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THE POWER OF BABBLE

CAN ET’S LEEZA GIBBONS AND JOHN TESH BUILD A BETTER DAYTIME TALK SHOW BY USING THE SAME OLD TV TRICKS?

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On a breezy May afternoon in Los Angeles, with three weeks to go before the June 14 premiere of John & Leeza From Hollywood, NBC’s new daily, hour-long daytime talk show featuring Entertainment Tonight regulars John Tesh and Leeza Gibbons, there are still a few details to work out. Among them: *How should John and Leeza open the show? *What should John and Leeza do during the show? *How should John and Leeza close the show? *When will the playroom annex to Leeza’s office on the Paramount lot be finished so that her children, Lexi, 3, and Troy, 16 months, can spend time with their mother while she pursues her career as cohost of J&LFH, cohost of the weekend edition of ET, host of the syndicated radio programs Country Line USA and Entertainment Tonight on the Radio with Leeza Gibbons, host of the Miss Universe pageant, host of the Hollywood Christmas Parade, host and coproducer of Lifetime’s parenting series Growing Up Together, and frequent cameo player in movies, including Soapdish, The Player, and Last Action Hero, in which she inevitably appears as herself-the friendly, 36-year-old interviewer from Hartsville, South Carolina? ”I’ve been desperate to do a loose talk show for so long,” says Leeza, who, armed with a journalism degree from the University of South Carolina, has held TV gigs in Spartanburg, S.C., Dallas, and New York City over the past decade. And why not? Everybody else, it seems, already has one (see story on Chris Evert’s, page 48). Still, John & Leeza From Hollywood is receiving particular attention, not least because NBC daytime programming desperately needs a shot in the arm. Also because the big-budget program shines still another spotlight on Gibbons, whose visibility is fast overshadowing that of her foursquare ET colleague Mary Hart, and whose more casual, spontaneous personality may yet liven up that of her other foursquare colleague, Tesh. On this particular breezy day, before taping Test Show 11, Leeza is in her J&LFH dressing room, which smells like new nylon carpeting and is softened with photos of her children and husband, 42-year-old actor Stephen Meadows (NBC’s now-canceled Santa Barbara). She’s explaining how this particular talk show will be different from all other talk shows on earth. ”On Entertainment Tonight, John and I are seen pretty much, you know, head and shoulders in the box,” Gibbons says, her feet propped on the couch arm. ”This will be all over the place.” Among other experiments so far, she says, they’ve sent audience members out on the Paramount lot (America’s Funniest Home Videos-style) to snap photos of celebrities; they’ve interviewed the guy who washes cars on the lot (Late Night With David Letterman-style) to find out which celebrities’ cars he has detailed that day; and they’ve taken questions from the audience (Donahue and Oprah-style). ”I gotta be honest with you,” says Gibbons, ”I was kinda bitching and moaning about, ‘Aw, jeez, test shows, you know, come on, let’s do two or three and then get on the air.’ Well, whoa, was this a wake-up call for me!” The real wake-up call may be that there is nothing else left to do to be different from all the other talk shows on earth. On Test Show 11, J&LFH executive producer Marlaine Selip decides to open the program (to theme music written by Tesh) by having John and Leeza walk out to applause and sit on a couple of tall director’s chairs near a bright, busy video wall that blinks the show’s logo. Since admission to the taping of an unfamiliar show for an episode that may never air is not exactly a hot ticket, the applause for Test Show 11 comes from a confederation of clappers bused in by the producers, including a group from a senior citizens center, a gaggle of gentlemen from Nar-Anon, a support group for family members of narcotics abusers, and visitors from an alcohol recovery organization. ”I want a fun, light, entertaining show with heart,” says Selip, a veteran of daytime heartiness who spent eight years with Donahue and three with The Joan Rivers Show. ”I want more of a Regis and Kathie Lee feeling.” Tesh, 41, jacketless, tieless, and collarless in a mod bib-front shirt, sits his 6’6” frame down next to 5’8” Leeza in the director’s chairs, and the two attempt banter with a Regis and Kathie Lee feeling. ”I threw my back out,” says he. ”Because it was Connie’s (actress Connie Sellecca, Tesh’s wife of 13 months) birthday last week and ” ”Oh ho ho,” chuckles Gibbons, ”I think you’re telling me more than I want to know!” Later, Tesh and Gibbons move to the couch. Test Show 11 continues with nuggets from a woman auditioning to be a regular contributing gossiper (Item: Vanna White is allergic to her husband’s semen); a visit from comedian Carrie Snow (who talks about her plastic surgery); a phone call to presidential haircutter Christophe (who refuses to talk about his clients); and a long chat with Norma Jean Almodovar, who wrote a book about how she used to be a cop and then became a call girl. ”I like sex. I like to do a lot of things. I like to sculpt,” says Almodovar. A gentleman in the Nar-Anon seating area makes barking noises. ”Ideally the show would be part Regis and Kathie Lee and part David Letterman,” Tesh says. ”Letterman is it for me, he’s the best. I want to have some fun.” ”I’ve always joked that I want to have a Dick Clark kind of career,” says Leeza Gibbons, ”with that kind of longevity.” On this breezy afternoon, the addition of American Bandstand-style dancing teenagers may be the only innovation in the talk-show universe left to try.