The hottest celebrity in America is a TV star with no discernible talent who is 66 years old–that’s 462 in TV years–whose partner is the most detested woman on television, and whose claims to fame are an evening game show that no one wins (Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?) and a morning talk show where nothing happens (Live With Regis & Kathie Lee). Yet Regis Philbin deserves all his acclaim and more.
Regis has not come from nowhere. He has come from everywhere. Until he hit big with Live in the late ‘80s, he was the quintessential loser, a 25-year also-ran. A Notre Dame grad and Navy veteran, he got his start in the early ‘60s hosting a talk show in San Diego, Calif., and spent the next quarter century anchoring shows in New York, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. Periodically, these stints would be interrupted by a shot at the big time, which Regis would invariably blow. In 1964, he succeeded Steve Allen as host of Westinghouse’s marquee late-night show. It flopped, and Philbin was dumped for Merv Griffin. In the late ‘60s, Philbin spent three years as Joey Bishop’s sidekick on another doomed late-night show. Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show spanked Bishop in the ratings. In the mid-’70s, Philbin bombed as host of a couple of game shows. In 1981, he tanked as anchor of a national morning program. No one could explain why Regis didn’t work. He was too spastic perhaps–“just a nerve ending” as Bill Zehme, who co-wrote Philbin’s delightful autobiography, puts it.
Regis returned to New York in 1983, took over a morning show, hooked up with Kathie Lee Gifford (then Kathie Lee Johnson) two years later, and went national with the show in 1988. Live has been a monster hit ever since. Regis and Kathie Lee quickly became figures of ridicule, the embodiment of unhip. He was the toothy moron; she, the unbearable crooner. Live sounds like a joke, an hour of nothing: 20 minutes of “host chat” between Regis and Kathie Lee, celebrity interviews, lame stunts, a trivia question. Watch it once, and it seems pathetic. Watch it twice, and you begin to see genius.
As host of Live (or Millionaire, or anything else he has ever done), Regis displays no evident talent. He does not interview guests well. He does not tell jokes. He lacks empathy. He displays no particular intelligence. He speaks in a bizarre voice, equal parts Bronx, sinus, and helium.
S o why is he the most watchable person on television? In the autobiography, I’m Only One Man, he explains his success this way: “I started small and learned to keep it small. Small is friendlier and more real. Small lasts longer.” This captures one of Regis’ gifts. He has a modest but captivating comic persona. He is the master of umbrage. Walloped by a generation of rejection, failure, and sidekickdom, he has perfected the persona of the aggrieved little guy. His hyperactivity has mellowed, but not too much. In “host chat,” his specialty, Regis turns the mundane details of his life–a lost wallet, a urinary-tract problem, a disagreement with Live’s producer–into comic gems. Most performers mask their insecurity with ego. Regis shares his insecurity. (He can take offense at anything.) He is cotton candy, spinning TV sugar out of thin air.
Kathie Lee, endlessly chipper and extra-perfect, serves as superb foil for Regis’ peevishness. He jabs her, mocking her singing and her tedious stories about her son. She punches right back. It is an amusingly petty domestic drama, enacted every morning at 9.
Regis’ comic persona reinforces his second gift: a perfect relationship with the camera. No one talks to the screen better than Regis. “He is the last of the true broadcasters who can go on the air and spout about nothing,” says Zehme. “He is never at a loss to speak to the camera as if it were you.” This is one reason why David Letterman, Larry King, and other TV celebs idolize Reege.
Regis seems genuine on camera in part because his personality and TV persona have joined. Profiles of Philbin are tedious because he has revealed everything on the show (his latest squabble with his wife, etc.). There is no secret life of Regis Philbin. While criticizing sensationalistic, confessional talk shows, he divulges everything about himself. He just doesn’t have anything salacious to tell.
It is too bad that so many Americans are meeting Regis as the host of Millionaire (click for a description of the game). Though Millionaire has brought ABC its first sweeps win since, oh, the 19th century, the show does not do Regis justice. He is a creature of sunny day, not shadowy night. He is restrained on Millionaire, forbidden to indulge in his stories, ad-libs, and insults. His job is to make the contestants sweat, but he’s no good at it. He’s too light to play the heavy. The dark suits he wears make him look like a lounge singer, not an enforcer. His Millionaire Video Clip voice cannot convey menace. His attempts to daunt contestants are more genial than ominous (although “Is that your final answer?” has become a national catchphrase). And Regis certainly doesn’t exude the Olympian wisdom you’d expect from the host. He often seems more surprised to learn the answer than the contestants do.
Even so, Reege may be the ideal game show host for this ironic age: He allows the show to be both deadly serious and parody. Millionaire is portentously heavy, yet run by a man with no gravitas. It concerns itself with something that matters–a million bucks–yet Regis’ presence makes it frivolous. With a somber host, Millionaire would be oppressive. Thanks to Regis, it is the perfect ‘90s experience: You can enjoy it as challenge, kitsch, or both.