The information-packed plaques in zoos serve educational purposes, separating the animals from each other. They help when distinguishing between animals with similar looks, like impalas and gazelles. In last night's Jimmy Kimmel Live interview, the late-night host and his guest, Kanye West, both agreed that celebrities like themselves get treated like animals at the zoo, but there's no need for a plaque distinguishing the two.

 

Kanye West turned Jimmy Kimmel into an audience member, just like us.

 

We need Kanye West because he's a genius and makes the most exciting, divisive popular music of today. But even more than that we need Kanye West because he's earnest, even in the face of comics like Kimmel who want to make him appear like a joke of a motor-mouth, a jerk in need of some reflection. If anyone needs a check himself, it's Jimmy Kimmel.

Last night's event, what we'll all call an interview even though it was more of a press conference, happened because of a skit Kimmel and his team made in response to West's recent BBC interview. Because Kimmel doesn’t pay attention to rap or fashion, something he made clear last night, and because he didn’t even watch all of the interview, the shots he took at West looked ignorant. He had kids act out embellished soundbites from the BBC interview, which made Kimmel’s sketch seem prejudiced on top of just stupid. Infantalizing a black man, making a boy out of him, is gross, and Kimmel should’ve known better. What’s more, he should’ve been taken to task for it.

Because of this, going into last night’s interview, Kimmel looked bad. Did he redeem himself?

The episode got off to a bumpy start. Kimmel made it clear he’s a herb with a yuck-yuck joke about bringing a rhyming dictionary to a rap battle. This kind of chuckle-mining makes you wonder why he went after West in the first place, since Kimmel keeps playing into the fact that he doesn’t know anything about rap. The results are lame jokes for audiences with a similar lack of knowledge. Which would be fine, I guess, if it didn’t create a space for white viewers to dismiss the work of a black artist as a whiny trifle. That’s ultimately why this situation is a fucked one.

After some Leno-esque clowning of Twitter trolls and music festival-goers (who Kimmel clowns for ignorance of an art form he himself isn’t versed in, naturally), he brought out West. They shook hands and embraced before sitting down to talk. Kimmel referred to his skit and Kanye’s subsequent phone call and Twitter blow up as a “big dumb fight.” That sums up how Kimmel tried to paint the confrontation all night, as something silly. He said he used kids in the skit just because he thinks that kids using profanity is funny. And while that may be true, he should still understand the implications of that skit in light of American racism. No such direct challenge was handed down to Kimmel during the evening.

What you can credit Kimmel with, though, is giving West a platform to speak. When West spoke in his earnest, disarming fashion about entrenched institutional racism in, for example, the fashion industry, Kimmel stayed quiet. The most important reality of last night is that West leapt beyond the boundaries of normal talk show chitchat in one single, serious bound. He created a space for genuine conversation about what he does and the obstacles of class and race, a space that he is denied every time someone tries to strip him of his power through mockery. People like Kimmel do this with skits like 2011’s “Josh Groban Sings Kanye West Tweets.” Apparently not knowing what else to do, Kimmel played portions of that old skit last night. That sounds about right, relying on old tactics and irony when faced with such sincerity. Kimmel brought out the leather jogging pants again, gifting a tiny pair to West's young daughter, but by then West had hijacked the show. He turned Jimmy Kimmel into an audience member, just like us. Know that none of us are safe in this zoo, and be thankful that we get to watch someone great.

Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)

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