Live with Regis & Jerry
TV's ultimate survivor, Regis Philbin, signs off this week. the daytime kibitzer talks to Jerry Seinfeld about what makes a show last--and how to know when to quit.
He is, believe it or not, the most enduring act in the history of television, 16,700 hours on camera, a Guinness World Record. Today, Regis Philbin's office at ABC in New York, his second home since 1983, is mostly empty, aside from half-full moving boxes and his colorful neckties lining the closet. He's adamant that at age 80 he's not retiring, having attributed the split to a contract dispute.
As he signs off this week, Newsweek asked Philbin, who has chatted up guests ranging from Milton Berle and Big Bird to Condoleezza Rice and John McCain, who should interview him. He chose Jerry Seinfeld. ("Is he a reporter now?" Kelly Ripa quipped on the show the day after the interview took place. "Everybody is moving on to other things.") Seinfeld pulled into Philbin's studio on his bicycle to reminisce. Excerpts:
JERRY: I want to talk to you about Dean Martin.
REGIS: I'm amazed that you bring up Dean Martin. Why did you bring up Dean Martin?
JERRY: Well, I know you're a fan. I have a friend who's also a fan, and he was constantly hammering me, "Do you see what this man is capable of?" Then you stop and think about it--who else ever did that? Somebody comes on, he sings with them, he doesn't rehearse, it all works. And so I have, later in life, begun to really appreciate him.
REGIS: I'm so happy to hear that, because Dean Martin is kind of fading out in our business. He hasn't been performing.
JERRY: Frankly, I think death hurt him professionally.
REGIS: But for a young guy like you to understand what this man meant--
JERRY: Now here's my segue. What you're doing, Regis, that Dean Martin also did is one of the things that the people who make the big decisions in our business never understand.
REGIS: You're right again. They never did. They never got Regis, they never did.
JERRY: Let's not complain too much about the people who don't get you. You've been gotten. It doesn't become you to be complaining. You somehow managed 30 years, the most successful television performer in the history of the medium.
REGIS: Has anybody heard a question in here?
JERRY: I just think it's interesting that people don't understand how a guy could just come out on TV and be entertaining by just being himself, with no material. This is how I'm trying to connect you to Dean Martin here. Tell us--what do you do that gets you to where you think, "I can make this work"?
REGIS: You know, I never knew if I had any talent when I started in this business. My first job was being a page at The Tonight Show. I saw Jack Paar come out one night and sit on the edge of his desk and talk about what he'd done the night before. I thought, "I can do that!" I used to do that on a street corner in the Bronx with all my buddies.
JERRY: And you would make them laugh?
REGIS: Yeah. So when I got the chance to do my first talk show, 50 years ago last month, I never had any writers. There was no budget--it was just me and the camera and my friend who was the director. I talked about what I'd done that week.
JERRY: My friend Colin Quinn calls your show Breakfast With Your Father. You're this guy who we love and are comfortable with, but he's only going so far with you. When you get to a certain line of propriety, he's going to say, "I don't want to hear about that." And that's what we're missing in television: people who realize I don't want to know everything. I don't want you to display your sexual proclivities. It's a moral compass of what I'm going to talk about on TV and what I'm not going to talk about on TV, and that's what Regis provided.
REGIS: But excuse me, you're one of the few guys left in our business--there's only about three guys I know who don't use the F word to get a laugh. …