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Jimmy Kimmel makes it to prime time — tied up by Matt Damon

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Updated: March 2, 2013 6:15AM

Jimmy Kimmel should take a page from another late-night host named Jimmy and write a thank-you note — to Matt Damon.

Damon’s humorously hostile takeover of Thursday’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” proved to be an instant classic, generating lots of buzz as well as the show’s highest ratings since moving to its new 10:35 p.m. time slot earlier this month.

The star-studded installment sparked a record-breaking number of tweets — 230 percent above average — for Kimmel’s late-night talk show. The program’s YouTube channel delivered 550,000 video views in the hours immediately after the broadcast.

The episode was such a success, ABC decided to air it again, in primetime. The repeat will run from 9 to 10 p.m. Tuesday on WLS-Channel 7.

The Damon episode is must-see TV. Kimmel spends the show bound and gagged in the background while the Oscar winner hijacks his program. Damon appoints Sheryl Crow bandleader, trades in sidekick Guillermo for Andy Garcia and taps Robin Williams to finish his monologue. Kimmel’s sad puppy eyes look on as Damon chats up a conga line of celebrities, including Nicole Kidman, Demi Moore and Reese Witherspoon. Even Oprah makes a cameo.

Nearly 10 years in the making, the Damon episode is the culmination of a tradition that started in Kimmel’s first season, when the host signed off with an apology to Matt Damon for “running out of time.” The ongoing gag got taken up a notch in 2008 when Kimmel’s then-girlfriend, Sarah Silverman, taped a music video about getting busy with Damon behind Kimmel’s back. Kimmel responded with a video about his love affair with Damon’s buddy, Ben Affleck.

The viral videos marked a turning point for the late-night talk show, Kimmel said during a recent interview at his Hollywood Boulevard set.

“When celebrities saw that and saw they would have an opportunity to be funny on the show and online after the show, that made a big difference,” Kimmel said shortly after his program moved to its new time a half-hour earlier, putting him head-to-head with late-night titans Jay Leno and David Letterman.

The time shift certainly has boosted Kimmel’s ratings. The week of the Jan. 8 debut, the show averaged 3 million total viewers, a 26 percent jump over the program’s previous high of 2.4 million in late 2011.

The Damon episode helped Kimmel trounce his competition in the advertiser-coveted demographic of adults 18 to 49, according to early Nielsen ratings. Kimmel beat “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” by 62 percent and CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman” by 120 percent.

It’s not the first time Kimmel has come out on top in the key demo in his new time slot — a feat the host said he expects will be the exception rather than the rule.

“I think ultimately we’ll wind up being the No. 3 talk show,” Kimmel said. “No. 3 is fine with me.”

As for who will end up the king of late night, Kimmel said the answer is no one.

“The truth is, Johnny Carson retired with that crown,” he said. “There are a bunch of shows that split up small parts of the audience pie, that’s the reality. There’s no king of late night anymore.”

Maybe not, but Matt Damon makes a pretty good pretender to the throne.

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