Monday’s Jimmy Kimmel Live turned out to be an extended response to 2020's latest sucker punch, the Friday death of comedian, actor, improviser, and secret ingredient in a half-century of comedies, Fred Willard. Starting out with a monologue paying tribute to Willard’s long and up-for-anything association with his late-night show, Kimmel played a clip of the night he deadpanned a heartfelt eulogy for the recently deceased, 74-year-old Willard, only to eventually reveal that the very much alive Willard was the one holding up the cue cards for his somber tribute. As it turned out, Willard made it another 12 years, dying at the age of 86 having done countless bits on Kimmel’s show as everyone from the neighbor who beat the crap out of Rand Paul, to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to Donald Trump’s disappointed dad, to reprising his character—stalwart and jumpsuited Captain Thomas Woods, in case you don’t remember—in the latest example of real life being too ludicrous for parody (although some are trying again), 1978's TV movie Space Force.
Of course, the genius of Fred Willard was that he was always riffing off of the same archetype—the clueless, beaming blabbermouth whose perpetual also-ran status never once robs him of his cocksure belief that he’s the smartest and funniest one in the room. As Kimmel put it about Willard’s onscreen persona, “It always worked, so why would you change it?” Throwing to a series of clips from some of Willard’s many collaborators over the years, the show turned into a lovely, heartfelt, and warmly funny memorial from some of the funniest friends a guy could ever have. Catherine O’Hara called her Waiting For Guffman husband Willard’s “unbelievably strong, in the best way,” affectionately explaining that, as a first-time improviser herself on the 1996 Christopher Guest film, “You had no choice but to surrender to Fred’s will.”
Guest himself expressed disbelief at Willard’s passing, saying that, like Willard’s legendary improvisational prowess, it seemed like the actual Willard could have gone on forever, while Eugene Levy noted how Willard was the crucial answer to his and Guest’s Best In Show third-act conundrum, “How do you make a dog show funny?” TV costars like Modern Family’s Julie Bowen and Ty Burell and Everybody Love’s Raymond star Ray Romano recalled how just Fred being Fred was a guaranteed punch-up to any script. And Martin Mull—whose partnership with Willard on the still-groundbreaking fake talk show Fernwood 2 Night was a formative favorite of Kimmel’s—claimed first chair in the Fred Willard chorus of praise, explaining that, while Fred was loved by pretty much everyone, “I loved him enough to marry him. “(On Roseanne.) Kimmel, relating an anecdote about a summertime visit to Willard’s home, called his friend’s unique personality “a Christmas tree in June:” “A little weird, familiar but still surprising, full of good memories, and you’re just instantly happy that it’s there.”