Retirement is always a trauma at the Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS). It will be taking Bob Iger, president and CEO, four years to step down in 2015. Michael Eisner took a decade to say goodbye. And now the company is faced with the sudden retirement of Regis Philbin, co-host of the money-machine, Live! With Regis and Kelly.
The way the media and the world of morning television treated Regis's last hurrah on Friday made Lou Gehrig's farewell from Yankee Stadium seem as if he was leaving the room for a minute. Kings and queens have abdicated thrones with much less fanfare.
I have been especially reminded of the historical significance of the day by Regis, who for the past two weeks has been bringing up a column I wrote for Newsday in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue (actually, it was April 4, 1983). I was the critic who went out on the limb and predicted that Regis would never last. And I was right. Twenty-eight years later, Regis has fulfilled my prediction.
Most other critics would try to forget about it. Nobody is perfect. I'm such a nice guy I even offered to come on stage at the farewell concert and eat crow. With Tabasco sauce, crow doesn't taste that bad. I could've even baked a crow pie in the kitchen segment.
A leading profit center for Disney, Philbin first gave the bad news he would be leaving the show last January. My question as an investor to Regis is: What's your hurry?
Will the show Live! With Somebody Else and Kelly last without Rege? I don't think so.
Egregious Philbin, as I called him in 1983, was a has-been from LA (his greatest achievement, a crying jag on The Joey Bishop Show) when he arrived at WABC-TV in New York. He was a nice man, with an acerbic sense of humor that gave him a special kind of obnoxious quality. His show was going nowhere until they found someone more obnoxious.
Kathie Lee Johnson, later Gifford, was so obnoxious in talking about her favorite subject -- herself -- that she became the perfect foil to Regis. Her incessant babbling about the bowel movements of her children, Cody and Cassidy, her morning ride on her moral high horse as Kathie Lee of Arc, her commercial projects... We all felt sorry for Regis. She was so obnoxious she made Regis palatable.
The lesson learned is that it was the somebody-else who made the show successful. It's the old oil-and-vinegar trick that makes salads work. Finding the right new ingredients for Disney will not be easy.
A leading parlor game in the heavy cultural circles I travel is: Who will replace Rege? My nominee is Herman Cain. In the comedy show that is the GOP Presidential Debates of 2012, Cain has displayed the right kind of ingratiating obnoxiousness and humor. Live! With Herman and Kelly would only be temporary. By 2016, Cain would be running for president again.
But the best replacement for Rege would be Rege himself. Even if Disney has him frozen cryogenically, as Walt is rumored to be, just his presence on the stage would save the show.
No matter how many guest hosts in monochromatic shirts and ties, none will restore the winning chemical balance of the show.
There is only one Rege.
Furthermore, no matter how many nightclub acts in Vegas or game show gigs, nothing can replace daily TV exposure. For some people, not being on the air is like somebody stepping on their air hose.
I will go out on the limb again and predict that Regis will be back on his show; either live or CGI enhanced. And once again, I predict he won't last.