At first I was puzzled, watching TV funnyman Jimmy Kimmel deliver an emotional, 9:54-minute monologue on his show Monday night about the massacre that happened the day before on the Las Vegas strip.
Kimmel cried as he choked out a shaking rant about maniacs like Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock and about America’s stupid reverence for firepower.
This was a different Kimmel from the one who took the stage right after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 12, 2012, that killed 20 little kids and six adults.
Back then, his mention of Sandy Hook was heartfelt but brief – just 54 seconds – and quickly followed by a promise to lighten the mood.
“My job tonight is to give you a little break from being sad, and I’ll try my best to do that,” he said, pausing for effect. “So: Do you want to see some Christmas lights shaped like a penis?”
The crowd roared and the show went on, twinkling phalluses and all.
So what changed for Kimmel between then and now?
He became the father of a critically sick baby, that’s what.
On April 21, his wife, Molly McNerney, gave birth to the couple’s son, Billy, who was diagnosed with a rare heart condition and needed emergency surgery to save his life. Additional surgeries will be needed to keep the little guy out of the woods.
Ten days later, when Kimmel told viewers about the ordeal, he was still raw – a weeping, pulpy blob of paternal love, exhaustion, fright, and hope. He was grateful for his medical insurance, which funded Billy’s treatment, and furious that proposed cuts to Obamacare might deny other sick babies the same chance at life.
Basically, he got woke, in the most real and awful way, to the fragility of life and how suddenly it can all end. Maybe that traumatic realization fueled Kimmel’s emotional monologue after the Vegas shootings. How could it not?
“It changes you,” says Julie Keeton, a mother from Tennessee who lived at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for three years while her son, Weston, waited for a heart and double-lung transplant. He received the organs in December 2013 but died the following March. He was just 7.
“One moment, you have a child you think is fine; the next moment, a doctor is telling you he might die. You go from thinking of your own needs to being focused entirely on your child, who has all these tubes and wires coming out of him and is depending on you to make the right decisions,” she says. “The stress is unbelievable.”
While at CHOP, she met fellow parents who’d lost their jobs, their cars, or their homes because they refused to leave the bedsides of their critically ill children. None of it mattered more than being there.
“Having a sick child changes what you care about – and what you couldn’t care less about any more,” she says. “It changes how you see life and what makes you mad. And you never go back to who you were.”
Brian Farrington is not the same man he was before his daughter Emma, 5, was diagnosed with Rett syndrome, a horrible neurological disease. She can’t speak, has the developmental abilities of a toddler, and has had uncontrollable seizures since January.
“I’m more sympathetic as a result of my daughter’s diagnosis,” says Farrington, of Bucks County, who has good insurance through his government job but who also depends on Medicaid to pay Emma’s uncovered medical expenses — $25,000 per year.
“My previous position was that most of the safety nets were for those who made conscious bad decisions that necessitate the need for government assistance,” he says. Now, though, “You tend to see the other side of the coin. There’s a lot of people in need as a result of the random misfortune of luck.”
I don’t think the wealthy Kimmel is in need, but, thanks to his child’s medical odyssey, he has become enlightened about what matters in ways that viewers seem to appreciate: This week, for the second Monday in a row, Jimmy Kimmel Live was the No. 1 late-night talk show in the coveted 18-to-49 age group, besting rivals Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert.
Those are awesome ratings. And I’m betting he’d trade them in a heartbeat for his tiny son’s good health.