Not since 1994’s hit movie “Speed” has watching a transit bus been so entertaining. On May 15, Jimmy Kimmel, host and executive producer of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (JKL), filmed his entire late-night talk show on a Santa Monica, Calif., Big Blue Bus as it traveled along its regularly scheduled route throughout the city.
The 40-foot New Flyer bus was modified to resemble a studio, complete with a miniature desk at the front of the bus where Kimmel interviewed guests as they sat in colorful seats across from him. Guests for the night — Paula Abdul, Flavor Flav and singer Feist — were specifically invited for this episode, and picked up at bus stops along the way. One of Big Blue Bus’ actual bus operators, Erskins Robinson, was at the wheel.
Kimmel, known for bucking convention, also did a show last year rewarding eco-friendly viewers. In May 2006, he honored unsuspecting bus riders in four cities, with one passenger from each city winning a new car. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when the comedian, who often discusses global warming in his political comedy, came up with the concept of filming on a city bus and pitched it to his team.
“Jimmy loved the idea of being able to go green and celebrate people who were saving money and gas by giving them their own show,” said JKL Executive Producer Jill Leiderman. She added that she was thrilled by the challenge of pulling it off.
Although hers was not the first agency approached, Big Blue Bus General Manager Stephanie Negriff said she was excited to be at the helm of the first transit system filmed on a live television show. “When we learned that Jimmy Kimmel was an environmentalist and understood the benefits of public transportation, then we were willing and happy to work with him,” she said. The transportation agency, which carries 21 million passengers a year, has a fleet of approximately 210 buses, more than 40% of which are fueled by LNG.
Dan Dawson, customer relations manager for the agency, explained that safety was a major concern. “They called a few agencies, but the agencies were afraid because there was no way to control everything. We had to be willing to give that up and go with the flow,” he said. The two-month process involved a number of departments, including legal, risk management, maintenance, marketing and security. Constant communication between the transit system and JKL was done via phone or e-mail to ensure all issues were resolved.
Big Blue Bus was responsible for providing a driver, so a contest was held among the agency’s drivers. Candidates submitted their photo, along with a brief explanation about why they would be the best driver for the event. Finalists were narrowed down to those with the most exceptional driving and customer service records. The remaining five or six were presented to Kimmel for interviewing. Robinson was the lucky winner.
Test runs with an empty bus were conducted three to four times a night to make sure everything ran smoothly. To minimize the chance of an accident, Robinson was not allowed to make conversation while driving (Kimmel compared him to a Buckingham Palace guard). Instead, a brief video segment called “Meet Your Driver” introduced him to the riders, as well as viewers at home.
In addition to the band, show regulars Cousin Sal, Uncle Frank and Guillermo also went along for the ride. Highlights from the show included Cousin Sal’s gas station skit, in which he raised gas prices while customers were filling tanks, as well as Kimmel, Frank and Guillermo stopping at a local KFC to get food for everyone on the bus.
Dawson sees it as a big payoff for Big Blue Bus and hopes it will boost people’s awareness about the accessibility of public transportation. “You couldn’t pay for that kind of advertising!” he said.