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Jimmy Kimmel Wasn’t the First Host to Get Serious About Politics


Jimmy Kimmel in the “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” green room in February. He has become an outspoken voice on U.S. health care policy.

Brinson+Banks for The New York Times

When Jimmy Kimmel dropped the humor and began a relentless campaign against the latest effort from Senate Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, it was — at the very least — an uncommon moment for him.

While Mr. Kimmel often discusses politics on his show, it is not his main focus and he has rarely — if ever — taken such a serious tone to advocate for or against a single piece of legislation. In the Trump era, late-night hosts speaking out against President Trump are common. Leaving out the jokes, however, is not.

Jimmy Kimmel Fights Back Against Bill Cassidy, Lindsey Graham & Chris Christie Video by Jimmy Kimmel Live

There have been other instances since the advent of late-night television where comedians have substituted political seriousness for punch lines — or combined the two. While these are rare, they can often create powerful moments of television. Or, when comics get involved directly in politics, sometimes it can flop. Just ask Bill Maher.

Here are some examples from over the years.

Jon Stewart Fights for the Zadroga Act

No late-night host has fought as vigorously or passionately for a piece of legislation as Jon Stewart, the former host of “The Daily Show,” did on behalf of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. The bill was to provide health care for emergency medical workers who were sickened in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It was passed in 2011, partially because of Mr. Stewart’s relentless lobbying.

Mr. Stewart dedicated the entire final episode of his show in 2010 to the stalled legislation and even brought on four emergency medical workers for an emotional interview. He did numerous segments attacking Republicans for holding up the bill leading up to that episode. He criticized media outlets for undercovering the story. He badgered Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, into supporting the bill.

Even after leaving “The Daily Show,” Mr. Stewart went to Capitol Hill in 2015 to advocate for extending the bill permanently, saying at a rally that he was “embarrassed” that it hadn’t been. He returned to “The Daily Show” for an appearance three months later for another fierce takedown of Congress for holding up the second Zadroga Act.

Jon Stewart Returns to Shame Congress: The Daily Show Video by The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

Maher Tries to Turn a District

In September of 2014, Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” announced the winner of his “Flip a District” campaign, aiming to unseat a Republican congressman of his viewers’ choosing. They landed on Representative John Kline of Minnesota. Mr. Maher made defeating him a priority, and propped up his Democratic opponent, Mike Obermueller. But less than a week before Election Day, Mr. Maher, in an interview with The New York Times, couldn’t remember his preferred candidate’s name: “It’s not Keith Olbermann, but it’s a name like Keith Olbermann.”

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