I didn’t even realize I’d missed Kathie Lee, but now that she’s back, I’m astonished to discover that I find her a breath of fresh air amid the doldrums of morning TV chatter. Today was only her second day co-hosting Today‘s fourth (!) hour, but despite her eight years away from the morning grind, she still remembers how to ride that bicycle just fine, thank you, and her professional ease is as welcome as her wacky outspokenness.

I’m still not sure she’d be enough to persuade me (were I so inclined) to watch that last hour of Today on a regular basis. The superfluousness of the show is evident. The first segment of the show is a full 15 minutes of chatter, feature Ms. Gifford and co-host Hoda Kotb (pictured, left, with Kathie Lee) sitting at a table, drinking coffee and discussing issues (à la The View) — as it turns out, the very issues that they’ll be discussing at length later with guests who are apparently deemed not big enough to appear during the first three hours of Today. Even so, there’s no reason this couldn’t be interesting, except that, unlike the View panelists, Kotb and Gifford seem to agree on everything; the only difference they’ve revealed in two days is that Kotb prefers half-and-half in her coffee, while Gifford is “a skim milk girl.”

Still, the Kathie Lee of old occasionally bubbles to the surface, the one who offers a little too much information about her kid or herself. This used to be annoying back in her years with Regis; now, it’s so clearly unscripted and spontaneous that it’s almost refreshing. One topic today was a study asking the question how long sexual intercourse should last. (Kathie Lee was a little creeped out, as was I, that this discussion was taking place in the middle of Rockefeller Plaza, where lots of fans had brought their small children. “You little girls should be in school!” she said.) Kathie Lee suggested that, in terms of duration, quantity wasn’t as important as quality. “I wish great sex on the whole world,” she said. “Except for my son.” Uh, okay. Commenting on today’s news about Rob Lowe’s claim that he’s being shaken down by his nanny, she said, “I’ve always said that people who really long for fame and fortune have never had it. There’s a whole other side to it that is not wonderful, is not glamorous, and is not fun.” Not that she had to remind us of her own tabloid history, but she sure sounded like she knew what she was talking about.

Elsewhere, she proved herself a good sport by letting GilbertGottfried kiss her (he was plugging his Dirty Jokes DVD and asking thereasonable question, “Is anyone still watching at this hour?”) anddelivered a nice quip about Marilu Henner, on hand to promote hereighth self-help book, Wear Your Life Well. Marveling at theprolific actress/author, Gifford said, “Marilu will be back next weekwith her ninth book.” Gloria Gaynor stopped by to sing “I Will Survive”(she’s celebrating the anthem’s 30th anniversary this year), and thesong’s resonance for Gifford was impossible to miss.

So, who’s glad Kathie Lee is back on morning TV? Who’ll watch the fourth hour of Today in order to see her? And who thinks she should have stayed retired?