mainstream outlets from Newsday ("a tad obnoxious and overbearing, tossing out cringe-inducing cracks about Joe Theismann and Mormons, among other targets") and the Orlando Sentinel ("cheap shots were not funny but were cowardly") took the comic to task. The sports blogsphere seemed unfazed. If anything, Kimmel is guilty of doing what he has always done: cracking jokes and causing trouble.

Kimmel said he did not have interaction with Rothman after the broadcast but walked out with a couple of producers. He described them as "pleased." Asked for his opinion on safe Monday Night guests, Kimmel suggested Gloria Estefan and Carrot Top ("but they would have to go through his suitcase"). For his part, Kimmel says he is unlikely to appear again on Monday Night Football. "I don't know if I am actually banned from the show but I do know it would be far too uncomfortable to go in there," he said. "Whether I'm technically banned or whether Jay Rothman has the right to make that decision, let's put it this way: Jay Rothman is banned from my show."