It’s not the questions and answers that matter when you interview Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. When queried, Kotb and Gifford provide a ready response, to be sure– but they might wander a bit before arriving at a destination.
At a time of day when many TV stations air talk shows with a how-to bent or an issue-oriented focus, NBC simply lets these two run with their own ball in a fourth hour of “Today” that is decidedly unlike the other three. Their interplay, hard to duplicate, has provided fodder for spoofs on “Saturday Night Live,” and seems light-years away from the newsy intro that marks the program’s first few minutes each day at 7 a.m.
Does it matter? The duo’s intricate back-and-forth has gained enough traction that many NBC outlets air it again at 2 a.m., where it provides a warm embrace to insomniacs and college kids.
Below, in a lightly edited interview, Gifford, a TV veteran who has logged time on the game show “Name That Tune” as well as 15 years opposite Regis Philbin on the long-running syndicated program “Live,” and Kotb, the “Dateline” correspondent, finish each other’s sentences, crack wise and insist that they barely touch the wine that sits on their desk each day:
Variety: What’s the mission of the fourth hour?
Kotb: The mission? [Laughs]
Gifford: It’s the “Happy Hour.” Time Magazine named us “Happy Hour” of the “Today Show.” And we do our best to fulfill that.
Kotb: We knew we were having fun, but we didn’t realize we were the “Happy Hour” until it was official in Time. I mean, it was a funny thing, because we started off having Chelsea Handler on one day, and she had that book, ”Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea.”
Gifford: The producers came up with tons of cocktails for her. We didn’t think anything of it. We thought it was fun.
Gifford: Appropriate, because of the subject matter.
Gifford: About a week later, Brooke Shields shows up. She says, “Where my cocktail?”
Kotb: We were like, “What are you talking about?”
Gifford: And then Joel McHale showed up with his own bottle of Hennessy.
Kotb: And then it just …
Gifford: It just took on a life of its own.
Kotb: So we just let it happen.
Gifford: We were frankly surprised no one stopped it a lot earlier.
Kotb: Right, or that we haven’t been fired yet.
Gifford: Or arrested.
Variety: How often do you have to worry about getting drunk on set?
Gifford: Never. Hoda, tipsy on occasion.
Kotb: I take a few sips, just to keep it real.
Gifford: People just assume we are drinking wine the whole time, but the reality is most days it just sits there. Now, it’s my wine, thank you very much, It’s Gifft [the name of her wine]. So it’s very, very tempting for me. I have the chardonnay. Hoda has the red blend. But most days, it just sits there. It’s a prop, but because it’s sitting there, it sort of invites people to the party.
Kotb: That’s exactly what it does.
Gifford: It’s psychological.
Kotb: Who knew that it was going to be such a thing?
Variety: Your show is on again at, what, 2 a.m.? What sort of feedback do you get from that audience?
Gifford: What million people are up watching…?
Kotb: What freaks are up then?
Gifford: What perverts are out there? We find it’s women nursing their babies. It’s people who have just gotten home from a late shift.
Kotb: People with insomnia. We often get those going “ I can’t sleep, oh my God. I saw the hour and I got a laugh.”
Gifford: At least it got a laugh.
Kotb: College kids, that was probably the group that surprised us the most We knew about their mothers.
Gifford: And grandmothers!
Kotb: We are their mothers.
Gifford: And grandmothers!
Kotb: But there was something about the kids themselves? I’m not sure if we became some sort of crazy college drinking game. I’m not sure what it was.
Gifford: We are like their crazy old aunts, the ones that…
Kotb: The freaks!
Gifford: The freaks, but the freaks that are fun.
Gifford: I am stunned, because I am so old that I miss Doris Day and I can’t stand any of the music that Hoda plays and you would think they would find me to be an old, old fuddy duddy, and maybe they do. We are so unhip we are hip.
Kotb: That’s what happened. I do think that’s it. Because it’s funny, we will play a song that’s really hot and in reality, it’s not so great. It’s a lot of “What! What!” and whatever and it’s not that great. So Kath will go on the air. I’m like, “It’s so good!” And Kath goes, “ I hate that song. Nobody likes that song!” And I’ll go, “Kath, you’re going to get hammered.”
Gifford: When you are a trained musician like I’ve been since I was a young girl, if something isn’t well crafted as a song, it goes against your grain. You can’t help it. I can see why uneducated infidels might like it.
Kotb: [Sings] I’m so fancy…
Gifford: I’m kind of jealous, actually. Because it has ruined it for me. I realize when something isn’t a perfect rhyme.
Kotb: Yeah, she hates it!
Variety: Do you miss the “SNL” parodies, or do you wish they would come back?
Gifford: Oh, I so miss them! You know what, I have not watched “SNL” since Gilda Radner, so I didn’t even know it was on. Sorry. The only time I see it is when we show it on Monday mornings.
Kotb: You know, it was funny. When we showed those Monday morning parodies, I looked at it and it’s like its our show exactly in terms of the script.
Gifford: On steroids.
Kotb: But its like, they didn’t change the dialogue. It was like, “I said that. She said that!”
Gifford: It’s rather heightened, Hoda. It’s called satire.
Kotb: It’s satire, but there are chunks that are exact – which is terrifying.
Gifford: Satire is always based on a little bit of reality. It’s not my first time at that ro-day-o , if you know what I mean. It’s flattering if you’re that much a part of the iconic landscape that people are talking about you, and I never took it as anything negative at all.
Kotb: I just feel sorry. The women who play me have all been fired.
Gifford: It’s like the curse of Hoda.
Kotb: As long as it’s not [‘SNL’ cast member] Kenan [Thompson] playing me…I’m good.
Variety: Who do you see your show competing against at 10 in the morning?
Gifford: I’m aware that here in New York we are opposite Wendy Williams and opposite Rachael Ray, but I have never in all my 50 years in this industry thought about who I’m up against. It’s the [Vince] Lombardi thing that [husband] Frank [Gifford] used to say. Lombardi used to always say to us, ‘If you’re looking at what the other guy is doing, you’re not doing your job.” We’d get so thrown off if we said, “But they just did this on that show.’ Just be authentic. That’s what’s missing today in television is authenticity. You can’t try to one-up people.
Kotb: I was married to the ratings when I first came. I used to watch them daily and would go, ‘Oh my God, what happened? What did we do yesterday? It ticked up. It ticked down.’ And Kath has always been like this:” If we’re having fun, they are having fun.” I used to get upset if a guest had to cancel, or if something didn’t work out. I’d look at our numbers the next day, and we had a blast. And you’re right you’re right, if it’s a joyful, fun show, the rest of it is just gravy.
Variety: What’s the balancing point between sharing with the audience and determining that something is just for your private life?
Gifford: We both have our own inner compass. I know there are certain things that are sacred to me that in all these years of television I have….People go to me, “I know everything about you.” And I go, “Actually, you only know what I’ve been willing to reveal.” People who just share everything about their lives discover one day that their lives are pretty empty because they have nothing that is private or sacred…
Kotb: It’s funny. It used to be you could host a morning show, even the 7, and not really reveal too much. And I think everything has changed now. I think now part of entering into this world, you have to reveal things. Because people expect so much more. They don’t know whether to love you or not if you don’t share anything and sometimes you have to go beyond.I feel like I’ve gone beyond what I’m comfortable with.
Variety: How has morning TV changed due to tech and viewing patterns? What is it now that it wasn’t twenty years ago and what is it becoming?
Kotb: What it isn’t the numbers you used to have. We used to get 8’s, crazy numbers. I feel like we are fighting over a smaller pool. And I do feel like just because everybody has so many other places to go and things to do, the bar is so much higher. Here’s why you should stay with us. There are a thousand places you could go right now to find your little niche that you love. If you like cooking, you can go to The Cooking Channel, so we’ve got to keep them. I do think the Twitter-Instagram-Facebook world is giving people a little extra bit of love.
Gifford: Or hatred.
Kotb: Or hatred! That too.
Gifford: I don’t let any negativity in. Years ago learned to do that. There are about ten people in my entire life whose opinions truly matter to me, and that’s based on a lot of years of experience, and I let those people in to my inner sanctum.
Kotb: You’re right!
Gifford: But somebody who doesn’t know me, that’s blogging somewhere, who has never met me, who has no idea how I live my life? Don’t give your power away.
Kotb: I do think it’s a little weird with Twitter and things. Because people do have an instant reaction. The shows sometimes can have an instant reaction to that. In other words, when we do some things, a small group but a vocal group can say “How can you have done that?”…In reality, it wasn’t such a terrible thing. Maybe somebody took it the wrong way. I think we worry a little bit about overreacting to things, because it used to be you got a letter a week later and someone was mad about it, and it was like, “What was that thing?” Now it’s like it’s the minute it’s out of your mouth.
Gifford: We were prepared for that with technology today.
Kotb: Yes, we were.
Gifford: We have a little crawl that goes…
Kotb: At the bottom of the screen…
Gifford: The bottom of the screen that goes…
Kotb: Kathie Lee would like to apologize for what she said, what she’s about to say and what she said five minutes ago.And we just roll it. No retractions necessary.
Gifford: We cover our tracks.
Kotb: We just point to the scroll when we’re saying something.