Regis Philbin’s announced retirement, after 28 years, from the syndicated Live franchise that he shared first with Kathie Lee Gifford and then with Kelly Ripa, hasn’t exactly set the industry trade papers on fire. At age 79, it’s safe to say that Philbin already peaked as an entertainer. His oft-parodied mannerisms have long since passed into the collective unconscious, and his retrograde studio now functions mostly as a New York City tourist attraction, filled daily with the kinds of aunts and uncles we try to avoid at family reunions. I’m sure some people will call him the “gold standard,” and he’ll get a requisite standing ovation at the Emmys this year, but in the grand scheme of things nobody really cares. If anything, we’re all just kind of marveling at how long that guy was actually on.
According to The Guinness Book of Records, Regis Philbin has appeared on television more than anyone else in the history of the medium. He cut his teeth as a bumbling sidekick on The Joey Bishop Show in the late ‘60s, mugged his way through a few decades of amusing panel shows and, eventually, built his nest at nine o’clock in the morning with two of the most frighteningly ambitious blonde women in the history of television. He looked like a Rat Packer’s pesky little brother, tragically uncool but still steeped in a showbiz tradition that seems familiar and tasteful. He was an inveterate ham without a trace of humility (his longtime friendship with Donald Trump makes perfect sense), but he was ruddy-nosed and demonstrably Catholic.
His popularity seems to certify all those studies claiming that television viewers, on a mass scale, tend to gravitate toward recognizable character types, regardless of a performer’s talent or personality. Regis grew up in the Bronx, the son of a Marine, and for that Americans liked him. When he spoke fondly of his college days at Notre Dame, he made it clear why he lasted so long–and so effectively–in the public eye: He exemplifies an ethnic archetype that mainstream America deems suitable, at least for morning television. Every time he interviewed Nathan Lane, you could almost hear the grandmothers on Long Island nodding with approval.
Did Regis Philbin have talent? Sort of. He knew, better than anyone, how to be on television. That’s a rare skill. Philbin hails from the first wave of great TV broadcasters (“presenters,” as they were called in David Frost’s England); men with thick hair and wide smiles who keep the segments running on time. They came up, as entertainers, in a marketplace similar to today’s local-news industry, taking their act from city to city seeking exposure. They hosted kiddie shows and coffee-break interview programs, introduced Saturday morning cartoons and wisecracked during late-night “B” movies. They showed us hidden-camera stunts and sitcom blooper reels, endorsed terrible products and sometimes even turned up on our doorstep with a giant check from Publisher’s Clearinghouse.
Broadcasters were well-spoken but certainly not intelligent, handsome and well-mannered but not even remotely sexy. They were the kind of guys who would have done well for themselves in sales. They wore gold watches, drove red sports cars, made love to blonde wives and always voted Republican. They were postwar Americana. For the past sixty years, they were television.
These men, however, are now dropping like flies. Back in December, 77-year old Larry King delivered his final rambling interview for CNN. Tom Snyder and Merv Griffin died within weeks of each other. Stroke victim Dick Clark now slurs his way through every painful on-air appearance, lending grave symbolism to his patented New Year’s Eve “Countdown.” Even Pat Sajak might soon retire from his post at Wheel of Fortune to join Bob Barker on the golf course in Florida.
Philbin’s retirement marks the death of the American Broadcaster, at least in the incarnation that we’ve always known Him. Latter-day versions like Andersen Cooper and Ryan Seacrest are too dynamic and intense, too indicative of the hyper-competitive landscape of modern media. They’re not broadcasters the way Regis was.
I certainly don’t feel smarter than Andersen Cooper, and I’m not as effective as Ryan Seacrest. But I do feel superior to Regis Philbin. Cooper and Seacrest are better than me. Regis Philbin is not. Cooper and Seacrest invoke my jealousy when I see them on television and I am not happy for their success. Regis, on the other hand, was a befuddled everyman, about as deserving of a show as Larry King, or Tom Snyder, or any other bland, inoffensive broadcaster who got “in” while the TV game was still amateurish and accessible. Maybe that’s why Regis Philbin was so charming to so many people. We liked him because we didn’t want to be him. And really, who the hell would?