Kathie Lee Gifford needed convincing.
When NBC’s Today show approached her with an offer to join its 10 a.m. hour back in 2008, “I had no desire to ever get back into television,” explains the former host of Regis & Kathie Lee. “Maybe as an actress or a writer, but never another talk show. I had been away from Regis’ show for eight years and was exploring other avenues, writing for theater and doing movies. I was happy.”
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Still, with a push from her late husband Frank, she agreed to hear out Hoda Kotb over lunch at NYC’s Rainbow Room. (Kotb was already on the hour with Ann Curry and Natalie Morales. “It wasn’t working and people know that,” she says. “It was dull, to be honest.”)
One meal became a marathon. As hours ticked by, the magnetic duo refused to pull away from the table. “We had something real and I knew it right then,” recalls Gifford. “I knew we could be something.”
That something, of course, turned into the longest running female anchored TV show, Kathie Lee & Hoda. But before they were hailed for their smart cracks and wine guzzling, they had to conquer a massive hurdle: Finding their comfort.
“Hoda is such a professional, excellent trained journalist,” reveals Gifford. “So she’s used to listening to a producer in her ear as opposed to talking to me.” Which led to an obvious stiffness between them. “I kept asking what camera I should look at and where our soundbites were,” says Kotb, who recently also took on the 7 a.m. hour with Savannah Guthrie. “I remember sitting there trying to talk to producers and Kathie going, ‘Blah, blah, blah.’ She just looked at me and said, ‘I’m right here. Rip that news corset off. Talk to me!’”
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Done. Ignoring what they’ve been taught, effortless conversations finally flowed. Perhaps to the dismay of their once-rigid production team. “They’re all on Xanax now,” jokes Gifford. “But that’s the way it goes!” (Chimes in executive producer Tammi Fuller, “It’s absolutely fantastic. I learned that they best thing that could happen is not following the plan.”)
In honor of their 10-year anniversary, Gifford, 64, and Kotb, 53, share a toast with Us.
Us Weekly: You are the first two female anchors to lead a show. Going into this, did you realize the weight of that?
Kathie Lee Gifford: We were never conscious of it. We were just two women who were in the process of developing a lifelong friendship. As soon as we started, we decided to go to lunch and a Broadway matinee on Wednesdays. That was the best thing we ever did. We started sharing life instead of just sharing an anchor table. We went to each other’s homes and brought family members. Hoda and her mom would come to Thanksgiving, down to my place in the Keys or up to Nantucket. I’ve had a lot of houses! [Laughs]
Hoda Kotb: Also, if you want to have a great lunch, who do you go with? Your girls. That’s just guaranteed fun! We’d go and talk about things people and their girlfriends talk about. It just made sense. There’s a different dynamic between a guy and a girl. There’s sexual tension —
KLG: Well, I never had sexual tension with Regis, I’m sorry! I want that on the record. I have more with you than him! [Laughs]
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Us: You’re known for going off the cuff. What’s the most awkward moment you’ve had on the show?
HK: If you bring it up…
KLG: I’m not going to! I zip it! You’ll have to look it up in the archives and the annals of NBC history
HK: Don’t say anal!
Us: Best guest?
HK: Boy, there are so many.
KLG: We loved Ricky Gervais.
HK: And his presence.
KLG: Craig Ferguson.
HK: Joel McHale.
KLG: The people who come and bring their game.
HK: And make us laugh.
KLG: And just let it happen. Let it rip.
Us: Favorite memory?
HK [To Gifford]: I love when you made the music video with Cyndi Lauper and Sara Bareilles.
KLG [To Kotb]: And the precious one you did with Kelly Clarkson for your book. It’s so beautiful. I can’t hear it enough!
HK: There are moments that you don’t forget. If I looked at it big picture, I would see lots and lots and lots of laughs. I would see life changing moments. Those are the exclamation points on the show.
KLG: For me, one of the best was when I wrote a little musical for us called Today the Musical. I wanted to call it Not Today and Tomorrow’s Not Looking Good Either, but nobody had a sense of humor but me at the time. The irony is most of those suits are gone that said no to it.
HK: That was a great one!
Us: OK be honest, over 10 years, how many bottles of wine do you think you’ve gone through?
HK: I don’t think you can count counting that high!
KLG: We cannot divulge that!
Us: Have you ever finished a segment and said to yourself, “Oh, I’m a little drunk right now”?
KLG: No, my daddy taught me years ago that you sip you don’t drink. Now, when we have three show days . . .
HK: That last guest we have. Sorry!
Us: Has a guest ever drank one too many?
HK: Olivia Munn was throwing down. By the end, we were all laughing. She seemed like she was tiptoeing over the edge.
KLG: She drank her own and then took ours!
HK: She kept saying, ‘Is this day drinking?’
KLG: That was morning drinking! Get in touch with her!
Kathie Lee & Hoda’s 10th anniversary special airs on NBC Friday, April 6 at 10 a.m.