Even if you don’t wake up to the bubbly froth-fest of Live every day, the departure of Regis Philbin from the show is big news. The 79-year-old Philbin is a broadcast legend, having gotten his start in the sixties with the Regis Philbin Show on KGTV in San Diego. He is one of the last remaining working stars from the era of Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Ed McMahon, and Johnny Carson — a time when white men who weren’t quite comedians could have rich careers hosting a string of talk, variety, and game shows based on their charming personalities. (Joan Rivers also got her start in that era, having apprenticed with Carson; the ailing Dick Clark, of course, still works once a year.) These days Regis’s old age has become something of a running gag on Live; Ripa gracefully covers for his forgetful senior and occasional old-man-perv moments, and together they joke that technological advances like the Internet are “just a fad.” It was a good shtick, but it also was a pretty clear signal that it was just about time for him to go. And if there was one thing those old-school guys worshipped, it was timing.
In truth, for some time Ripa has admirably carried the weight of the show on her tiny, toned shoulders. For all she comes across as a chirpy morning-show blonde, she’s actually a brilliant talent — quick with a joke, and with an incredible skill for keeping things moving along brightly and energetically. (If you ever had the misfortune of watching her sit alongside various regular celebrities on her friend Jerry Seinfeld’s dreadful show The Marriage Ref, you saw just how much she was better than the rest.) Over the past couple of years, as Philbin has taken more and more time off, Ripa has sat with a rotating cast of funny guest co-hosts. Most frequent among them are CNN’s Anderson Cooper, How I Met Your Mother’s Neil Patrick Harris, Survivor host Jeff Probst, Ripa’s husband, Mark Conseulos, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, and comedian Howie Mandel.
For a while now, buzz has centered upon Cooper as a possible Regis replacement — in fact, Regis has even joked about it on the air. But now Cooper is scheduled to launch his own solo daytime show, Anderson, at the end of the summer and continues to have a contract with CNN. Neither Regis nor Kelly specified on the air how a replacement would be hired, but ABC News indicated that the franchise will continue nearly as is. “The Disney-ABC Television Group plans to name a new personality to join Kelly Ripa,” the network said on its website.
When Ripa was chosen to replace the popular Kathie Lee Gifford, it was through a lengthy search and audition process. The then–All My Children star was up against experienced daytime hosts and higher-profile celebrities but won out through her charm and rapport with Regis. Since stunts like anchor searches draw in viewers, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the show tried the same thing again. There’s little doubt that they’d pair Ripa off with a man, but whether they opt for a young, fresh face to appeal to new viewers, or an older familiar one to appease the show’s older-skewing Regis fans, remains to be seen.
With the departure of Larry King, who like Regis is in his late seventies, an era of television truly does seem to be finally trickling to an end. They were among the last of the aging workaholics, men and women who stayed quick on their feet long after the average retirement age by taking to the airwaves every day to amuse and inform. Somewhere in New York today, 81-year-old Barbara Walters and 77-year-old Joan Rivers may be clinking Champagne glasses and saying: “And then there were two.”