Kelly Ripa, Regis Philbin, ...
Credit: Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa: Buena Vista Television

In the waning days of their time together, Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford related to each other like strangers trapped in adjoining seats on a jammed airplane, each suspecting the other of emitting a bad smell. There was minimal eye contact, utter disinterest in anything the other person said, and the sort of body language that schoolkids display when they think a classmate has the cooties. The show, once an enjoyable clash of Mars – Venus egos, had become a Mir disaster — free floating, prone to breakdowns, and with a distinct possibility of explosion.

Audiences were so grateful for Gifford’s voluntary ejection that they bestowed boosted ratings on Regis, who played host to a succession of replacement candidates with that unique combination of grace and gritted teeth impatience that have made him the only man in the TV industry I’ll forgive for getting us into this pernicious ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” morass. Frankly, I had low expectations for any new Regis gal pal, figuring Philbin now had enough behind the scenes juice to insist on a woman who’d just sit quietly, smile, and nod appreciatively whenever he wanted to gas on about last weekend’s Notre Dame football game.

But damned if the show’s producers didn’t forestall the easy way out, and instead came up with a real winner: By enlisting ”All My Children” soap actress Kelly Ripa as Reege’s new copilot, Live With Regis & Kelly has soared into the realm of bright, airy, cloudless entertainment. The seat belt signs have been turned off; we are now free to roam around the show again and enjoy the view. Kelly (and I’m going to abandon the aerospace metaphor now, because I feel a ”Ripa cord” pun coming on) manages to convey both showbiz savvy and ”can’t believe my luck” wonder at finding herself perched on a stool next to Philbin, a paradox that has made her transition as smooth as one of Regis’ silk ties.

Ripa’s already got the crucial opening segment banter rhythm down cold. She arrives with vignettes from her home life — recently going into a funny dither over ”a foul, foul funk of a smell seeping into my apartment” (viewers shake their heads sympathetically and murmur, ”Trouble with the neighbors; who can’t relate?”) — but is also prepared to hold tight to the coffee table while Philbin launches a gale force rant about — oh, anything: the lousy restaurant he ate at the night before; feeling unappreciated as the Man Whose Game Show Saved ABC Prime Time; Joy’s latest shopping binge? whatever.

Philbin is the Proust of Pettiness, able to summon the frustration and heartburn inducing agitation of daily life that makes you forget that you’re looking at a multigazillionaire and believe in his Everyman agita. (One of my favorite Philbin roles is Regis the Reviewer: Philbin’s daughter drags him to see Edward Albee’s ”The Play About the Baby,” and his judgment is thunderously succinct — ”I didn’t understand one minute of that play!”)

Ripa’s instincts for interplay are canny. Sometimes she cues the audience how to react (the doe eyed ”How dare they do that to our Regis?” look, for example); sometimes, deploying her soap opera minx skills, she flirts a little (”You smell good today — very masculine”). And thanks to the therapeutic Ripa, Philbin is able to work through his residual anger at Kathie Lee’s raging ambition. When Ripa suggested a field trip to a Times Square wax museum, Regis shot a look at long suffering exec producer Michael Gelman and snarled with an escalating growl, ”She’s beginning to produce again, Gelman! This is beginning to reMIND me of something!”

The guests are, of course, mere lagniappe on ”Live” — there to promote a movie or TV show or CD, the names of which Philbin, to his credit, usually mangles because he couldn’t care less. Lately, though, even the talent has begun to notice Ripa. Pregnant with her second child (regulars know she’s due in June), Ripa wiggles in her seat with the ripe sexiness that only impending motherhood confers: One day, guest Mark Harmon did a double take while checking out her legs, going gaga after noticing a tattoo on her ankle.

All this, plus she enjoys watching boxing — or, as Kelly put it, ”I like the fights.” What’s not to like about her? With Ripa at his side, Regis retains his standing as the middleweight champion of daytime.

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