Meredith and Matt Make Merry

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Ifeel like it's the first day at school and I'm sitting next to the cutest guy!" Meredith Vieira gushes on her first day co-anchoring NBC's "Today" show, after nine years playing The Sane One on ABC's morning gal-gaggle "The View."

"I haven't been more excited to come to work since the day Bryant [Gumbel] announced he was leaving!" Matt Lauer replies, and you believe he really means it. If you close your eyes and try to imagine it's still 1991, it's almost as if Katie Couric never happened to the show.

Today it's all about Meredith, starting with carefully orchestrated, good-natured ribbing between the two hosts.

It's still 'Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira,' " Meredith says of their billing on the morning infotainment show.

"I don't think that's going to change," Matt says.

Is the joking over already?

Changing the subject slightly, Meredith assures him, "I'm going to be the 'broad' in broadcasting" for which, of course, there is no good response a guy can safely give, and Matt wisely doesn't go there.

Later, Meredith holds up a photo of Matt looking pretty cut in swim trunks at the beach, then producers show a clip of President Bush holding up the same magazine photo and asking Matt for his autograph.

"He's turned on by your abs!" Meredith teases.

Matt threatens to show viewers an old photo of Meredith from Esquire magazine. Peals of laughter.

"Today" is also debuting its new Hi-Def set this morning. "Hi-Def is dangerous," Meredith complains to Matt, who stretches back his crow's-feet with his hands.

Remind me again how this show is different from "The View" and Meredith has returned to "journalism"? Oh, that's right -- Ann Curry, a.k.a. Did Not Get the Job, reads the news for a few minutes every so often.

Curry reads. Fires in California, more dead in Middle East. One or two election results.

Enough downer news -- say hello to "Today" weatherman-and-so-much-more Al Roker, Meredith.

"I had a hamster named Al, growing up," Meredith says.

"He's dead."

"I'll go get my wheel," Roker quips.

She tells viewers she's a nervous wreck taking the co-anchor chair on "Today" -- understandable given that it's been No. 1 in morning ratings for a decade and has been television's most profitable show. She displays the lovely bracelet her husband and children got her to buck her up on her first day. But she appears confident and pretty relaxed -- as would anyone who'd wrangled Dopey, Goofy, Crazy and Babs for nine years on "The View" and lived to tell the story.

Still, though Meredith was a journalist once upon a time, even served as correspondent on CBS's venerable newsmag "60 Minutes," those years at "The View" do seem to call for a little rehab. So Meredith gets to do "Today's" first "serious" segment on this day, plugging NBC's Sunday Beltway show anchor Tim Russert.

Which, coincidentally, is exactly how CBS News handled Couric's first day on the "CBS Evening News" -- her first interview was with a journalist. Journalists interviewing journalists is usually pretty safe: You can bet your subject isn't going to try to nuke you -- unless you go with someone from, say, Fox News Channel, in which case you're just too dumb to live.

Anyway, Russert tells Meredith the Dems are asking for equal time after President Bush's Sept. 11 speech -- which was carried by all the networks -- and that events on the ground in Iraq over the next few weeks will have much more influence on voters in upcoming elections than any blah, blah, blah-ing by either party back in the United States.

Meredith calls him a "genius"; Russert simpers.

Enough downer news. Let's get back to . . . Meredith!

"Coming up this half-hour, aw shucks, it's all about me," she says.

"As they say at the dentist, this is not going to hurt a bit," Matt says. Then he plugs his upcoming exclusive interview with Debra LaFave -- the middle school teacher who made big news when she had sex with one of her 14-year-old students. NBC News has been teasing viewers for days with bits from this interview in hopes it will goose the numbers on Meredith's first day.

But first -- a bit about Meredith, who, turns out, drank lots of Tab in her youth, loved Paul McCartney, thought about becoming a Rockette, was nicknamed TuTu LaRue because she tap dances. As she gets older, Meredith falls into journalism, does local TV, moves to New York, does the Esquire photo shoot Matt alluded to sporting hair teased into a hornet's nest and a short skirt showing miles of legs. Gets grief -- gets gig on "60 Minutes."

"She's a great broadcaster -- loaded with sex appeal," "60 Minutes" creator/legend Don Hewitt says in a taped bit.

Meredith gets married, has baby. Big turnoff for Hewitt: "She said her baby is more important than my 'baby' -- that rankled me."

Cut to: Meredith reminiscing. "I thought, 'Why would I do daytime television?' " Husband tells her, "You're a newswoman who doesn't want to report."

That settles it; she does "The View" and later starts hosting ABC's syndicated version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Segue to creepy slo-mo shot of Meredith, outdoors at Rockefeller Center, wearing huge red beret that she takes off and, ripping off the iconic opening sequence on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," tosses into the air as the "MTM" theme plays in the background.

"Poor Mary Tyler Moore, she's probably gagging now," Meredith jokes. She's probably right -- we definitely gagged a little bit.

One ad break later, Roker promises a spanking machine. Sadly, it never materializes.

Almost as good/naughty, we get Matt's interview with LaFave, who's sporting her long super-blond hair and bright red lipstick.

Matt wonders rhetorically why her tawdry story became national news. LaFave says she has no idea. Matt, undeterred, plows ahead: "I'll say it: Do you think it's because you're pretty?" he asks. Yes, she's a victim of prettiness. Matt forgets to add she's also a victim of blondness and whiteness.

"I think so -- and sex sells," LaFave says, looking pretty darned disgusted with "the media." Like they violated her or something. Oh wait, she's the one who had sex with a minor. So hard to keep the bad people straight on this story.

LaFave, incidentally, is under house arrest -- but a judge gave her a timeout so she could do the interview to help Meredith celebrate her first day on "Today."

Matt takes viewers through her close encounter with her student: first sex at her apartment; first sex at school. "Yeah, he wanted it. Yeah, I gave it to him," she tells Matt.

Want more? Sorry, gotta watch "Dateline," Matt tells viewers. Because it's back to Meredith, which is to say Brian Williams, anchor of NBC's evening newscast, who shows up with flowers.

What seems like an eternity is taken up with "Today's" wedding competition: Two couples who want to be married on national TV are told to decorate wedding cakes to express who they are. After they're done, Matt tries to get Meredith to smell one of the cakes.

She leans toward the cake and Curry, a.k.a. Did Not Get the Job, rushes forward and grabs Meredith and pulls her back, explaining that Matt was probably going to push her face into the cake. And all in all, this was extremely menschy given that she Did Not Get the Job. We like her better for it.

Then Meredith walks over and puts icing on Matt's nose.

"I can't believe you were going to smell that cake," Matt chides.

"At the end of the day, who looks stupid?" Meredith responds.

"You were going to push my whole face in the cake and you know it."

This is getting off to a really good start.

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