Change can be tough. “With Regis, people who never watched our show accused me of only talking about my children,” Ms. Gifford said. “Somebody accused me of it, and people picked it up, and it became the truth. That’s so untrue. I talked about my kids when it was funny to talk about my kids. I’d talk about a movie if it were funnier, or going to the White House, or stumbling, or throwing up. I talked about life! And when I became a mother, that was a big part of my life.” Besides, she noted, her children eventually banned Mom from bringing them up on-air anyway.
Ms. Gifford’s willingness to put herself out there is what has always made her compelling.
“She’s taught me to let it rip,” said Ms. Kotb. “‘Don’t worry about it. Spontaneity rules.’ She’s loosened my corset so I can breathe, and I’ve tried to check her. We have a banner we run sometimes that says ‘Kathie Lee would like to apologize for what she’s just said, what she’s currently saying, and what she is going to say in the future.’” Certainly there are missteps. Ms. Kotb recalled with chagrin a February 14 broadcast during which her own divorce, on a past Valentine’s Day, had become a hot topic. Thanks, Kathie Lee! “‘That was an in-the-makeup-room discussion, not the we’re-on-TV discussion,’” Ms. Kotb recalls telling her untrammelled colleague. “But for her, it’s just ‘Let it rip!’ There will be potholes and there will be great TV.”
“We want it to be a party, and you’re our guest, and we’re happy to see you,” Ms. Gifford said. “You either get it or you don’t.” A few years back, she became the subject of a savage recurring parody by Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live. The late-night version of Kathie Lee affects a fake Valley Girl accent, tosses back tequila shots, and cuts off Ms. Kotb endlessly.
When we mentioned that Ms. Wiig had left Saturday Night Live in the spring, effectively putting an end to the long-running bit, Ms. Gifford was emphatic. “Thank God,” she said. “I prayed that woman would go someplace. But I thought she was brilliant.” For her part, Ms. Kotb is more of a fan. “Our dialogue is the same!” she said. “They don’t have to change it. The straw sticking out of the box of wine? They get it.”
The pair’s habit of drinking wine on the air has come in for some mockery—it is, after all, 10 a.m., a bit early for a tipple. Ms. Gifford has heard the critiques: “‘Those are the two old broads who drink all the time,’” she said, imitating her detractors. “That’s ludicrous! We take a sip of wine during the show, and the rest of the time we’re having fun. I would be in an asylum, or I would be dead, or my husband would be dead, or those people who think that would be dead, if I didn’t keep it in perspective.”
When we arrived at the steakhouse next to the Neil Simon Theatre to interview Ms. Gifford over lunch, she had an ice pack propped behind her neck and a glass of white parked in front of her. “When you’re up at four, it’s happy hour, know what I mean?” she said. As for the neck pillow, Ms. Carmello had told us that whenever Ms. Gifford’s neck went out, “She’s pushing herself a little too far.”
The murmuring about Ms. Gifford’s love for her “Winesday” Wednesday broadcast is nothing compared with the McPherson-kidnapping-size to-do over her Kathie Lee clothing line. She claims she wrote key lyrics Ms. Carmello delivers as Sister Aimee—“Ever felt that the truth was nowhere to be found?”—during the 1996 Walmart scandal, even before she’d conceived of the musical. Though Ms. Gifford had earmarked some profits from the line for her children’s charities in New York before the story broke, and though she stepped out in front of it, transforming herself into an anti–child labor advocate, some viewers remained skeptical—especially since this was the lady who couldn’t stop gushing over her own little angels, Cody and Cassidy. Or so the narrative went, anyway.
“The truth was not convenient!” she said. “You can go visit where the money went—it’s still there, helping 200 little babies today. I wasn’t angry. I was frustrated.” Over time, she said, she has tried to forgive—“Love and hate cannot live in the same place, spatially,” she intoned sagely—and learned to put the haters out of her mind. “I finally, through all of that, stopped caring what people’s opinions were.”
Ms. Gifford understands that TV has not allowed her to show off the side of herself that can quote scripture or ponder the eternal mysteries of life, and she’s fine with it. “Years ago, I thought the show that Regis and I did was the silliest little show on television. Because we showed up, we sat down on stools, and then for 23 minutes we talked about our lives. Could there be anything more shallow in life? Then you started meeting people—and it happens now with Hoda—‘You got my father through chemotherapy. My mother died smiling in the hospital because you made her laugh. You don’t realize how much you get me through my day.’ I don’t minimize it anymore.”
Even so, the kaffeeklatsch is simply not enough of a creative outlet. “I am a 10 percent silly person,” said Ms. Gifford. “I know how to make a good living being a silly person. But I am not a silly person. And there is not one person who knows me well that would ever characterize me in general as an idiot. Or silly. No, I’m not a silly person. I know how to be silly.”