'Live!' exec producer Michael Gelman in no rush to choose a new co-host for Kelly Ripa
NEW YORK -- You can't hurry love. Nor, according to Michael Gelman, can you hurry up selecting a TV co-host.
A couple of months after 80-year-old Regis Philbin exited "Live! With Regis and Kelly" and took his name in the title along with him, Kelly Ripa has been welcoming a succession of fill-in co-hosts. A number of them -- no one's saying just who -- are auditioning on-the-air to land the job for keeps.
It's a process that Gelman, the show's executive producer, calls dating, and, as fans wait for the show to pop the question weeks or months from now, "Live!" is sowing its wild oats. ("Live! With Kelly," which airs in syndication weekdays at 9 a.m. EST in many markets, this week will feature guest co-hosts Daniel Radcliffe, Howie Mandel, Peter Facinelli and D.L. Hughley).
"We've just scratched the surface of people out there," Gelman says, adding, "We have enjoyed a lot of people who have already co-hosted, and we're bringing a bunch of them back for more 'dates."'
That first batch of callbacks will include Jerry O'Connell, Dana Carvey, Seth Meyers and Michael Strahan.
"But I'm not saying there's a short list," insists Gelman. "Every day we come up with new ideas, and we get new revelations about who the new host should or shouldn't be. The chemistry is key -- and not just with Kelly, but with the audience and the staff and the format."
In other words: Don't bother even asking how much longer these tryouts will take.
"I've been through it from the other side," noted Ripa, a party to the monthslong dating whirl a dozen years ago, during a phone interview. "I sort of understand how it works, and what it is they're looking for, and how this process can't be rushed."
In particular, the new hire must click with Ripa in the host chat, the morning set-piece where the co-hosts talk about what's going on out in the world and in their personal lives. It's deceptively skilled performance art, an impromptu signature of the show.
"This format, a sort of faux-husband and wife who sit down and chat, lets viewers vicariously experience the co-hosts' pains and pleasures," Gelman says. "The early-morning news shows have borrowed heavily from our success, and reality shows have taken a cue from how Regis would come on and just talk about his life.
"In some ways, it really was at the cutting edge of what a lot of television is now. I think the show broke ground with it, and continues to."
For this interview, Gelman is in his office, a pleasant jumble of show-related curios including a small desktop gong that long ago must have served as an on-the-air prop (though no one can remember how), with which he placidly summons staffers to meetings. His space is further appointed by grids of colour-coded cards pinned to the wall inscribed with names of future guests, one of whom may end up taking up residence here at the show's Upper West Side Manhattan headquarters.
Since Philbin left, "it's been different, it's been sad," says Gelman. "But it's also been an exciting time. I think Kelly is enjoying 'dating,' and so is the audience: Our numbers are trending higher than last year." (Five of the first seven "Kelly-only" weeks saw household audiences match or beat the same week a year earlier, and for the 2011-12 season to date, "Live!" viewership is averaging 3.7 million viewers daily, compared to 3.3 million viewers the season before.)
In Philbin's absence, Gelman, still boyish at age 50, has emerged as the grand old man of "Live!" He is the constant, the keeper of the flame. His tenure as executive producer reaches back a quarter-century, when the show was still a local New York telecast, not the nationally syndicated juggernaut it became after being rebranded "Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee."
Along the way, Philbin bagged the record for most hours spent in front of a TV camera (15,662, as certified by Guinness World Records back in 2006). But Gelman likely has his own claim to longevity.
"I may be the world record holder for the most hours of live television produced -- particularly for one show," he says. "And if I haven't broken the record, hopefully I will."
As he speaks, it's late morning. Another hour of "Live!" is under his belt, and now "the REAL work day begins," he says with a laugh. Meetings, bookings, planning, and, yes, thinking about a new co-host -- all that will consume him until 7 p.m. or thereabouts, when he heads home to his wife, TV personality Laurie Hibberd, and their two daughters. He had arrived at the office around 7 a.m. for rehearsals and briefings until, at the stroke of 9 a.m., "Live!" hit the air.
Gelman is a master of multitasking, especially the hour when the show is being broadcast. He stands just out of camera range (where he won unsought celebrity as "Gelman," the genial foil often called out by Philbin), while "a million things are going through my mind -- what I need to do, what's coming up later, what could go wrong," he says. "And at the same time, I'm warming up and prompting the studio audience."
Some of these duties, he says, have become automatic.
"Sometimes I'll be at a Broadway show or other live performance," he confides, "and when people start applauding and I want them to applaud more, I all of sudden do this" -- he raises a hand and feathers his fingers imploringly -- "before I catch myself. Very embarrassing."
Gelman has grown up on the job. He began as a freelance production assistant for what was then "The Morning Show." Then, when he became executive producer in 1987, he was somewhat of a surrogate son to the middle-age Philbin, a TV journeyman on the brink of a career renaissance. When Philbin left a quarter-century later, Gelman, still the steady steward of the show, was nearly as old as Philbin had been when the show began.
"Over the years, I've kind of backed away from behind-the-scenes things," Philbin said last fall as he prepared to leave. "Gelman rings a little gong, and everybody comes and they sit there for HOURS! I don't know WHAT the HELL they're TALKING about! But that's what an executive producer is supposed to do, I guess, and I think he's done a good job."
"Because he's so good at what he does, it goes unrecognized," Ripa said recently. "He's very calm, very even, and we move forward. Always. We're always looking to tomorrow. We do our live show, then we let it go, and then we move on to tomorrow's show. And he makes it look easy."
Gelman is ready to savour continued success for "Live!" He says he's signed another long-term deal, "and I plan on being here for a while.
"The show has a life of its own," he sums up, making it look easy, and knows it's time to move forward now. Tomorrow's show requires his attention.