Kathie Lee and 'Today': Fluff and Nonsense

Host Hoda Kotb, left, and Matt Lauer talk with Kathie Lee Gifford on NBC's "The Today Show." Gifford is taking on co-hosting duties for the morning show's fourth hour.
Host Hoda Kotb, left, and Matt Lauer talk with Kathie Lee Gifford on NBC's "The Today Show." Gifford is taking on co-hosting duties for the morning show's fourth hour. (Peter Kramer - AP)
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Kathie Lee Gifford does seem to have a self-deprecating sense of humor -- her gala return to network television yesterday morning proved that -- but she'd probably get plenty of deprecating even if she didn't. Newly installed as host of an unnecessary fourth hour of NBC's "Today" show, Gifford displayed again that certain something that invites either derision or horror.

Maybe it's her assumption that her life is every bit as important to us as it is to her. But that would be categorically impossible.

The latest chapter in that life began with plenty of hoopla and jabber as Gifford emerged from a door in NBC's 30 Rock building and began her comeback. By its fourth hour, "Today" has lost any hint of being a news program (on some mornings, it's lost that by 7:30), and so the bill of fare was strictly bland, vapid and innocuous fluff, no substance whatever.

Yesterday's show could have been done 40 years ago with few changes. It's "The View" for dummies.

Among Gifford's first remarks: how happy she was to be there and share her "excitement with everybody." It's better to create excitement than talk about sharing it, so how excited should we really be that Gifford's got another gig nearly eight years after leaving "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee"? It's not as if we've been sitting beside our TV sets worrying about her. (In the interim, she kept herself busy with such efforts as writing an off-Broadway family musical that got very respectable reviews.)

Gifford does have a knack for snappy chitchat with celebrities and regular folks, but on the premiere of the revamped hour, almost everything was about her -- her and her co-anchor, "Today" regular Hoda Kotb. Only a few minutes into the show, Lee was babbling about husband Frank Gifford again, donning his old football helmet while simultaneously engaged in a long plug for the George Clooney football movie "Leatherheads," which she and Frank (and few other people, according to box-office figures) saw over the weekend.

Kathie Lee jokingly promised that she won't talk about her children -- now grown up -- as much as she used to, assuring the audience that "nobody's in diapers at my home anymore." If only Regis had been there to shoot back, "Not even Frank?" Kathie Lee did pay tribute to the man who made her a star, after Kotb pulled the lame joke of donning a hideous Regis mask that didn't look like Regis.

Said Gifford with apparent sincerity, or as close as she gets: "Reege, I want to send you my love for all those great years we had together."

Otherwise, opening day was a windy, dithery mess with virtually no portents of improvements to come. Gifford is not to blame for the overall superficial wretchedness of the hour; guilt goes to the network and the show's producer, visible once or twice but not identified. Someone had the terrible idea of staging almost the entire show outdoors, in the space outside 30 Rock in New York where the "Today" show regularly stages its "rock concert" segments. That meant that in addition to Gifford and Kotb talking over one another like dueling magpies, viewers also had to endure crowd noise from easily thrilled tourists and late-to-work New Yorkers gathered around them, as well as the traffic noise, creating an infernal, irritating cacophony.

It was awful. The only segment done indoors was a song by guest Harvey Fierstein, dropping by to plug a new musical version of "A Catered Affair" in which he stars. Earlier, outdoors, Fierstein's segment included the limp, trite gimmick of questions from the crowd -- questions written by the staff and merely handed to onlookers to read aloud when chosen.

Unfortunately, Fierstein, who is gay, was asked at one point when he first noticed "the opposite sex." Gifford quickly interjected, "That's not the one you particularly care about, though, is it?" It was unfortunate because there was no reason or context for bringing up Fierstein's sexuality on the show, except to exploit it for cheap laughs. Chalk up another blunder for the bumbling producers.

Subject matter for the inane chatter with Kotb and Gifford included the death of actor Charlton Heston ("He was the first stud," Kotb tastelessly remarked); "three things you didn't know about" the two co-hosts (the number of things you don't care about them is infinite, of course); milestones in Gifford's career, Gifford's dog, Gifford's this, Gifford's that; and of course, weight loss, the least escapable subject on talk television. A woman who'd lost 190 pounds was trotted out and cheered.

In imitation of the daily show that Philbin now shares with Kelly Ripa and from which Gifford graduated, the first segment was a 15-minute "host chat" with Gifford and Kotb. They didn't so much chat as vie for control of the program, however, with Kotb caught paying no attention whatsoever to Gifford during some unfortunate shots. Gifford gabbed gamely on.

The thought of dropping in on this pair again to see what they're up to -- either today, tomorrow or as long as the Earth continues to twirl -- is not a pleasant one. We can hope, though, that it lasts through the end of the year so that NBC can do us at least one favor -- a "Today" show Kathie Lee Gifford Christmas special.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company