The audience bar is closed, as 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' gets tinkered and tamer

Watching "Jimmy Kimmel Live" last week was like revisiting the lost opportunities of high school in all their manifest potential.

I'm not referring to the show's sophomoric humor, obsession with drinking or glee over heterosexual sex. That all goes with pitching to 18- to 34-year-old men.

I'm talking about missing those things.

See, it's my understanding that back in the day — that is, in its first week on TV — "Jimmy Kimmel Live" was really off the hook.

There were rumors of Kimmel getting so blind, he could hardly keep his eyes open. Of flagrant middle-finger extension. Of an inebriated audience member throwing up on Super Bowl opening night in the vicinity of horrified ABC executives.

That last item apparently was true. The indiscretion drew a flag from ABC, which ordered the bar that serves drinks to the audience shut down.

Party's over, dudes. Though still technically in hoe-down mode as it entered week two, "Jimmy Kimmel Live" already is a soberer and more cautious product. Booze has disappeared from the set, and gestures are visually bleeped with a chaste ABC logo.

That's the curse of showing up late. It's just like those teenage years, when the one party you skip proves to be epic: couples grappling, cops arriving, students so stoned they got lost in the chilly New England woods where I was shipped off to school.

Tuning to Kimmel last week was definitely more of a morning-after experience.

The late-night talk show, which airs weekdays at 12:05 a.m. (KOMO-TV), is ABC's effort to fill the void after "Nightline." You may recall "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher" struggled with that responsibility for years and finally was killed — not by lower ratings, but by the loss of advertisers following Maher's tactless post-9/11 comments.

Somewhere, Maher is smirking. That's always true, of course, yet one suspects he is well out of ABC and into his new late-night gig, debuting on HBO later this season.

Kimmel caters to an audience markedly different from that of his predecessor. With a background rooted firmly in Comedy Central, the 35-year-old bears the heavy burden of beaming out hip rays that will paralyze young male viewers of the suburban variety.

That's too bad. The quick-witted Kimmel is outgrowing his "Man Show" trappings and with his increasingly dry delivery, he's in danger of being too subtle for this crowd.

Despite buzz that the one-hour "Jimmy Kimmel Live" would be a different kind of talk show, it displays many of the same creaky devices as competitors.

Kimmel sits behind a desk. He raps with sidekick (and childhood buddy) Cleto Escobedo Jr., who plays sax in the house band. He has a couch where guests arrive, then sit.

The show also deploys very familiar comic staples.

Wednesday night featured announcer "Super Dave" Osborne in a stale, extended riff on Los Angeles car-chase tapings. Thursday offered a send-up of "Stupid Pet Tricks" that relied far too heavily on the power of computer graphics to make us laugh.

Several stabs were made at political satire. Unfortunately, these served to remind viewers that a far more skilled staff of writers does this sort of thing better on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

What innovation there is proceeds mainly from technical trappings: The show is live, and it has an outdoor venue off Hollywood Boulevard where the guest musical act performs for people presumably less reined-in by ABC drinking rules.

The other gimmick is a different co-host for each week. Week one was Snoop Dogg. Last week was comedian Kathy Griffin, currently appearing in ABC's "Celebrity Mole: Hawaii" and one of a legion of ABC B-list talents appearing on Kimmel.

Griffin is very much the kind of woman — sorry, broad — who fits Las Vegas native Kimmel's agenda to re-create a Rat Pack environment. Nonetheless, her contributions were not discernibly greater than that of a good guest.

Then again, being a good guest is itself exceptional. On a night when actress/model Estella Warren became the object of Kimmel's fixed affection, Griffin obligingly played along by fondling Warren's hair. The triangular tension was looser and sparkier than I can ever imagine seeing on Leno or Letterman.

However, Leno and Letterman are not Kimmel's primary rivals; Craig Kilborn and Conan O'Brien are. And while common sense suggests anybody should have a good shot at surpassing the unfunny Kilborn in ratings, the recent turn in "Kimmel" from wild to controlled craziness suggests all bets are off while the tinkering commences.

Given that, it's entirely possible the "Jimmy Kimmel Live" you see this week will be different from last week or the week before.

Like high school, there are no guarantees whether you'll arrive just as the party's revving up or just as the parents are shutting it down.

Kay McFadden: