Post-Rehab III: It’s a story because I say so

Chronicling C- and D-level personalities

“The news is what I say it is.”

–David Brinkley

That is a rough approximation of what ex-network anchorman Brinkley once said in an attempt to explain that somebody has to choose what’s news and what isn’t. Feature writers have to do the same thing. Sometimes, the simple fact that you care a lot about a subject–even if the audience doesn’t–will carry the story.

Post-Rehab III: It's a story because I say so

Post-Rehab III: It's a story because I say so

I thought I’d offer two examples of this.

The first involves the director Kevin Smith, which (I know from surveying many of my associates at work) produces a “Huh?” Personally, I love the guy’s work, and I decided to try to write a story about him even though there was no new movie to hook a story to.

I was skimming Variety in September because I knew nothing about the entertainment business and figured this might help. Variety carries agate listings of where various movies are being shot, and there was a reference to Smith shooting in Pennsylvania with Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. I had a bunch of other stories in the works and “location” stories only get you so far. But when I called around it turned out Smith, who is famously from New Jersey, had relocated to L.A. and would be editing the movie here in November and December. I wondered whether I could observe him editing and possibly structure a story around the art of film editing. Since the guy writes, directs and edits (as well as, prior to this movie, acts), maybe it would be fun.

It turned out that the editing would become a component of the story–it would help illustrate the greater theme, which jumped out at me as I watched Smith at work: The guy was venturing into new thematic territory that might well alienate his cult following. All well and good-if you were part of the cult. But how about the other (I’ll estimate) 80% of the readership interested in films who didn’t know or give a damn about Kevin Smith?

That was one goal I had to keep yelling at myself. The other goal involved something one of my editors had said a while back in arguing for more profiles of a reasonable length–“let’s do more portraits, not profiles,” he said. I knew exactly what he meant: Capture the subject in motion, capture a slice of his or her life, don’t feel as though you have to do soup-to-nuts on every aspect.

The story is sympathetic–maybe too sympathetic. But the thesis was simple, and made it easy for readers to step into Smith’s shoes, even if they’d never heard of him. It was a story because I said it was. Good night, David.

“SAY IT AIN’T SO, SILENT BOB!”
January 12, 2003

FIRST TWO GRAFS HIT THE BASIC CONTRAST

The bearded, heavyset guy who walks into a darkened editing studio and starts shoving the two big couches back into alignment looks like Kevin Smith, the writer-actor-director-cult hero beloved for his vulgar, cockeyed yet sweetly human dissections of life through the eyes of the young and disaffected. There’s the oversized Brooklyn baseball jersey he wears over a long-sleeved sweatshirt, the sneakers with gray socks, the baggy below-the-knees jean shorts, the Marlboro Ultra Lights, the cans of Diet Dr. Pepper, even the new make-it-yourself snack discovery he offers you, frozen peanut M&Ms.

But then Smith starts watching the assembled scenes from his new movie, “Jersey Girl,” which wrapped shooting in New Jersey, Philly and Manhattan in November, and something seems weird. Amid his trademark rapid-fire-wisenheimer dialogue are scenes of pregnancy, childbirth, stinky diapers, school plays and harsh words between a father (Ben Affleck) and his 7-year-old daughter.

THIRD GRAF EXPLAINS THE CONTRAST IN MORE DETAIL

Smith, the creator of low-budget, high-wit films including “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma”– ribald, outrageous comedies that probed the underside of dead-end work, gender wars and the Roman Catholic Church — is making a movie with as many tears as laughs and a couple of moments that feel almost Capra-esque.

FOURTH GRAF EXPLAINS THE CONTRAST IN EVEN SMALLER DETAIL

The film has its offbeat twists and wry air. (Only in a Kevin Smith script would somebody at a small-town meeting protest a public works project by warning, “If you tear up the street, Bay Avenue’s gonna look like Bei-rut!”) But what’s unmistakable is that the same Central-Jersey suburban guy who may have inserted a certain four-syllable profanity into his work more than any other filmmaker in history has fallen in love, gotten married, had a baby, turned 30 and is making a comedic drama inspired by it.

TWO MORE EXAMPLES OF THE DIFFERENCE OF THIS FILM

Affleck, Smith’s old pal who has appeared in the last five of Smith’s six pictures, is paired with his real-life fiancee, Jennifer Lopez. If that’s not glossy enough, Miramax Films, which is bankrolling the picture, insisted on a more polished look than Smith’s previous films and hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

SHOW SMITH’S RELATIONSHIP TO THE CULT…

When Smith reacts to Zsigmond’s presence by posting a shot of them together on his Web site that refers to “Visually Challenged Director Kevin Smith,” his cult understands he is mocking his penchant for telling a story through conversation rather than action. When Smith, during one of his periodic campus Q-and-A sessions, volunteers to telephone the boss of a student who got fired from his pizza-delivery job for coming tonight, the cult understands he is not show-boating. It knows that Smith, a self-described prisoner of Catholic guilt, will whip out his cell phone and follow through in his customary deadpan delivery. The cult loves him because he is the fat kid from the neighborhood of Nowhere who made it on straight-up talent without compromising, who’ll never sell out.

…IN ORDER TO ILLUSTRATE THE BETRAYAL THE CULT MAY FEEL

And yet, as he edits “Jersey Girl” for release this summer or fall, Smith is conscious that his evolution as a filmmaker and a man is certain to alienate some cult members who revel in the perpetual adolescence his films have often celebrated.

THE ARTIST ANTICIPATES THE BACKLASH

“Every day I work on this, the more I encourage myself to get ready for the backlash,” he says during a break in editing on the Lot off Santa Monica Boulevard. He knows some fans regard the presence of J. Lo as a perverse celebrity invasion; he’s already bade them goodbye on his voluminous, good-natured Web site, www.viewaskew.com. “A good number of the folks who’ve loved our previous flicks will probably abandon us after seeing ‘Jersey Girl,’ ” he typed in mid-December. “I’ll save you the time of having to post this on our Web-board and let you know that I understand you feel I’m a … ‘sell-out,’ I’ve ‘lost it’ (whatever ‘it’ was).”

THE INTERNAL FORCES THAT DRIVE THIS CONFRONTATION-HOW LIFE CHANGES ART

What the cult can’t see is a director who, at 32 with a 3 1/2-year-old daughter and a three-story house in the Hollywood Hills, is finding himself emotionally drawn to a movie in ways he never felt before. No matter how many times he edits this one, he says, he winds up rooting for Affleck’s character, a self-centered public relations executive overwhelmed by fatherhood. “I’ve become one of these dudes who talks back to the screen,” he says with amusement. “I’m saying, ‘I hope the dude makes the right choice.’ ”

WHILE I WAS WATCHING HIM EDIT, SMITH RECALLED THIS. I ATTACHED IT TO A QUOTE THAT CAME A LITTLE LATER THAT FELT GENUINE.

There’s one scene in which father and daughter exchange a certain, knowing look while dad is addressing that town meeting. Something about it, said Smith, brought him to tears during one all-night editing session. A lot of artists could tell you that. But what friends love about Smith, and what the cult has always sensed, is a self-deprecating genuineness that compels him to add a few minutes later to a reporter he barely knows: “The bitch about this film is that you’re making a movie about being the perfect father, and you’re doing this all night and not spending any time with the kid.”

PERSPECTIVE ON THE RISKS OF CHANGING STYLE

Hollywood can be tough on directors who are suspected of trying to break out of their mold. Smith already suffered this once, when his second film, “Mallrats” (1995), a more conventional albeit sex-obsessed comedy about youths in a mall during a weekend, flopped at the box office, earning back a fraction of its $5.8-million budget. (The film’s only “name” actress, TV star Shannen Doherty, struggled with Smith’s high-velocity patter.) When it came time to make his next film, “Chasing Amy,” Smith fended off Miramax’s offer to spend more on well-known actors, instead casting Affleck and several other pals on a $250,000 budget. (“They said, ‘Kevin, it’s not about making a movie with your friends,’ ” he told a college audience. “I said, ‘Really? Because that’s been the whole point of my career.’ “) Today the stakes are far higher: Miramax is spending $35 million to make “Jersey Girl,” $10 million alone for Affleck’s salary.

HERE’S THE EDITING SECTION THAT ORIGINALLY WAS LONGER BUT FELT LABORED. I HAD TO CONCEDE THAT THE EDITING COULD NOT BE THE STORY, BUT WOULD MERELY SERVE IT.

One afternoon in December, Smith was writhing over the first measured length of “Jersey Girl”: two hours, 32 minutes, not counting another four-minute scene to be shot in early January. During shooting, he’d figured it would come in at two hours and 20 minutes and that he and his longtime producer Scott Mosier, a friend since film school, would trim it to two hours.

He had one target for cutting in mind: an easily dispensable 6 1/2-minute bedroom scene between Affleck and Lopez during her character’s pregnancy, in which she keeps waking him up to murmur sweet nothings like, “This baby is the only way I can express how much I love you” and “I think you’re gonna be an excellent father” and “I can’t do it all myself; there’re gonna be days when you have to take her to work….”

But there was a problem. The day before, he’d shown the film to a couple of his wife’s girlfriends, and they loved that scene — just the things a woman would say near childbirth and that a husband would slumber through, they said.

I THOUGHT I HAD TO EMPHASIZE HOW DIFFERENT THIS WAS, SO:

Imagine: Kevin Smith, who once wrote a scene for “Clerks” in which a young woman matter-of-factly told her boyfriend she had previously performed oral sex on 37 men, now worrying about the female demographic.

He and Mosier devised a rationalization to offer Miramax in defense of a longer-than-expected two-hour, 15-minute film: “‘Jerry Maguire’ was two hours and 18 minutes.” Smith had gone through this before with Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, who is notorious for finding trims where his directors can’t or won’t. Smith knew he’d have problems selling two hours and 15 minutes. There were montages that could be sliced, but that would make his already talky style seem verbose. “This will be the hardest movie we’ve ever had to cut,” he said. “It’s easy on a comedy. You just cut what’s not funny. That’s the big difference.” He worked through the holidays, spending several days on each scene, and by last week he’d whittled the movie down to about two hours and 10 minutes.

IT’S TIME TO EXPLAIN HOW THIS TRANSFORMATION HAPPENED. I TOOK ADVANTAGE OF HIS WIFE’S FIRST NAME AND WROTE A FIVE-GRAF SECTION. HOPEFULLY, IF YOU HAD NEVER HEARD OF SMITH, YOU WERE STILL PULLED INTO THE STORY BY THE HUMAN ASPECT, AND NOW YOU COULD LEARN A LITTLE ABOUT THE ARC OF HIS CAREER.

If the cult is looking to blame someone for these predicaments, it could start with another Jennifer: Jennifer Schwalbach. She was a 27-year-old USA Today reporter assigned to interview Smith in 1998 as he was beginning to film “Dogma,” his effort to come to grips with eight years of Catholic school and the contradictions of his faith. (Plot: Two fallen angels, played by Affleck and Matt Damon, try to return to heaven through a scheme that would inadvertently destroy the universe. Pitted against them is a linear descendant of Jesus, played by Linda Fiorentino.) Within a year they were married, and two months later Harley Quinn was born. A few months after that, Smith had an idle fantasy that occurs to most every new dad (to reveal it would spoil the story) and began writing the script that became “Jersey Girl.”

Within the next year, Affleck, coming off the cartoonish “Pearl Harbor,” told Smith he craved something more human in the mold of “Chasing Amy,” in which he’d played a comic-book writer who fell for a lesbian (Smith’s then-girlfriend, Joey Lauren Adams). Smith showed him 40 pages. Affleck signed on and eventually suggested Lopez, someone he’d met while shooting the yet-to-be-released mob comedy “Gigli,” to play his wife.

Smith wanted to make “Jersey Girl” in 1999 right after “Dogma,” but there was the Jay and Silent Bob problem. The duo — neighborhood friend Jason Mewes as foulmouthed, id-dominated Jay and Smith as the taciturn Bob — had been effective slacker characters in each of his movies. There was no room for them in “Jersey Girl,” which, as Smith says, “stopped being ‘a Kevin Smith movie’ and became a ‘Jen and Ben movie,’ or a ‘Bennifer movie,’ as we call it now.” Still, Smith wanted a sense of closure — a way to acknowledge to the cult that without Jay and Silent Bob’s presence in his earlier films, “Jersey Girl” never could have happened. So he made “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001), in which the two losers head from New Jersey to Hollywood to prevent a studio from corrupting a comic book based on their lives.

With that, Smith, wife and toddler headed East last August to shoot “Jersey Girl,” using the Philadelphia suburb of Paulsboro, N.J., as a stand-in for Highlands, the town where Smith was raised as the middle-class son of a postal worker. By October, Paulsboro, a depressed riverfront hamlet, renamed a street Kevin Smith Way and presented him the key to the city. At the ceremony he was humble (“I’m glad the town felt the need to honor someone who doesn’t deserve it”) yet saw deeper possibilities (“If I could collect Boardwalk and Park Place, then I could have a monopoly”).

The cult was able to keep close watch on all this because Smith recorded a diary on his Web site. It ranged from prideful gushing about the film (“Outside of marrying Schwalbach and being too lazy to rip open a prophylactic that apparently had Harley’s name written all over it, though not necessarily in that order, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done”) to observations of craft (“If you’re ever shooting a movie about two people falling in love, I can’t urge you strongly enough to cast a pair of people who are actually falling in love”).

I CAME BACK TO HIS PERSPECTIVE ON HOW LIFE SEEMS DIFFERENT SUDDENLY AFTER YOU HAVE A KID. I WAS GOING TO INTRODUCE THE FOLLOWING GRAF BY SAYING SOMETHING TO THE EFFECT THAT SMITH NEVER HAD TIME TO TAKE A BREATH…

One of the things new parents notice is how time speeds. “Between 16 and 28, I never noticed any difference in myself,” Smith says, sprawled on a couch in his editing room. “I never thought about crossing 30 or crossing 40. And then here I was, on the threshold of 30, with a child. It’s like having a clock in front of you, reminding you, and I never noticed until there was someone growing up in front of me.”

…BUT I THOUGHT I WOULD LET THE FACTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

It was barely a decade ago that Smith, who had dropped out of both a college creative writing program and film school, saw Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” and thought: I could do that. He maxed out his credit cards and sold his comic-book collection, and three years later “Clerks,” made in black-and-white for $27,000 in 21 nights at the Quick Stop where Smith clerked by day, was the hit of the Sundance Film Festival.

Three years after that, “Chasing Amy” won the Independent Spirit Award for best screenplay and grossed nearly 50 times its quarter-million-dollar budget for Miramax. That same year, Smith used his relationship with Miramax to get the Affleck-Damon script “Good Will Hunting” read and produced and used the then-unknown pair of actors in “Dogma,” a film he’d written years before. “Clerks” was reborn as a comic-book series and short-lived ABC animated series. For the last year, Smith has been a fixture on “The Tonight Show,” taping and narrating “Roadside Attractions,” quirky Americana features.

I LIKED LENO’S PERSPECTIVE ON SMITH

“It works because he looks like what regular guys look like,” says Jay Leno. “I find the most successful people in this business are people who make show-business money but live a normal life.”

I THOUGHT THAT SOMEONE EXPERIENCED IN THE INDIE FILM GENRE OUGHT TO HAVE A TURN AT BAT ON THE STORY THEME

John Pierson, a longtime booster of independent filmmakers who helped get “Clerks” sold, says fans nervous about the mainstream trappings of “Jersey Girl” shouldn’t worry about Smith too literally integrating his wife-and-kid experiences. “His magical gift, ever since and even in ‘Clerks,’ is to live it, observe it and then transform and transcend the actual experience,” Pierson said. “Scatology aside, he started out with tremendous emotional maturity, yet it has continued to grow exponentially …. From ‘Jersey Girl’ forward, he will understand that he doesn’t owe his fans anything except deeper, richer films — that are still funny as hell.”

A GRAF ON WHAT MAY BE AHEAD IN SMITH’S CAREER

Until now, there wasn’t a moment during the making of one movie that Smith didn’t have the next one planned. “It was an insurance policy, in case the movie we were doing then totally pooched.” Finally, he’s ready to take a deep breath. He might adapt Gregory McDonald’s “Fletch Won,” a prequel to the “Fletch” films that starred Chevy Chase. It would be a tribute to an author whose gift for dialogue and disdain for descriptive passages shaped Smith’s writing style. (Best guess on the lead: Jason Lee, another Smith pal.) He’s talking about a sci-fi project. He’s talking about a couple of comic-book flicks. He’s even talking about a vacation. After all, he just bought his first new car since the mid-’90s, a (cult members, don’t read the rest of this sentence) Ford Expedition.

OK, WE’RE COMING IN FOR THE END-OF-THE-STORY LANDING. I HAD A QUOTE I WANTED TO GO OUT WITH. HERE’S HOW I SET IT UP.

Some fans may cringe when Smith uses the word “heartfelt” to describe the kinds of movies he wants to make and watch. (” ‘Jerry Maguire,’ ‘One True Thing,’ ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ — I totally connected with those characters.”) It’s not that he hasn’t made heartfelt films before. “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma” were praised by critics for reaching into deep-seated hopes and fears; they just operated on absurdist planes outside day-to-day life. Fatherhood has pulled Smith closer to the real world, where people do more than laugh.

“I’m in this place where a zillion movies have made me laugh,” he says. “Now I want a movie to make me laugh and cry.”

IT’S A STORY BECAUSE I SAY IT IS, PART II:

Around the time I was beginning to interview Kevin Smith, I noticed another guy I loved was making a radical move. Readers of this site’s archives may remember a posting (“You have five hours to make sense of 9,000 pages,” March 18, 2002) that included the work of Internet sports columnist Bill Simmons. Well, it turned out that TV host Jimmy Kimmel had also fallen in love with Simmons, and lured him from Boston to L.A. to become one of the writer’s for Kimmel’s new late-night show, which debuted this past weekend after the Super Bowl.

My old high school journalism crony, comedy writer Mark Shipper, had turned me on to Simmons and was the one who suggested this might be a story-from Boston to L.A., from Internet to TV. The argument against doing a story would be: Nobody knows who this guy is. The argument against that argument would be: I can get you interested anyway.

Here’s what happened:

“DUES UNPAID, NET JOCK GOES HOLLYWOOD”
January 22, 2003

OUT OF DESPERATION, I SETTLED ON THE NOTION OF JUST TALKING DIRECTLY TO THE READER AND LAYING OUT THE THEME-OLD STYLE VERSUS NEW STYLE OF MAKING IT. THIS TAKES TWO GRAFS.

OK, we’ll stipulate you’re a talented, funny writer, and somebody in late-night TV should hire you for his staff. But how to make it happen?

You might do it old-style, paying your dues in heckler-infested comedy clubs and lugging dog-eared spec scripts to endless appointments. Or you could take a lesson from Bill Simmons, who made his own breaks on the Internet and rode victoriously into Hollywood a couple of months ago.

NO MONKEYING AROUND NOW-YOU GOTTA TELL ‘EM WHO THE HELL SIMMONS IS.

Simmons, a 32-year-old sports columnist from Boston without a shred of TV experience, has come west to join the writing staff of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” ABC’s heavily promoted venture into late-night comedy. Kimmel’s show, which premieres after the Super Bowl on Sunday, will occupy the 12:05 a.m. weeknight slot formerly held by “Politically Incorrect.”

YOU CAN TAKE SIMMONS’ SUCCESS EITHER WAY:

Resentful outsiders in the comedy-writing community can be inspired by Simmons’ tale. Or they may brandish it as an example of the lunacy that transpires when a network turns over a coveted time slot to a marginally known entertainer like Kimmel, whose last job was hosting the girl-ogling “The Man Show” on Comedy Central.

IN THE NO-MONKEYING-AROUND SPIRIT, GET INTO THE CHRONO

Simmons started his sports column six years ago on a Boston Web site limited to America Online subscribers. He eventually hooked up with another local site, and over the next few years developed a following by creatively blending his addictions to local sports teams and pop culture. In mid-2001, espn.go.com, which regarded Simmons as a natural for its young male readers, hired him to write three columns a week.

IN THE CHRONO, IT WAS IMPORTANT TO ME TO HAVE A NUMBER OF EXAMPLES OF WHAT SIMMONS DID ON THE INTERNET THAT MADE HIM SUCH AN INTERESTING INTERPRETER OF POP CULTURE. THIS SECTION WAS PROBABLY 40% LONGER BEFORE MY EDITOR STEPPED IN AND BROUGHT ME TO SANITY.

There, he blossomed. Speaking as “The Sports Guy” rather than a guru, writing out of his apartment rather than a stadium press box, reveling in the Internet’s lack of space limitations, he invented hip new styles of fandom.

There were the 10 rules for women who wanted to watch sports on TV with their boyfriends. (Rule 3: “When your boyfriend’s buddy calls to discuss a game in progress, don’t shake your head and definitely don’t mutter spine-crumbling comments like ‘God, I hate your voice when you’re talking to your friends.’ Needless phone calls are a crucial part of the viewing experience. They remind us we aren’t the only ones wasting our Sundays.”) There were the “13 Levels of Losing” to help you categorize heartbreak. (Example: The third-worst level, “The Guillotine,” occurs when your team is hanging tough, but you know a tragic moment is coming, and you’re proved right. “These are the games when people end up whipping their remote controls against a wall.”)

Simmons was so consumed by the 1996 young-men-on-the-make film “Swingers” that he built his annual NFL awards column around 37 quotes from the movie, each illustrating a different virtue. He created an “Unintentional Comedy” scale to numerically rate the most glaring absurdities of athletes and celebs. (Level 86 on the scale of 100 included “Any Wimbledon interview where Bud Collins tried to say something foreign to a non-American champion like ‘danke shein.’ “)

The thrice-weekly column had been on espn.go.com less than a year when Entertainment Weekly put it on its “It” list of “who’s hot and getting hotter,” proclaiming Simmons “destination reading for anyone who worships at the twin altars of pop culture and sports.”

Which was when Kimmel came calling.

THE NICE THING ABOUT GETTING THE CHRONO GOING WAS THAT NOW, WITH VERY LITTLE EFFORT, I COULD SLOW THE PACE TO DROP IN THE FOLLOWING MATERIAL ABOUT CHILDHOOD SIMILARITIES BETWEEN KIMMEL AND SIMMONS, WHICH FOR MY MONEY IS THE ONLY TRULY CHARMING PART OF THE STORY.

To appreciate the symmetry of that moment, let’s go back to the mid-1980s, when a couple of teenage boys in New England and Las Vegas would stay up until 1:30 a.m. to watch “Late Night With David Letterman.” The boy in New England — Simmons — fantasized about writing for Dave. The boy in Las Vegas — Kimmel — fantasized about being Dave.

Kimmel went into radio (because that’s how Dave began his career) and eventually broke into TV. Simmons, who grew up in Boston and then moved to Connecticut with his mother after his parents divorced, became a sportswriter in college at Holy Cross, where he had his own column on the student paper. “This was the one thing that I thought I could do better than other people.”

After graduating he was tempted to drive to L.A. to try to break into comedy writing but didn’t have the nerve to go by himself. So he got a master’s degree in journalism at Boston University, then took a reporting job on Boston’s tabloid, the Herald, hoping to rise to a columnist but instead enduring “three long, horrible years. You’re fetching coffee for some 300-pound copy editor and everybody’s fighting with each other. I got really discouraged.”

He quit, tended bar for a year, then decided to give a column a shot on the Internet. Even a few thousand hits a day can do wonders for a young man’s ego. And there was the thrill of e-mails from readers who were getting attached. “People would tell me they’d take printouts of the column into the bathroom.”

Kimmel, whose gigs include Fox’s pro football pregame show, became a fan once Simmons moved to espn.go.com. Then, last April, Simmons offered a minute-by-minute dissection of a pay-per-view roast for Shaquille O’Neal, bludgeoning all the roasters except Kimmel for being too timid to taunt the guest of honor. Kimmel, who noted that Shaq’s rapping was worse than his free-throwing, “gets an A-minus, bonus points for nearly saving the roast and my undying respect and admiration,” Simmons wrote.

Within hours, Kimmel e-mailed his thanks and the two kindled a friendship. All the while, ABC was offering Kimmel his own show to follow “Nightline.” Once the deal was sealed, Kimmel asked Simmons to join his writing staff. Simmons balked, unwilling to give up the column he’d nurtured so long. Kimmel flew Simmons and his fiancee to L.A. in September to court them.

Simmons, raised in a culture where the Boston Celtics-Lakers rivalry was the ultimate struggle between good and evil, felt the SoCal stereotypes melt away. “All you hear about L.A. are the girls … the Range Rovers. Once I got here it didn’t strike me like that. It reminded me of Cambridge — a weird, quirky city with all types of neighborhoods. L.A. is a wealthier, weirder Cambridge…. The more I talked to Jimmy, the more convinced I was that I wanted to be part of this.”

Because ESPN and ABC both have Disney as a corporate parent, Simmons was able to broker a compromise in which he’ll write his Internet column once a week.

AN EXAMPLE CAME AT THE END OF THIS NEXT SENTENCE, BUT IT WAS DELETED. LOOKING AT IT NOW, WE PROBABLY SHOULD HAVE KILLED THE WHOLE GRAF IF WE WERE GOING TO DO THAT.

Nevertheless, his announcement in November that he was cutting back left many fans crestfallen.

Kimmel, who went so far as to phone Simmons’ mother to offer reassurance that the writer would be in good hands here, says he was struck by the closeness of the two men’s sensibilities.

“When he talks about [the 1979 basketball movie] ‘Fast Break’ staring Gabe Kaplan, I can’t believe anybody outside my circle of friends knows that. He’s not trying to be funny by guessing what people laugh at. He’s writing about what’s funny to him.”

SIMMONS WAS RATHER GUARDED IN TALKING TO ME. I THINK HE FELT AWKWARD ABOUT BEING THE LONE WRITER IN THE ROOM GETTING MEDIA ATTENTION. BUT THERE WERE A FEW FRAGMENTS THAT ALLOWED ME TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT HIS PERSONAL EXPERIENCE IN HOLLYWOOD.

Simmons has already received the Easterner’s official welcome to L.A. — a jaywalking ticket. He’s wrestled with the difference between working solo without an editor and the endless filtering of ideas that goes on with nine co-writers on the sixth floor of a Hollywood Boulevard production office. He’s gained confidence. A few weeks ago he acknowledged, “I’m probably the show’s biggest gamble.”

Kimmel, who emphasizes he is less interested in scripted joke-writing than the ability to turn reality on its ear, agrees. The show’s party line is that the 50-ish Letterman and Leno have lost the edge that made them funny, that this show will have a looser, spontaneous feel, like a talk-radio show.

HE HAD SAID SOMETHING WITH AN EARNEST ASIDE THAT I LIKED A LOT AS AN ENDING.

“Right now,” says Simmons, “I feel like there’s not a talk show for someone like me. Barring Jimmy getting caught in a minivan with 13 transvestites, I feel this is gonna work.”

“And just for the record,” he added several sentences later, “the transvestite thing will never happen.”