Monday night’s episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” was devoted to comedian Fred Willard, who died Friday at age 86. And appropriately, Kimmel began with an opening monologue that recounted some of his favorite moments when Willard appeared on the show.
Willard, best known for his long collaboration with director Christopher Guest, was also a friend of Kimmel’s as well as a frequent guest on “Live.” He not only appeared several times to promote other projects, but also performed as part of the show, appearing in many sketches over the years.
Kimmel talked about that and more in his monologue, which began with a discussion of the influence Willard had on Kimmel when he was growing up. “When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time sitting in front of a TV I had on my desk in my room – and one of the shows I would watch – religiously – on Channel 5 in Las Vegas – was FernWood 2 Night.”
That show, which aired 65 episodes in 1977, was a parody of the talk show format and featured Martin Mull as host Barth Gimble and Willard as his sidekick, Jerry Hubbard. It spawned a sequel series, “America 2 Night” and launched a decades-long comedic partnership between Willard and Mull.
“I loved this show, said Kimmel.”This was one of those shows that – probably 80% of the people watching it didn’t get. Maybe 90%. It was definitely my kind of show. And Fred was so great on it — he was the… oblivious second banana. He would chime in and say dumb things, in a very earnest and genial way. He and Martin Mull were great together.”
Kimmel mentioned some of Willard’s other collaborations with Mull and his later success working with Guest in films like “Best in Show,” and in movies like “Anchorman,” noting that Willard “played basically the same character – in everything. He was the same guy. Because it always worked. So, why would you change it?”
“It didn’t matter if the movie or show was good, bad, terrible or great – Fred was always funny,” Kimmel continued. “He was more than just funny. He had a light inside him – you could see a glint of it in his eyes – and it made everyone around him happy.”
Kimmel then explained how in 2018, when Willard’s wife died, he invited him to participate in a sketch in an attempt to help Willard feel better. They ended up discovering that in the 1970s, Willard appeared on a short-lived sci-fi sitcom called “Space Force,” so to mock Donald Trump’s announcement of a similarly named branch of the military, they invited Willard to resurrect the character he played for a sketch. Kimmel had had Willard in sketches several times before but this worked out so well it became a semi-regular thing after that.
“Every sketch. I’d be like “hmmm, you know what this could use? Fred Willard,” Kimmel explained. “Sometimes he’d be in two bits per monologue. I couldn’t choose between them so I’d say – you know what, just let’s do a quick costume change – we’ll put him on twice. We could not get enough Fred.”
After speaking about his friend, Kimmel played a supercut of his many appearances on the show. You can watch that, Kimmel’s whole monologue, above.