For a full decade now, Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford have been making inside-showbiz chitchat (”Regis, have you had that Cap’N Crunch chicken at Planet Hollywood? It is absolutely delicious!”); asking trivia questions that redefine the triviality of trivia (”What was the name of the town on The Andy Griffith Show?”); and exhorting viewers to take part in stunts such as the current ”Dynamite Dessert Contest.” (The announcer says that one criterion for winning this recipe showdown will be ”the compelling nature of the note accompanying the entry.” Compelling? Oh, dear: I wonder how many Regis and Kathie Lee fans will threaten suicide if not chosen?)
All of which is said with affection — after all, as morning shows go, Live With Regis & Kathie Lee is far more enjoyable than all your Gordon Elliotts, Richard Beys, and Rolondas rolled together. Still, as this 10th anniversary of their partnership proceeds, it’s hard not to feel that Philbin and Gifford are losing it a bit. The show isn’t quite the hoot it once was.
My qualifications in committing such heresy are, by the way, impeccable. I’ve been studying Philbin since the late ’70s, when he perfected his morning-show shtick cohosting A.M. Los Angeles. There he was paired most memorably with Cyndy Garvey, and the two achieved a kind of anti-chemistry: Garvey had blond-bombshelled her way onto TV as the then wife of L.A. Dodger Steve Garvey and was hell-bent on proving she had the legitimate makings of a broadcast star; Regis, alternately belligerent and cowed by her, couldn’t stay far enough away on the couch the duo shared. Every morning at 9 a.m., it was sadistic bliss, watching these two.
Regis and Kathie Lee could, by contrast, now use a bit more of that sort of friction. In their early days together, Philbin used to work himself into a fine froth, twitting Gifford unmercifully for her ceaseless self-promotion: the daily updates about her singing career (an exercise in faux-earnestness unequaled since the early days of Sheena Easton), her child-rearing triumphs, her apparently perfect marriage to former footballer Frank.
Currently, however, Kathie Lee’s egocentric tizzies seem to have nearly exhausted poor Regis. Their start-of-show chat session — by legend spontaneous and unrehearsed (and I don’t believe it for a second) — seems to run on longer than a Jay Leno monologue. Kathie Lee recently started promoting some kiddie-video project she’s been working on — I swear the title I heard was Kathie Lee’s Rock ‘n Tots Cafe. And Regis, perhaps reluctant to alienate the middle Americans with whom his partner has undeniably established rapport, has limited his sensible disapproval to a few eyeball-rollings — unusual self-restraint, to say the least.
On July 14, Live featured the sin-burdened Hugh Grant, busy visiting that succession of American confessionals that take the form of TV studios. Before Grant straggled on stage, Kathie Lee informed us that he was receiving her forgiveness in advance, because ”he’s been repentant, which is a wonderful biblical word we don’t use enough these days.” If ever there were a chance to offer some amusing variation on ”Oh, put a sock in it!” this was it. But Regis didn’t make a peep.
For Live’s current malaise, I do not blame Philbin; he has fought the good fight for too many years. No, I suspect that the problem is systemic and resides in the person of Michael Gelman, Live’s executive producer. For the first few years of their run, R & KL referred to the offscreen presence of ”Gelman,” whose image was that of a beleaguered young worker who never quite fulfilled the wishes of his on-camera masters. As time went on, though, Gelman became all too visible — a dark-haired smirk decked out in Barneys’ best — and this running gag became a corporeal drag.
And a drag who’s not exerting enough control over his charges: As Kathie Lee chomps the scenery, Regis is stranded, looking irritated and tired. Maybe because the show has been such a syndication smash, Regis has resigned himself to this fate. But there are those of us who still yearn to see a revitalization of the prickly, spunky Philbin who continues to pop up in energetic cameos on Late Show With David Letterman now and then.
Regis, do not cede Live to the life of Kathie Lee. Fight on! The plus in this grade is for you, babe. B+