TV feature

Kathie Lee Gifford’s ‘Today’ show farewell: God, wine, Hoda, and shameless self-promotion

The Daily Beast

April 5, 2019

Kathie Lee Gifford’s farewell to the ‘Today‘ show reached its epic finale on Friday—with cruise trips for the audience, crying with Hoda Kotb, and much free self-advertising.

It ended—and really, how could it end any other way—with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb’s foreheads softly touching, tears, clutched tissues, God, wine, and shameless self-promotion. Oh, and Barry Manilow.

The final episode of the fourth hour of NBC’s Today show with Kathie Lee Gifford was, for fans of the fourth hour of the Today show with Kathie Lee Gifford, a bit of a damp squib.

If anyone could be over-farewelled, it has been Gifford, whose departure from NBC has been a bizarrely drawn-out diva’s farewell. One senses, given all of NBC Today’s more negative or sudden departures—Matt Lauer, Megyn Kelly, Tamron Hall—that this soft-focus “we love you,” multi-day affair was deliberate over-compensation.

This final show came from a studio which looked like the same subterranean layer where Megyn Kelly presented her doomed exercise in cooking segments and racial controversy. A studio audience was judged to have been required.

The grand poobahs of NBC News were in attendance, ex-Today show producer Jim Bell and NBC News President Noah Oppenheim.

So was Cody, Gifford’s son, but not Cassidy, her daughter, who was away working. There was a studio audience, and Dean Cain in an animal mask; when Kathie Lee hasn’t presented at 10 a.m., apparently he and his astonishingly dark hair and tanned face—sort of like Elvis if Elvis had been an accountant—has been the most used with-Hoda co-host.

At one point, it seemed like Cassidy was to be her mom’s surprise guest. But no, that honor went to Barry Manilow. And then, at the end, came—most emphatically and not unexpectedly—God.

For fans of Today, it feels like Kathie Lee has been saying goodbye to the show for a very long time. First came the announcement at the end of last year; then followed months of scattered appearances of her on the fourth hour. If she wasn’t there, her replacement, Jenna Bush Hager, sat next to Kotb; or Sheinelle Jones or Carson Daly. She was there and not-there.

And this week, including this final show, there have been two distinct goodbye modes: one, the woozy ongoing farewell from the main Today show, which has been extensive. At each of these, Kotb has appeared close to tears, both women have professed their love and care for one another; and the same clips of them from 11 years ago and their first show have been replayed.

On one day, they were made to wear the same-colored coats they wore that day, and the screen split (Kotb manipulated her bangs to mimic her style of those years ago).

The second mode of the Kathie Lee Gifford NBC farewell, which was most on display on Friday morning, has been about what lies ahead for Kathie Lee Gifford. And for this relentless advertising, many congratulations to Gifford’s agent for insisting NBC accord Gifford all this free me, me, me airtime.

If you have been anywhere near Gifford’s never-ending farewell, you will know that any segment about said farewell includes a full rundown on the latest status of Then Came You, the film she’s making with Craig Ferguson (there was a clip on Friday’s final show), a new project (mentioned on this final show) which will be another film, this one based on Jimmy Wayne’s book Walk to Beautiful, and then—and really, well done to Gifford’s agent—NBC allowed her to plug both her 30-plus year relationship with Carnival Cruises and her wine brand GIFFT, which—YES—will now both be in commercial symbiosis.

Gifford herself said in this final show that she couldn’t believe she could so shamelessly promote her products, but it was her last day, so haha, she did.

For the last few months, Gifford has, for all the tissues she has clutched, also been making it extremely clear that it’s not only time to move on, but these things are what she is moving on to.

There may be real warmth at NBC among the presenters—to fans they are sold again and again as “family”—but there are also commercial imperatives stitched seamlessly into the chairs and sofas they companionably perch on.

Gifford is not alone in this; when Savannah Guthrie or Kotb publish a book, the show becomes its own Barnes & Noble.

The last few days of the fourth hour have really been all about Kotb and Gifford, and their friendship: misty-eyed memories and tributes have flowed thick and slow.

Their fans know them as two pals who neck wine (they don’t really) at 10 a.m. Kotb says Gifford changed her life; Gifford says her “Hoda-mama” or “Hodie,” is a “bright spark” who has changed hers. There have been rumors of feuding, which don’t look true. If they are, they make the last few weeks especially Oscar-winning for both women.

In their 11 years together, Kotb has fallen in love and adopted a child, Gifford has lost her husband. Kotb has also became an anchor on the main show following Lauer’s departure, and it was obvious to viewers a few years ago—with Gifford’s odd absences, and just a general air of upheaval—that the 10 a.m. show was changing.

Their chemistry has made brilliant morning television. Their show is ushered in by a mock-jaded thing they once said: “How do we do it, day after day?” And the truth is, they made the 10 a.m. hour a brilliant, welcoming hour of television—mercilessly mocked for its boozy signifiers and Gifford-led zaniness for sure, but viewers bought, and celebrated, the women’s relationship and what it stood for when it came to women’s friendships more generally.

The chemistry may have happened naturally, but successful TV shows, particularly built around a relationship like theirs, take work and two professionals being very good at their jobs.

On Friday, both women wore red jumpsuits. Flo Rida sang a rap-style medley (“Is it ‘Flo’ or ‘Rida?’” asked Gifford.) On the table were glasses of wine, of course, and also champagne cocktails. The pair wondered why their show had worked. “We respected the audience,” said Gifford. “We know you guys are fed up of bad news by the time you turn us on.”

When Kotb said the show’s success was because of Gifford, Gifford shot back it was only after she left it that the ABC morning show she did with Regis Philbin won Daytime Emmys.

Oppenheim and Bell had not yet sent her flowers or gifts.

“It’s not too late,” she said.

When it came time to promote her wine partnership with Carnival Cruises, she smashed a bottle of fizz against the desk. Shards of not-glass and fizz promptly created a storm of mess. Gifford joked it was in her line of “bashing the crap” out of things.

Then, an Oprah moment. A winner of a Carnival Cruise was soon joined in victory by the whole studio audience, who went wild when Gifford announced it.

“They thought they were getting a car,” she said wittily invoking Winfrey’s infamous extravagance.

The second segment was ushered in with a burst of Meghan Trainor’s bright ditty, “Wake up with Kathie Lee and Hoda,” never to be heard again.

Regis Philbin appeared on video to pay tribute, and say how excited he was by Gifford’s future plans.

Gifford made it clear that she was looking for a distributor for Then Came You, and then showed a strange display of tool belts and dog chains, stuff from that movie apparently, “and as close to a porn star as I’m ever gonna get.” This was next-level selling.

John Cena popped up with a trivia quiz: Apparently, the women had been served 5,300 glasses of wine in the last 11 years, Jennifer Aniston had never appeared on their show, and Chelsea Handler had drunk a Martini when she had guested.

Then Al Roker revealed some other guests in masks. Everyone bought bouquets, and said what a genius, legend, and all-round star Gifford was.

Gifford immediately knew it was Manilow behind a screen in shadow. When it was so revealed, he in glittery burgundy jacket, he said he would go anywhere for Gifford; in return, they mentioned his new album and Vegas dates. For every clutched tissue there was contractual business at hand.

It was at this moment that Gifford momentarily forgot Jenna Bush Hager’s name, and Manilow told her that “Nobody can ever replace you.”

NBC will be hoping that, as of Monday (Bush Hager’s first day), that isn’t true.

In a slightly off key, many-modulated duet, Gifford and Manilow sang “Can’t Smile Without You,” with the “I” replaced by “we,” the viewers, and “you” when Gifford outstretched her arms to us. It was cheesy, camp, silly, and moving, and the best song for a glass of wine at 10 a.m.

Gifford’s children then spoke on video in glowing terms about their mother: selfless, kind, hard-working, inspirational; they also spoke about Kotb, her warmth, that spark “radiating outwards” again.

Find something you do and figure out how to get paid for it, Gifford had once told Cody. Frank had watched her on TV in the mornings and said to his daughter, “Boy, your mom is so pretty… there’s no one else like her.”

“I’m done,” Gifford announced after that. Both she and Kotb were clutching tissues (although where was Jerry and the box of tissues on its winch?). Gifford imagined Kotb having four more children. All the Today show anchors came on stage, except an absent Guthrie.

And then, with just 30 seconds to go, came God. Gifford quoted part of a passage from the Bible, Jeremiah 29: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans… to give you a future and a hope…”

This wasn’t just true for Gifford, but for everyone watching, Gifford said tearfully, who wished that we were as loved and trusted as she was by us. “Trust Him. Let Him love you like He wants to love you, like I am loved by all of you.”

That’s certainly true of her fourth-hour audience; time will tell if that love stays constant, and profitable, for what her colleagues have invoked as Gifford’s “next chapter.” And if it doesn’t, if she ever wants to, one would think the Peacock would happily take Gifford, her scripture, and her wine glass under its wing once again.