Philbin: Still the Excitable Boy

A Q&A with the host and his producer, Michael Gelman

Regis Philbin, at 76, still makes doing a live talk show look easy. And as Live begins its 20th season, Philbin and his executive producer, Michael Gelman, chatted with B&C's P.J. Bednarski about longevity and why Live works so well.

Obviously, a lot of what you are today is based on what you learned a long time ago, when you were in L.A., as a sidekick on The Joey Bishop Show and even had your own failed late night talk show that you did for Westinghouse.

Philbin: The Westinghouse show. Boy, this is unusual to me to find a reporter who remembers that show.

I watched it. I remember watching the last show…

Philbin: Two-week tape delay [between when it taped and when it aired].

There was?

Philbin: Yeah. I came out of San Diego, where I had a live TV show on Saturday nights, and everything was great. And then they take me up to Hollywood [for the Westinghouse show] and then they tell me, you know, it's going to be a two-week tape delay. A two-week delay!

So how the hell can I talk about the Academy Awards or whatever was going on around us and see it two weeks later? It was very, very difficult.

Did the failure of that show…

Philbin: It killed me, it killed me. I was just destroyed.

Gelman: I think that's been one of the keys to this show—that it's live, and Regis just thrives on a live audience. He holds their attention, he talks about his day.

Was there always the kind of on-air crosstalk you have with Gelman?

Gelman: Well Reeg, you started. When I saw old tape, Regis always would break the wall of reality and he would start talking to people off camera, if something went wrong. Maybe not as much [as he does now]. But that was a big part of it being real. Regis would do his cranky Regis thing.

So I think what happened when I became executive producer [in 1987] is he'd never had a producer for this long. And he started talking to me and over the years it became a bigger and bigger deal and then he created me as this character, the evil producer. Does that sound right?

Has anyone ever thought that you were actually mad at him?

Philbin: Some people thought, 'Well, why are you insulting him? Why are you putting him down?' They didn't get it. I believe this—that if you've going to have a co-host or a producer that you're going to talk to on the show, it's got to be real. I mean, if you're annoyed about something, even though you're not really annoyed, you gotta have an edge to it.

Like, what am I going to call him when I'm mad? Michael? Do you know how many Michaels there are? But Gelman? Gelman lends itself to humor.

And Michael, you must get that 'Gelman!' on the street.

Philbin: He loves it. Changed his life.

A lot of the show is just Regis and Kelly talking and as I understand it, you really don't know what's planned. That must make it tricky to produce the show.

Philbin: I don't see Kelly until about 30 seconds before the show, so whatever she or I say, it's fresh, it's new.

Gelman: I mean, all we have is an hour space, two hosts, now what are you gonna do? A lot of it is, luckily, taken up by the two of them and their chat and things need to work into or off of that. And we've got our guests and our music and whatever other contests and things…So it takes a lot of planning but at the same time we have it down.

You have a lot of interaction with the audience during breaks. Many talk hosts don't.

Philbin: That was a little trick Joey Bishop taught me and made me do as an announcer. During the commercial break, when you have the two-minute break, people can drift off and lose focus and not stay with you. So it was my job to go out and keep them up. And that's what I've been doing ever since. It's been 40 years of doing that. You know, you go out in the middle of the show. I'm sorry, but David Letterman, who I love ... he blasts the music … You can't hear yourself think! And then they continue the show. And on The View, all the girls go back, look in the mirrors, check themselves out and then they come back.

When NBC added a third hour of the Today show, did that change what you did?

Philbin: Gelman! Where are my ratings? [At this point, Philbin reaches for the New York City Nielsen household overnights for a day in late August.] So here we go, P.J., Good Morning America 3.6 with a 14 share. The Early Show, 1.2 with a 5 share. Now it's very close with the GMA and the Today show with a 3.7/15 share. This is what they sign off with. Then it's us: Regis and Kelly, 5.9 with a 21 share.

These are New York ratings, right?

Philbin: Right. The Insider, 0.5 with a 2 share. Your third hour of the Today show, P.J., 1.7 with a 6 share. And may I repeat? Regis and Kelly, 5.9 with a 21 share.

Gelman: We figured it out over the years and we kind of lost track, but we got bored with taking this calculation. How many shows have come on and gone away since we've started [this show?]. The last time that we counted, it was in the 70s. So probably 80 shows by now. So when we have a new show that comes up against us, we don't react to that. They're reacting to us, which is part of the problem with all these shows.

Philbin: I want the man to be informed! P.J., let me continue: Your favorite, Oprah, 3.8 with a 12 share. You love Ellen DeGeneres, you give her more press than anybody else, all of you guys love your Ellen.

She gets a lot of positive press.

Philbin: 0.5 with a 2 share. Let me repeat, Regis & Kelly….

Gelman: It is true that in these summer months, which I always find unbelievable, there have actually been times we've won from sign-on to sign-off on every channel in every time period.

Philbin: Every network.

You're 76 now. You've had heart trouble. How much longer do you think you'll keep going?

Philbin: Well, I've got a contract that goes for another two years. And, then truly…I mean, I hate to even think about the commitment of it. I hate even to think that I have to make a decision.

But it's two years from right now. So I don't know. As we get close to it you have to give them an answer. They insist on, like, a year's notice in syndication, so they can plan. I don't know why it takes a year but I hate to make that decision.

Do you feel otherwise kind of creaky?

Philbin: Yeah, I feel a little creaky. Gelman has been with me for years now. I'm sure he sees changes in me. I don't want to overdo it, but maybe it is time to move along… [As you age] you can't see as well as you did before…

Gelman: That's all fine, but…

Philbin: Your back hurts all the time.

Gelman: Regis has the spirit of a 30-year old and that comes off on the air. It's obvious. He's ageless. It's not a number that's out there. I mean, there are plenty of guys who have been on the air longer than we have.

And Regis, because of just a lot of things, because of the way the show is, it really is the greatest job in show business and especially for Regis. He does one hour, tells a story, he does his thing, he cheers up the crowd, he has a good time doing it, he's having a good time today just getting that, and he gets to work with the very pretty and personable Kelly Ripa.

Philbin: She's crazy about me.

Gelman: Great. We have a good time and Regis goes [about his day], he goes to the gym, he goes to fancy parties, he hobnobs, he goes to a premiere, he comes back, he talks about it the next day.

He does it four days a week right now. What could be bad?

Philbin: Gelman, stop it!