You never forget your first dis, or certainly Regis Philbin never did.
Forty-two years ago, 1969, the night after Christmas, when no one was watching, not that anyone had been watching, anyway. Joey Bishop completed the last monologue on the last edition of his ABC late-night show. Then -- with a "who needs this?" flourish -- he walked off the set, leaving sidekick Philbin to clean up his mess.
Reege -- who had famously walked off himself earlier in the show's run -- was blamed by ABC, critics and maybe even by Bishop for the failure. Then, after years of knocking around on a bunch of shows like "A.M. Los Angeles," "The Neighbors" and "Password Plus," he started a Manhattan-based venture on April 4, 1983, titled "The Morning Show." But the clouds from the Bishop days had yet to part.
"Four people in the audience!" Philbin later joked of that first day. "When I said, 'Good morning,' they said, 'Whaddaya mean by good?' "
When Philbin wraps 28 years on that morning show (now known as "Live! With Regis & Kelly") Friday, this is where matters will stand: He is one of the most beloved figures in TV history and widely considered -- rightfully so -- uncontested master of the perilous craft known as "host chat," which is often precipitated by a co-host's six deceptively simple words, "What did you do last night?"
But a few of us are lucky enough to be forged -- if not defined -- by our failures, and Reege was one of the lucky ones. Inadvertently, the Bishop flop gave Philbin the upbeat yin and downbeat yang of his persona. On the air, Philbin is one of the most effortlessly upbeat people to have ever faced a camera: Dinner the night before . . . the Broadway show he had just seen with Joy . . . the next guest . . . Notre Dame. They are all the most fabulous things on God's Earth.
And then those ol' clouds roll in: "Gelman! WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?" Reege's classic Murphy's Law downshift is, of course, played for laughs -- but made funnier by the fact that he actually almost means it.
Would Philbin have been as successful had he been a solo talk show act? Maybe, but it is worth noting that Philbin's partners -- Cyndy Garvey, Kathie Lee Gifford and Kelly Ripa -- made the yin sharper and the yang blunter. They, too, banished the ghost of "Bishop."
We chatted with Regis Philbin a few days ago. Three questions, three answers:
A Philbin Q&A
Why are you leaving?
I know it's hard to explain, but sometimes you just think enough is enough. There are some mornings when I'm still putting on the show for guys like you so you can enjoy yourself, but it's not all that much fun to me. . . . It's time. It really is.
Good question. I have a book coming out, and then I hope Regis is allowed to rest.
What was the high point / low point of these last 28 years?
The best is looking back at the entire run. When I came here, I got battered by the press . . . and it was those little obstacles I had to overcome. And looking back, I think we did present a good show to New York, and that's what pleases me most. The low point? Hmmm . . . I wish I could come up with something funny. I just can't.
Philbin will be signing copies of his new memoir, "How I Got This Way" (HarperCollins/It Books), tomorrow night at 7 at the Book Revue in Huntington.
The show: Special guests on "Live!" this week include Donald Trump and Tony Bennett (today); David Letterman and Bret Michaels (tomorrow); Kathie Lee Gifford and Josh Groban (Thursday). Expect numerous surprise guests on the final show Friday.