Jimmy Kimmel on Finally Getting to Host ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ With a Studio Audience, and the Two Celebrities Who Made the Crowd Cry

Jimmy Kimmel is finally hosting “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” the way it’s supposed to be done — in front of a studio audience. The landmark game show returns with an all-celeb edition for its 25th anniversary on Wednesday night, and although this is the third season he’s been in the chair that Regis Philbin made famous, this is the first time fans have finally been allowed back in the studio.

“I really wanted to do it the proper way in front of people because you like to hear people laugh at your jokes,” Kimmel says. “Also, the drama that goes along with a couple of hundred people watching the action happen is an important part of the show. I mean, doing the show in front of nobody is no fun.”

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But that’s what Kimmel had to do in March 2020 when he first came on to host the primetime series’ revival. The first edition was shot without a studio audience but managed to still shoot just hours before the COVID-19 stay-at-home directives were issued. A second cycle followed in fall 2020 — when the pandemic was still in full swing, and Kimmel still hosted sans audience.

Now it’s 2024, and studio audiences are back — allowing Kimmel to draft off an audience to bring more energy to the proceedings. And this time, there’s another new twist: Celebrities have now been paired, with both in the hot seat. In the previous edition, contestants could bring their phone-a-friend to the studio, but they stood in the background, along the set wall — which Kimmel admits now was a bit awkward.

“Last time we had a [‘lifeline’] helper sitting in the back and it just made more sense to have the person sitting right there with them,” Kimmel notes. “Sometimes you figure things out along the way, even with the show as well established as ‘Millionaire.’”

Celebrity pairings for this season include John Mulaney and Nick Kroll; Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell; Rosie O’Donnell and Lisa Ann Walter; John Stamos and Dave Coulier; Ray Romano and Brad Garrett; Zach Braff and Donald Faison; Lil Dicky and GaTa; Kelly and Jack Osbourne; Ike Barinholtz and Alan Barinholtz; Sebastian Maniscalco and Omar J. Dorsey; Nicole Byer and Sasheer Zamata; Sophia Bush and Alex Edelman; Gillian Jacobs and Danny Pudi; Natasha Leggero and Jason Ritter; Ron Funches and Reggie Watts; and Jeff Ross and “Cousin” Sal Iacono.

“I really have to say I laughed very, very hard at a number of the episodes,” Kimmel says. “I think it took us two and a half hours to shoot John Mulaney and Nick Kroll because they were so funny through the whole thing. Ray Romano and Brad Garrett were arguing through the whole show, and it was absolutely hilarious. We really tried hard to make sure that the celebrities had real relationships with each other and that we weren’t just pairing people because of their names. That paid off in a big way because you really get to know them when they’re focused on a question and arguing about what to do or what not to do. We intentionally didn’t deputize one of them because we thought it would be more fun to watch them hash it out. It turned out to be a lot of fun.”

Other stand-out pairings included Ike Barinholtz and his father Alan, who recently played the judge on Amazon Freevee’s “Jury Duty.” And the audience probably made the most noise for “Kenan and Kel” stars Thompson and Mitchell.

“Of all the celebrities we had on the show, the audience was most excited to see Kenan and Kel together,” Kimmel says. “There were women in the front row crying. A lot of ‘Good Burger’ fans out there.”

“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” premiered on ABC in August 1999 and immediately became a phenomenon. Soon, “Millionaire” was a regular part of the ABC schedule, attracting up to 30 million viewers and helping skyrocket the Alphabet network to No. 1.

“That was a huge part of our culture when that show premiered and that insane ratings run that the show went on with Regis hosting,” Kimmel says. “It does bring back a lot of memories. I mean, it really was the biggest thing of the year in 1999.”

For the 25th anniversary, nods to the show’s origins include a visit by the show’s original $1 million winner, John Carpenter (who also made an appearance on the show’s 10th anniversary).

Kimmel is currently on his summer break from “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which is showcasing guest hosts while he spends time with his family. In taking on “Millionaire” (which he taped this past spring), Kimmel notes that hosting a game show “is about 30 times easier than hosting a late-night talk show. For me, it is like a vacation. You really don’t have to prepare. You have to be able to read, and you have to be able to throw to a commercial and make chitchat with the contestants. But you don’t have to write a monologue. You don’t have to prepare for celebrity guest segments. You don’t have to write scripts.

“And this show is a lot of fun because there’s so much drama when you start getting up into the high dollar amounts. It doesn’t matter who you are, it becomes very tense, especially when they’re playing for charities that are meaningful, not just to them, but to everybody. And that’s one thing you don’t get on a talk show real drama and excitement. You get a lot of laughs, but you don’t experience that kind of emotional rollercoaster that you do hosting a game show. When you’re making a joke, it’s great because when it’s so quiet, you can hear a pin drop. There’s no better time to drop a pin.”

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