''Where's the wine, people?'' Kathie Lee Gifford asks the crew as she prepares to tape a cooking segment for the fourth hour of NBC's Today show. ''Helloooo! It's party time,'' chimes in her cohost Hoda Kotb. The show's food stylist then grabs a bottle of white and proceeds to pour glasses for both women and their visiting mothers, Joan Epstein and Sammi Kotb, who are sharing holiday recipes on this seasonable November day. While it is undoubtedly cocktail time in some part of the world, it's not even noon in New York City. Wine may, in fact, be the uncredited third host of this morning talk show given its almost daily cameo. Though it's not like Gifford needs a sip of vino to loosen up. Just minutes earlier, the 57-year-old was teasing her mother with tales of bedroom escapades between her and her husband, Pro Football Hall of Famer Frank Gifford. ''That mouth, I'll tell you,'' says Gifford's 80-year-old mother, balking at her daughter's penchant for bawdy humor. ''I guess I'm adopted,'' cackles Gifford. ''My real father is Willard Scott.''
It's this very lack of a filter, played opposite her partner's more serious demeanor, that has transformed Gifford and Kotb into morning television's most unlikely must-watch duo. Call their show mindless. Call it absurd. But the hosts' willingness to embrace such absurdity is what makes the fourth hour of Today so oddly compelling. While Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira are covering breaking news and interviewing heads of state at 7 a.m., hours later Gifford and Kotb are getting bird-poop facials and removing their bras on air. Or think of it this way: If the early hours of Today feel produced to appease and inform your parents, then the fourth hour is appointment viewing for your wild aunt who gets drunk at weddings and makes out with the best man. ''We program the show for a little bit of chaos, because when chaos ensues, it's more fun,'' says senior producer Tammy Filler. ''We are the happy hour of television.'' Literally. Gifford has even coined nicknames for each day of the week: Tuesday is ''Boozeday'' and Wednesday is ''Winesday.'' But aside from the drinking, it's the sense of fun that permeates the Today show's 10 o'clock hour that makes it so watchable, which is largely thanks to the chemistry between its hosts. ''As we have connected with each other, it just feels more like breathing than it does work,'' says the 46-year-old Kotb, sitting in the show's makeup room next to her cohost. Adds Gifford, ''We're there to have a good time. You shouldn't come on our show if you don't come to play.''
The original version of Today's fourth hour wasn't nearly as playful. Launched in September 2007 and hosted by Ann Curry, Natalie Morales, and Kotb, who was previously known for her work on Dateline, the series struggled to keep viewers' attention. ''Editorially, it needed a little spark,'' says Today executive producer Jim Bell. So Bell set his sights on bringing Giffordwho had cohosted Live With Regis & Kathie Lee from 1985 to 2000back to morning television. At first Gifford was resistant. ''I didn't want to come back,'' she admits. ''I thought I did the best 15 years of TV I could ever do with Reege.'' But after a wine-soaked meal with Kotb, Gifford decided the chemistry they had was too good to pass up. ''We had lunch that started around 1 p.m. at the Rainbow Room, and around 5 o'clock when they were getting ready for dinner, we were still there and laughing,'' recounts Gifford, who sang at the table and even moved Kotb to tears. (Jokes Kotb, ''I cry a lot when I drink.'')
Gifford immediately pushed for changes, namely to start the show off in a more freewheeling style to loosen up her cohost. ''As soon as [Hoda] got rid of the earpiece and the note cards,'' says Gifford, ''and we just started talking and teasing each other like friends do and having a good time, our audience did too.'' For Kotb, going off-the-cuff was liberating, if a bit foreign at first. ''It's like working another muscle,'' she says. ''It was a little scary when you think about trying to take off the news corset.'' But once the corset came off, the two found their stride with increasingly loopy segments, which have included conducting a tasting of booger-flavored ice cream, getting impromptu choreography lessons from Lady Gaga, and running an obstacle course...in honor of Veterans Day. They also perfected their banter, which often focuses on Gifford ribbing Kotb about her wardrobe, her hair, or her dating life (or lack thereof). ''She gets away with anythingANYTHING,'' teases Kotb, who, appropriately enough, can barely get a word in edgewise when interviewed with Gifford. This perceived tension has fueled gossip that the pair dislike each other, but both claim it's just part of the show's shtick. ''There is tensioncomedic tension,'' says Gifford. ''In the past I had to be the young, perky 'Let's get goin', Reege!' and be the cheerleader. It's a lot more fun to be the old, cranky one.'' (In reality, Gifford and Kotb have apartments in the same New York building and even vacation together at Gifford's Florida home.)
The show's cable-access tone has made Today's fourth hour a target for merciless mockery from the likes of E!'s The Soup and Saturday Night Live. The women are unruffled by the parodiesthey've even had Soup host Joel McHale on the show as a guest. Jokes Gifford about SNL's Kristen Wiig, who portrays her as the ultimate boozy mean girl: ''She is brilliant. She doesn't do me that well, but everyone else she does extremely well.'' Meanwhile, Kotb is most concerned about the fact that both SNL stars who portrayed her (Michaela Watkins and Jenny Slate) are now off the show. ''My big fear is that Kenan [Thompson] is going to play me,'' she says.
All that chatter (and meta-chatter) has helped the fourth hour of Today grab a respectable 2.1 million viewers on average and distinguish itself in a crowded daytime-television market that includes controversy magnet The View and newcomer The Talk. But perhaps the biggest surprise of Today is how it's transformed Kathie Lee Gifford's image. Once derided as prissy and thin-skinned, she has, over the course of the last three years, metamorphosed on screen into a doyenne of raunchy comedy who may even bedare we say it?cool. ''It's so funny,'' says Gifford. ''People say, 'You know I really love the show with you and Hoda. Regis and you? I didn't like you so much.' I am the exact same person, I just fulfill a different function here.'' And that would be providing equal doses of comedy and...sauvignon blanc.
5 Madcab Moments
The segments you had to see to believe
1. Kathie Lee and Hoda without makeup
On May 13, the cohosts decided to spend an entire hour sans makeup. They also persuaded colleagues Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry, and Natalie Morales to show up on camera barefaced.
2. Revealing their ages/weights
Proving no topic to be off-limits, the hosts wore buttons on Sept. 20 with their actual ages and weights (KLG: 57 years old, 129 lbs.; Kotb: 46 years old, 146 lbs.) on air.
3. Hoda drunk the morning after the Super Bowl
Kotb worked as a local anchor in New Orleans. So the morning after the Saints' victory in Miami, when she reported from the scene, she was, um, in very good spirits.
4. Joel McHale appearing as a guest
On Nov. 4, Kotb asked McHale, promoting his NBC sitcom Community, why his program The Soup continually picks on their show. McHale's succinct response: ''Have you seen your show?!?''
5. Being yelled at by chef Sam the Cooking Guy
In a visit to the Today kitchen in July 2008, the celebrity chef sternly reprimanded the ladies for their chatter. He was eventually invited back...along with an etiquette expert.