As of 9:59 Friday morning, the American broadcast airwaves are free. Free of Kathie Lee Gifford, whose 15-year stint on "Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee" ended in a mawkish display of teary "remember when..." montages and good old-fashioned bad taste. Cringe-worthy as the finale was, it did mark an undeniable watershed in morning show history: Never again would Kathie Lee and cohost Regis Philbin exchange barbs with their hapless producer, discuss Kathie Lee's latest hairstyle or mull (without irony!) the media's indecorous obsession with the Gifford children.
Never, at least, until Kathie Lee comes back for her first stint as guest host.
As someone who's watched the show on say, 15 or 20 occasions (primarily, I hasten to add, while home from work suffering from a terrible fever and possible hallucinatory episodes), I've spent at least 10 or 15 minutes trying to figure out what keeps viewers coming back. (I dismissed the car-wreck analogy it's grisly, but you can't tear your eyes away as too simplistic). And after some contemplation, I've come to the conclusion that there was something about the cohosts' interaction that made the audience (including me) feel like we were in on a joke, or part of some larger, perennially cheerful reality.
But Regis and Kathie Lee's PG-rated cheeky banter also made me feel like I was doing something vaguely untoward; more than any show I've ever watched, "Live!" made me want to dust off an as-yet-unread volume of Proust and heave my television out the window. I never stayed with the program long enough to see the duo sit down with a guest (many of whom were folks I found deeply uninteresting, like Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson). But I wonder if most people didn't tune out the guest segments; after all, the first 10 or 15 minutes weren't just the show's anchor, they were the show.
And that means that the hosts' personalities were critical. Regis, of course, inspires his own breed of adoration or animosity, but those reactions are based more on his hyper-critical (and sometimes just plain hyper) personality, or perhaps a strain of "Millionaire"-inspired Regis overload. With Kathie Lee, it's different: When you get right down to it, there is something disconcerting about her. No, actually, that's not true at all. There are many, many disconcerting things about her not the least of which is her single-minded conviction that the American people deserve to experience her presence as often as possible. As I don't imagine her to be a mean-spirited person, I'm sure Kathie Lee views her ubiquity as a gift of surpassing generosity.
The rest of us aren't quite so sure. While millions upon millions of Americans tune in daily to see Reege and Kathie Lee's version of life, others have made a national pastime out of bashing Gifford's follies. And some of us are stuck in a very uncomfortable state of limbo; on the one hand sympathetic to Gifford's trials and tribulations, and on the other wondering why we have to hear so much about them in the first place. David Letterman, who hosted Kathie Lee on his show Thursday night, where a camped-up Gifford read some variation on "The Top 10 Things Kathie Lee Plans to Do at 10 on Friday Morning," seems to epitomize the national ambivalence toward Gifford. Given Letterman's caustic streak, one has to assume Kathie Lee's appearances were initially arranged to capitalize on her sky-high cheese factor. But as the years went by, a grudging sort of camaraderie emerged between the two; Letterman grew to appreciate Gifford's self-deprecation, which seemed to blossom in recent years perhaps as the only natural response to Frank's fling with a flight attendant and Cody's looming descent into adolescence.
And Gifford learned to appreciate... well, she learned to appreciate Dave. Sort of like we've learned to accept Kathie Lee herself: As a part of the landscape, the Gypsy Rose Lee of American broadcasting, who's determined to make it even if she annoys the hell out of everyone she meets on her way there.