So, the long goodbye is over. Regis has been gone for two weeks and Kelly Ripa has settled into a (sort of) solo gig on the renamed “Live! with Kelly.” I say sort of because Ripa has been joined by stand-in co-hosts comedian Jerry Seinfeld, Jerry O’Connell, Neil Patrick Harris and, most recently, “Dancing with the Stars” pro Derek Hough — and there are likely many more to come, as there’s been no deadline for when a permanent co-host will be announced. While each of these co-hosts has been successful to varying degrees, what’s been notable is how smoothly Ripa has stepped into the Regis chair.
In the past, Ripa worked overtime to be a comic foil to Philbin, a job that seemingly became difficult as the aging host started eyeballing the exit. He often seemed forgetful or simply distracted, inspiring Ripa to up the volume or, worse, roll her eyes like an exasperated teenager. Despite that, I’ve always thought Ripa was an improvement over Kathie Lee Gifford, who dominated conversations with gaggingly cutesy stories of her children Cody and Cassidy and only revealed an edgy, gleefully sarcastic side once she was able to steal the floor away from Hoda Kotb on “Today.” There’s a reason why, despite the Ripa haters (or rippers, I suppose), she’s been on the show for eleven years.
Still, with Regis gone, the general consensus among fans of the show seemed to be that the lifeblood of “Live!” left with Philbin. Ripa was dismissed as too high strung, too loud and too annoying on her own to float along until a new co-host stepped in. And, with ill-fitting celebrities like Seinfeld taking over hosting duties (the guy prattled on about overeating at Thanksgiving like he thought he was doing stand-up for Ripa instead of talking to her), it seemed that Ripa might really be in trouble.
But, surprisingly, that certainly wasn’t showing in the ratings. The first week of “LIve! with Kelly” actually outperformed “Live! with Regis and Kelly”‘s numbers from the previous year by 17 percent in households and 29 percent among women 25 to 54. It could have been a curiosity factor, but people weren’t tuning out because of a missing Philbin. Still, it wasn’t until Seinfeld passed the hosting chair to Neil Patrick Harris that the show really found its rhythm, at least temporarily.
Yes, Harris may have made an offhand comment that upset GLAAD during his stint (he apologized immediately), but the always affable actor was relaxed, fun and played well with Ripa, who seemed thrilled to have someone new to banter with. Where the chatter between Philbin and Ripa had a certain father-daughter affection, it was nice to see Ripa flirt (yes, flirt) with Harris and step more fully into the driver’s seat on the show.
Derek Hough, of course, is no Neil Patrick Harris — and today’s episode might have been Ripa’s real test. Hough seemed slightly nervous in kicking off his two day stint and the co-host chemistry of last week was largely absent, leaving Ripa to pick up the ball. To her credit, she managed to keep conversation light and gracefully guide the show through interviews and even a harried Paula Deen cooking segment. Even Hough seemed to loosen up as the episode went on (he ends his two day stint tomorrow, to be followed by Josh Groban Dec. 7, 8 and 9; Tay Diggs Dec. 12; Kevin Jonas Dec. 13; Bryant Gumble Dec. 14 and Michael Buble Dec. 15 and 16).
What was notable in the episode was that Ripa seemed more in control than during the Regis era, a time when her role was clearly sidekick-only. She wasn’t as wacky, and she didn’t seem to be trying too hard. There was a level of maturity that seemed, well, new. Regis taught her well.
Of course, that’s today (during Seinfeld’s stint, Ripa fell too easily into the role of passive listener, unwilling to take the stage away from the comedian). There’s likely some rocky road ahead for Ripa as she tries to modulate her performance to each new guest co-host, but I suspect it’s good practice. I even question whether a permanent co-host is a great idea — a constant influx of new voices and returning favorites seems like it could keep be more entertaining than a regular co-host. Even when a co-host falls short, Ripa is more than capable of propping up the show, and viewers who tune in to see a favorite star might be inspired to stick around after he or she leaves. Given that Harris, who seems perfect for the job, has too many commitments to take it anytime soon, it might be best to leave the chair open. There’s no replacing Regis, after all — so maybe the question is, why try?
Do you think Kelly needs a permanent guest host? And if so, who do you want to see get the job?