From word one — and there have been gajillions since the day Kelly Ripa inherited Kathie Lee Gifford’s stool next to Regis Philbin on Feb. 12, 2001 — the bubbly soap star has been the perfect foil to Philbin’s constantly exasperated man-about-town. While they sip coffee and prepare for the show’s 20th anniversary episode (airing Sept. 14 with Gifford as a special guest), Philbin and his beloved ”Pipa” recall their favorite memories.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Kelly, it’s surprising. The show is celebrating 20 years, and already you’ve been on it for six.
REGIS PHILBIN: Six years in July.
KELLY RIPA: In February!
How’s it been?
REGIS: I think it’s been great. I really love her. Is this going to be part of your conversation?
KELLY: This is like therapy.
REGIS: Well, I think she’s fabulous in so many ways. She not only has a personal life filled with a husband, three kids, and now a dog, but professionally, she’s one of the most talented women in our business. I’m not making this up! I’m going to say it again until somebody listens to me: This is the closest person to Lucille Ball that we have in our generation. That’s what I think. Now let’s hear what she thinks about me!
KELLY: I’m sweating right here.
REGIS: Let’s hear this!
KELLY: I never in my wildest dreams thought that I could have this job. I was a loyal fan of Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. I thought it was the greatest show on TV. I really did. I watched it every morning. When I worked at All My Children, I watched it every morning in the makeup room. We would all sit and have our morning coffee and bagel and watch the two of them and I thought, ”What they have is magic.” And you’d notice that Kathie Lee would take a vacation and it would be Regis and Joy and you would go, ”Boy, what they have is magic.” And then if Kathie Lee took a vacation and Joy wasn’t there, it was Bernadette Peters. You’d go, ”Boy, what they have is magic.” And so the common denominator in all this magic is Regis. He’s the magic of our show. He is the world’s greatest storyteller. Don’t roll your eyes, Regis.
REGIS: Yeah, but you’ve become a great little storyteller yourself. It always surprises me. If I bring up something, anything, my aunt! Well, you had an aunt, but it was back in 1988 that the aunt said — and there’s a direct quote and a whole story that goes with it. You have an incredible memory. That’s a great asset in our opening segment.
KELLY: But what you have to realize is that you have these stories that are so relatable no matter what you talk about, everybody at home says, ”The same thing happened to me!” When you talked about showing up at the Barbra Streisand concert on the wrong night, I had just taken my son to a birthday party on the wrong day. You were telling that story and I thought, ”Oh, it happened to Regis, but on such a bigger scale!” It happened to him at a Streisand concert!
Which interviews most stick out?
REGIS: There are certain people who, as long as I’ve been here, are still fascinating. Robert De Niro is one.
KELLY: Well, you’re amazing with him!
REGIS: Well, you’ve been on six years. Which guests knocked you out? There are a couple guests that you really made a fuss over.
You were pretty worked up when Madonna came.
REGIS: Madonna! You’re absolutely right!
KELLY: I was trying to find somebody else to say besides Madonna because I always say Madonna. But really, Madonna is it for me.
REGIS: Do you think she knew how truly excited you were…or that she’s used to people kind of gushing over her?
KELLY: I think she’s used to people gushing over her and all of that, but I think she quickly sort of came to realize that yes, in fact I do go to every concert. The last concert she did, we made eye contact. Okay, in my mind it was eye contact. Madonna has no recollection, but I know she stared at me. There’s something about her. I think she’s very clever and witty. She’s really funny. She’s really down to earth when she’s here. And I just love that about her. And I love looking at her because she’s a physical specimen.
NEXT PAGE: Losing the Emmy over and over and over…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you still worked up about not having an Emmy?
KELLY RIPA: He’s won it on his own.
REGIS PHILBIN: The show has never won an Emmy.
You handle it with humor, I think.
REGIS: Well, what can we do? We’re never going to win. It’s just one of those things. We’re just not going to win. We’re all used to it now. But it’s funny that in the early days when we started the show and were getting all these ratings that somebody else would win the Emmy — and they’re not here anymore. And we’re still here — and we still haven’t won an Emmy!
You’ve certainly perfected the reaction shot at the show each year when your names aren’t called.
KELLY: It’s very funny. I would go to the Emmys when I was with All My Children, and when they wouldn’t call Regis and Kathie Lee, the audience was stunned. It was like, ”What do you mean?” And Regis would have this fit. They would show him up on the Jumbo-Tron and he would have torn pieces of paper that he would throw up in the air and do the whole thing and storm out. He was even making that moment into a thing. Because what’s more boring than an awards show?
Kelly, you were clearly in awe of the entire enterprise, then. Were you totally freaking out when you first cohosted?
KELLY: I was horrified for an entire year. You don’t want to be the person to ruin Regis Philbin’s otherwise sterling career.
REGIS: And now you’ve become King Kong! But, you know, Kathie Lee was a bundle to replace because she had been through a lot of stuff, and we shared it all with her. There was always controversy swirling around her, so it was difficult to find someone who could come up to and even, at times, surpass it.
You never really came across as somebody who was blatantly trying out for the role of Kathie Lee 2.0, though.
KELLY: I think that helped me. I’m probably the only person that never threw their hat into the ring and said, ”I’m angling for this job.” I had a job. The soap opera was great. Yes, it was a lot of work, but to me to, like, leave a job to go out into the abyss of looking for work never occurred to me. I’m one of those people. I need another job before I can actually leave my current one, and I need to have it for several years. I worked at All My Children and Live for two years before I actually left the soap. I wanted to make sure: What if they fired me? What if it didn’t work out here? I wanted a safety net.
What are the toughest segments for you guys, in terms of coordinating and doing them?
REGIS: Well if a guest falters or if a guest gets nervous or it’s a difficult time in the conversation, that can be the toughest time for us. That’s when we really have to pull them through. We kind of enjoy doing the difficult things, the outdoor games or the strange guests. It’s a departure for us. It gets us away from sitting at the stool or sitting behind the desk and joining somebody in what they do best.
KELLY: You don’t like putting on the Halloween mask.
REGIS: No, the Halloween show is a tough one because over the years it has grown into this monster. Every year, we each have to be an exact duplication of some other celebrity.
KELLY: Well, we have the greatest Halloween show of any show. I stand by that 4000%.
REGIS: We do. We started it long before the Today show would come out all dressed up as cats. It’s unbelievable that we started it, and we’ll take credit for that. I’ll stack up our show against any one else’s for Halloween.
KELLY: We love the freak show quality.
REGIS: But what I don’t like, of course, the makeup that goes into duplicating these people. They take great pains and a lot of costumes.
KELLY: Becoming me isn’t easy, is it? He looked at me one day. He’s in the wig, he’s in the Diane von Furstenberg dress, he’s in full drag. He looks at me, and he goes, ”It’s a lot of work! I had no idea being you was this much work!” I said, ”It is that much work and more.”
NEXT PAGE: Why they’ll never stop goading Gelman
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Regis, are you ever going to stop picking on Gelman?
REGIS PHILBIN: Well yeah, I think I will. I’ll move onto somebody else soon. [Laughs]
Why do you do that?
REGIS: Why? I’ll tell you why. It was just me and Kathie Lee for a number of years. Suddenly, one day, I noticed Gelman just to the side, sitting on his stool. I forget what the subject was, but I thought I’d go for a third opinion just to take the pressure off us for a moment. And it played well! So then I decided to make him the character. You know, live television. Every time a producer is introduced into the mix of things, he’s always…not so much the villain, but the guy who’s the adversary to all of the performers who do the show. So that’s what Gelman’s role in my eyes has become. Without him, there’s no fun. You’ve got to have that adversarial thing and you’ve got to have an edge. And that’s the way he comes off best.
KELLY RIPA: And he’s very famous. We were doing a remote in Times Square: Gelman, me and our camera crew. I’m doing a segment from the street and suddenly there’s a commotion. It’s Gelman giving an impromptu autograph signing and having his photo taken with tourists in the street. ”Gelman, we love you! Tell Regis and Kelly we say Hi!!” Not a single person noticed I was there. I’m there!! I’d like to think I’d stand out! But not next to Gelman. Gelman’s way more famous than I am.
So Kathie Lee will be back for the first time in more than seven years for the anniversary show. How are you feeling about this?
KELLY: I love her. She was very welcoming to me here. She sent me flowers on my first day and the card said, ”If you have half as much fun as I’ve had, it will fulfill your wildest dreams.”
REGIS: I’m glad she’s coming on. People have said, ”Where is she?” She’s still here. She’s in Connecticut. She’s writing plays. She’s developing things. I was up to Nantucket and spent the weekend with her and Frank and Joy just a couple of weeks ago.
KELLY: People say that when they first watched me, it was like she wasn’t even gone. Our dynamic is very similar, I suppose. I don’t know what came first. Did you make me this way, Regis? Or am I just this way and you chose me because it seemed very familiar?
REGIS: Well, we chose you for a lot of the same qualities that she has. You’ve got it.
Do you guys have any dream guests?
REGIS: Boy, how I would love to have Johnny Carson on one more time.
KELLY: I’ve never met Al Pacino so that would be exciting. I don’t know what kind of a talk show guest he is. I’ve really had my dreams come true meeting all these people, so I can’t think of a single person other than Al Pacino.
REGIS: He’s a good one. Like to get him myself.
You’ve never had him?
KELLY: It’s time for him to come.
REGIS: And you know, I did see him at a Golden Globes a couple of years ago when they honored him. He gave the funniest impromptu speech after he received the award and he just reminisced. In fact, they were trying to get him off because they were running out of time but Al didn’t want to leave. People were screaming.
The election season is approaching. Can we expect to see candidates stop by the studio?
REGIS: Oh, sure. We usually get all of the biggies.
KELLY: You had Bush on the show before he was elected.
REGIS: Oh, yeah. He was on the same day that the woman from Survivor sat in as my cohost.
REGIS: Yes. Sue. [Rolls eyes] Now that was a tough day.