TV Eye

Talk Soup

When Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (ABC) first came out, it caught my attention along with everyone else's. But I would never have guessed its popularity would last this long. Week after week, the game show tops the Nielsen ratings. It has moved aside occasionally, only to return to the top of the list with a magnetic pull that doesn't seem to be losing its charge any time soon. What is it that keeps viewers coming back? Is it the arcade-like razzle dazzle of lights and sound? Watching guests of varying sizes hoist themselves into the "hot seat"? Is it the questions that are sometimes annoyingly simple, but at other times, spark that brow-beating sense that you know the answer to the question, if only you could suck it from the corner of your memory? Actually, I think the show's popularity is because its host Regis Philbin found a niche for himself, and the fit is even better than the one he found with Live With Regis & Kathie Lee (with the soon-to-exit Kathie Lee Gifford). Philbin is in the enviable -- or cursed -- position of having found the singular thing he's good at. It's difficult to imagine anyone else but Philbin as host of WWTBAM. Look at Bob Barker, host of The Price Is Right (CBS). He just signed on for his 29th year and is still going strong. Will the show continue once Barker retires? Who could imagine it? Some TV exec out there will certainly try, but die-hard fans are a prickly bunch. Once they've latched on to something or someone, the grip is pretty tight.

It would be easy to dismiss Philbin as just the host of a game show, but he has made me consider the role of any show's host -- game show, talk show, and others -- and how, when hosting is done well, it seems effortless. The skill of a host is only revealed when they're bad. The host of any show has to juggle many, often conflicting, things in service to the show and his or her guests. Hosts must keep the momentum of the show going without running out of time. Hosts shine the spotlight on their guests (or the show) without stepping into the spotlight themselves -- unless it's to graciously take the heat off the guest. Hosts listen, interject meaningfully, but never seem staged or unprepared. Most importantly, hosts must be as interested in the guest or the game show as the viewer at home.

With that in mind, let me offer a list of my all-time favorite hosts. Following the movie High Fidelity, these hosts are listed in autobiographical order.

The Formative years

Captain Kangaroo: Ah, the gentle Cap'n. I adored him during his black-and-white days on the drab set. He didn't creep me out like that other children's show host, Mr. Rogers. I can't fully explain the spell the Cap'n cast over me and legions of late boomer children, all I know is that when I mistakenly heard he died, I burst into tears.

Mike Douglas: As the genial host of The Mike Douglas Show, Douglas was as familiar as a worn, cardigan sweater. In retrospect, I realize he was staid, unwaveringly mainstream, and unimaginative. He recently announced he was going to try to make a comeback. Nary a ripple was raised over it.

Johnny Carson: I never understood what all the fuss was about when Carson was on the air and when he left, until I saw what late night was like without him. Carson was gracious, funny, and knew how to carry on a conversation. He really was, and is, the king. And he's a Midwesterner.

The Wonder Years

Phil Donahue: He created the template for other daytime talk shows to emulate. Unfortunately, instead of improving upon what he started, the daytime talk show deteriorated into the bitch-slapping, finger-pointing mongrel it is today. The Phil Donahue Show was the best reason to call in sick to school or work.

Oprah Winfrey: Okay, so she's flamboyantly middle-class. Hell, she's long past middle-class, what with all her fingers in all those money-making pots of hers. But hey, how many plump women of color in a Midwestern talk-show have been around in your lifetime? Nowadays, Oprah's show appeals to the white-glove set, but no matter. Oprah has come a long way, baby.

The Wandering Years

Arsenio Hall: Arsenio was the most inconsistent talk show host I've ever seen (The Arsenio Hall Show). When he was bad, he stunk. When he was on, the show rocked.

Jon Stewart: Following his 30-minute talk show on MTV, Stewart's show assumed an hour format in syndication, The Jon Stewart Show, expanding on his prior success. As charming as he was, he never fell into a groove, and the show soon tanked. Thank goodness Stewart found a new gig on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, where the writing is better, and he can get away with edgier fare.

Tom Snyder: First in The Tomorrow Show (NBC), then The Late Show (CBS), and then The Late, Late Show With Tom Snyder (CBS), Snyder had some of the same qualities as Phil Donahue, except with goofier hair and a more cantankerous spirit. He left late-night shows, returned, and left again. Except for us night owls, no one seemed to notice.

The Present

David Letterman: I like him because he's from the Midwest, and because he's endearingly bitter. Just when his bitterness was getting too pungent, he had the bypass surgery. That seemed to humanize him and recommit fans who had fallen away.

James Lipton: Comedians on late-night sketch comedy shows like to lampoon the host of Bravo's Inside the Actor's Studio, targeting his stack of blue index cards from which he reads his questions and some of his loopier questions ("What is your favorite curse word?"). While the show is set up as a one-on-one between Lipton and a distinguished actor before an audience of Actor's Studio students, I get the distinct impression that Lipton believes the show is not to showcase his eloquence, or even for his high-profile guests. It's for his students.

The View: My favorite portion of ABC's mid-morning talk show is before the guests come on, when co-hosts Barbara Walters, Meredith Vieira, Joy Behar, Lisa Ling, and Star Jones chat about current events and this and that. No one woman commands the show, but they all shine equally.

Katie Couric: To be honest, I never gave the perky Couric a thought until I tuned in, by chance, to her morning show, Today (co-hosted with Matt Lauer). There she was, bleary-eyed, her hair looking like she combed it with a pillow, giving "Dr." Laura Schlessinger the business. I imagined her mainlining caffeine during commercial breaks. A woman after my own heart.

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reigs philbin, mike douglas, johnny carson, captain kangaroo, david letterman, katie couric, the view, james lipton, tom snyder, oprah winfrey, phil donahue.

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