In a dark and cluttered office deep within Hollywood's former Masonic Temple, Jimmy Kimmel is slumped on a sofa, looking ruffled and a little hungover. Cuddled up next to him is his girlfriend, Sarah Silverman, who is dressed (in Kimmel's words) "like Rocky Balboa in training", as if in defiance of her recent status as a Maxim cover girl. Kimmel is 40 and Silverman 37, but the two of them might as well still be in college: in fact, they look ready to settle down for a Big Night In with a curry and a selection of ironically bad television.
Meet America's king and queen of comedy: a couple who have suddenly found themselves on Hollywood's A-list thanks to an in-joke that turned into one of the biggest celebrity collaborations since We Are The World -- only with actors such as Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford instead of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.
It took off a month ago with a video clip that Silverman made for Kimmel, entitled I'm F***ing Matt Damon, featuring the actor himself. Last week Kimmel released his reply: another clip with another star, I'm F***ing Ben Affleck.
The two clips have now gone viral, in the biggest possible way, on YouTube -- each one has been viewed more than eight million times -- and both featured in Kimmel's post-Oscars show, which managed, in a miserable year for ratings, almost completely to upstage the ceremony itself. All of which raises an obvious question: how on earth did this Catholic/Jewish couple -- neither of whom could seriously be considered a 'power player' in Hollywood -- pull off such an incredible stunt?
Kimmel is probably less well-known to most people on this side of the Atlantic than Silverman, though he is arguably the bigger star in America. A former rock DJ and game-show host, he co-created The Man Show and Crank Yankers (in which puppets re-enact crank phone calls), and in 2003 was given his own late-night spot on ABC, Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Silverman, meanwhile, is a stand-up comic who sings songs about her faeces (This is a Poop Song) and delivers one-liners such as this: "I was raped by a doctor, which is, like, so bittersweet for a Jewish girl."
She now has her own sitcom, The Sarah Silverman Program, which has been both a critical and a ratings success.
As Silverman tells it, the insanity of the past few weeks began three years ago, on a night when Kimmel had a particularly poor selection of guests. Exasperated, he ended the show with a fake apology to Matt Damon for 'running out of time', as though the star of The Bourne Ultimatum had been dropped to make way for the nobodies who had appeared instead. Kimmel found the line hugely amusing and began apologising to Damon every night -- something that Damon apparently found equally hilarious. Eventually Damon was genuinely booked on the show, with Kimmel giving him such a long introduction -- he listed every film in which the actor had starred -- that he did, in fact, run out of time. Damon stormed off in a rage as the credits rolled.
It wasn't real, of course. And so last year, when Kimmel's writers were preparing a special edition of the show for his 40th birthday, Damon came to mind. Silverman was enlisted, and soon a plan emerged: she would make a music video with the actor in which she would confess (in song) to be "f***ing Matt Damon". The result would be played as a surprise for Kimmel on the show.
"Jill Leiderman [Kimmel's producer] called Matt and he was in right away. We just had to figure out scheduling," says Silverman. "Coincidentally, I was going on tour for two weeks and I went through Miami, where he lives, so we were able to schedule it then."
Seeing an actor of the stature of Damon involved in such a brilliantly childish prank was a revelation for many.
"I'm f***ing Matt Damon," runs Silverman's lyric, as Damon follows with, "On the bed/On the floor/On a towel by the door/In the tub/In the car/Up against the mini-bar..."
In the end, Kimmel's 40th birthday show never happened because of the Hollywood writers' strike, and Silverman decided to unveil the video on the fifth anniversary of Jimmy Kimmel Live! instead.
"I sat on it for months and didn't say a word," says Silverman. "I can contain myself in that way. I'm amazed that no one here [in the studio] blew it.
"On the night of the fifth anniversary show I was one of the guests, and Jimmy knew that there was going to be a surprise. So we were brushing our teeth together in his office, right before the show, and I was like: 'I'm being honest right now. Lower your expectations, because you're going to be disappointed. It's a funny video, that's all. I made a video'."
As she recalls the moment, Kimmel interrupts: "It turns out you weren't being honest, and now you can never lower my expectations. I just couldn't understand when it had happened, or how it had happened..."
The video soon become a YouTube phenomenon. Kimmel was reluctant to respond at first. "I didn't want to make another video," he says, "because the [Matt Damon] video was very funny and didn't think we could make one as funny as that."
But then things started to get out of hand. First, Ben Affleck agreed to appear in the video that Kimmel didn't really want to do. The plan was for the clip to be set to the same tune as Silverman's (written by Kimmel's band leader, Cleto Escobedo), only with Kimmel confessing that he was "f***ing Ben Affleck". When Affleck signed up, so did Brad Pitt, then Harrison Ford -- and so it went on.
Kimmel was so excited, he couldn't keep it a secret from Silverman. Besides, he was spending most of his time trying to get big-name musicians for a We Are The World-style skit towards the end of the clip. But how exactly did Kimmel explain to Pitt, one of the world's biggest movie stars, that he wanted him to play a FedEx delivery man who presents him with a cake on which is written: "Congratulations On F***ing Ben Affleck"?
"Well, you know, no direct phone calls are ever made in Hollywood," explains Kimmel. "Someone who works for me called someone who works for him, then they each spoke to their bosses. But it did surprise me how quickly that came together. You think that big celebrities are way too busy all the time to do anything. But it turns out that when there's something they really want to be in, they'll make time for it. And once we'd booked Harrison Ford it became easy to book other guests."
And so Hollywood bonded over the unlikely cause of Kimmel declaring his love for Affleck while appearing shirtless in cut-off denim shorts. ("One gay guy wrote to me saying that my stomach made him want to vomit," says Kimmel, "but other than that, I got no complaints".)
In the end, the video also featured Robin Williams, Josh Groban, Cameron Diaz, Huey Lewis and too many others to mention. It took 48 hours to produce. "The truth is, the original video is funnier," says Kimmel. "It's just that the celebrity star-power of the second one is astonishing. It's more amazing than funny."
And with the Academy Awards, hosted by Kimmel's friend Jon Stewart, almost upstaged by Kimmel's follow-up show, perhaps what the Oscars needs to halt its falling ratings is a host like Kimmel, with riskier content. Silverman says she is convinced it will happen, but Kimmel isn't so sure. "I'm not seen as classy enough to host the Oscars," he says. "And I don't know if the f***ing Ben Affleck video propelled me in the right direction."