The most amusing name to emerge as a possible replacement for Regis Philbin, who kicks off the final week of his 28-year morning TV reign Monday, is that of Dana Carvey.
The former "Saturday Night Live" player, of course, does the world's best Philbin impersonation, capturing the host's manic energy, his gift for benignly over-excited overstatement and his ability to be laughed at and with simultaneously.
But the reports only underscored what we'll be missing after Philbin signs off Friday at the end of his final "Live With Regis and Kelly": an inimitable entertainer who just might be the most telegenic figure in the medium's history.
Sure, the numbers show that Philbin holds the Guinness Book of World Records mark for most hours on TV. (He’d logged more than 15,000 hours when he earned the honor in 2004.) But that doesn't give the elusive answer to the question of why. After all, there have been plenty of better-looking, stronger singers and funnier folks who haven’t scored an iota of the success Philbin’s enjoyed during his 50-plus years in the tough TV game.
As for how to explain his success? Unlike Philbin's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" catchphrase, there is no final answer.
Much of his enduring appeal would seem to rest in his likability and relatability – an ordinariness projected by a man with a deceivingly extraordinary talent for talking to the camera as if he were chatting with his best buddy.
He’s managed to transcend the repetition and potential banality of the middle-of-the-road morning talk show – a format that might feel outdated at a time when the entertainment landscape is changing, amid shrinking TV audiences and the Internet explosion. He packs familiarity and unpredictability into one package, oozing with a winning, old school New York charm: You know he’ll be there every morning, but you don’t know what he’ll do next.
Philbin’s strongest gift might be his knack for striking instant chemistry – not only with audiences, but with thousands of guests and a diverse set of TV partners who range from his late 1960s late-night boss Joey Bishop to Kathie Lee Gifford to Kelly Ripa. Gifford is among the lineup of scheduled final “Live With Regis and Kelly” guests that spans the three generations of entertainers who are among his biggest fans: Don Rickles, David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon.
That speaks to the agelessness of the 80-year-old Philbin, everybody's TV friend, who, through sharing his wife Joy and his personal ups and downs with us over the years, might be closer to feeling like part of the family.
Philbin's post-“Live” life reportedly could include a reality TV show. But don’t expect anything radically different: Perhaps the secret to Philbin's success is that we've been watching the Regis reality show all along.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.