LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Kimmel’s tearful account of his newborn son’s heart surgery reverberated widely across social media, turning a monologue seen by a relatively small late-night TV audience into something far more potent.
While “Jimmy Kimmel Live” drew its average of about 2 million viewers Monday, the host’s comments earned an online megaphone that made it a top news story reaching all the way to Washington and the health-care debate.
It’s not uncommon for a sketch or other late-night TV moment to turn into online chatter, “but this was something else entirely,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture.
A video of Kimmel’s roughly 13-minute monologue on his Facebook page drew more than 14 million views within a day, news site Axios reported. It reached 18 million views by Wednesday, compared to his usual 1 million views.
On Kimmel’s Instagram page, the video had more than 142,000 views by Wednesday, more than twice his usual. And on Twitter, where Kimmel’s posts typically are retweeted several hundred times, the figure was 31,000-plus.
Kimmel’s account of how his son was diagnosed with a birth defect the day of his April 21 birth and underwent successful surgery created a raw and moving TV moment. Billy Kimmel has tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia — a hole in the wall separating the right and left sides of the heart and a blocked pulmonary valve.
The comedian, who has a 2-year-old daughter with wife Molly McNearney, also issued a plea.
“If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make. … Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right?” he said.
Flipping through TV newscasts the day after Kimmel’s monologue, Thompson said he saw it receive the kind of coverage associated with “major stories, like Michael Jackson’s death.”
Former President Barack Obama tweeted about it (“Well said, Jimmy”), and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, referred to it on the House floor as she restated her opposition to Republicans’ proposed overall of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
On Wednesday, Trump White House spokesman Sean Spicer was queried about Kimmel.
Trump is fighting to improve the bill with protections for those with pre-existing conditions like Kimmel’s child, Spicer said, then directly echoed the late-night host’s comments.
“We need to have some of these things that aren’t Republican or Democrat and that they’re American policies” ensuring a health care system for all, Spicer said.
Kimmel’s personal use of a late-night platform isn’t new. David Letterman shared his own open-heart surgery and, on a far different note, revealed a thwarted attempt to blackmail him over office affairs.
But Kimmel’s revelations stood out because they were both touching and thoroughly detailed, Thompson said Wednesday.
“Watching a human being, in this age of deep irony, be so incredibly sincere, especially when he’s a person who does irony for a profession … that makes for a really kind of stunning thing to watch,” he said.
And Kimmel’s comments about a topical issue gave cable and broadcast outlets a news hook to use and re-use the video.
To do essentially a “celebrity story” with a viral video that everybody was talking about gave newscasts “the excuse that they were actually talking about something important” — the health care debate, Thompson said.
It was social media that brought the monologue to Keri Miyadi’s attention. She found about it because a friend posted Obama’s reaction, she said.
“I don’t watch a lot of late-night TV,” Miyadi said.