Once considered the ultimate crime, regicide, the act of bumping off the king, has faded considerably from the list of capital crimes in this decidedly non-regal era of celeb-hood we are currently mucking through. Frankly, offing royalty is not high on my list.
There is, however, one “regis-cide,” to which I would happily subscribe. I am referring to the end-of-days of the career of Regis Philbin, the recently retired talk show host who doesn’t so much deserve death as the permanent encasement of his vocal chords in a block of Lucite at the Museum of Brain-Damaging Media.
You do have to hand it to the Philbins of the Bronx, New York. Their son, Regis Francis Xavier, even if less a king than a sodden prince of professional vacuousity, has more-or-less single-handedly spent the past five decades adding to his record of spending more time on television than any other single human. In this case, to restate Mel Brooks, "maybe it’s not so good to be king."
By now you may have guessed that I do not like Regis Philbin. Actually, fill in the blanks: I dislike, mislike, disrelish, disfavor, abominate, loathe, detest, abhor, have no use for, am allergic to, gag at, am disgusted by, shudder at the mere thought of … you get the idea.
And so, as he comes to in Corte Madera this Sunday to flog his new book, How I Got This Way, we might want to see how and why Regis has done so much to degrade the intellectual capital of America, while at the same time legitimizing the art of sinusoidal chitchat that has become the banal wallpaper of a culture that refuses to shut up or, alternatively, actually sit and listen.
It wasn’t always necessarily so. All we need do is return to the summer of that pivotal year, 1969, to see how American culture veered off-track, ceding what was such a promising and hopeful era into the kind of predictable talk-show rhetoric that has helped lower the net IQ of America, at the same time cheapening the discourse of media life. Or, as Dick Cavett famously noted, “as long as people will accept crap, it will be financially profitable to dispense it.”
That summer of '69 was the time of the Beatles' breakup, and the celestial Mr. Cavett was able to help the world overcome the trauma by managing to get Paul, George, John and Yoko on his late night ABC talk show, although not simultaneously. The gymnastic champion Cavett was also able to convince rock diva Joni Mitchell to appear on his show rather than helicopter that evening to Woodstock, which led the disappointed Mitchell to sit down in her New York hotel room and write the anthem, “Woodstock.”
“By the time we got to Woodstock," it had been a year in which Cavett interviewed Lillian Hellman, Gore Vidal, Janis Joplin, Groucho Marx, Judy Garland, Truman Capote, Hedy Lamar, The Committee, Joan Baez, Cosby Stills and Nash, Woody Allen, Ruth Gordon, Gina Lollobrigida, Federico Fellini, and on through the fiery contrails of a culture in afterburn.
For those of us who missed Woodstock, it was Cavett who could bring the worst and best out of such cultural icons as Norman Mailer and Katherine Hepburn, the latter of whom proved to be so simpatico a subject that the interview with Cavett was extended into a second hour.
And then, suddenly, without so much as a bye-bye-your-leave, it was over. In the place of the droll, elegant Cavett, there stood, what? Whom?? Joey Bishop??? And next to the Vegas lounge-lizard comedian whose trump card was a friendship with Sinatra, in matching Nehru jackets, stood a nervous thirty-something sidekick/announcer named Regis Philbin. Watching, it became clear that this Notre Dame graduate’s greatest, most obvious talent was to provide the comedian/host with a target for his not-especially-funny contrived gibes.
It was like going from fresh creamery butter to Parkay, and it helped cement into place the Carson/McMahon model of light, pre-REM-sleep chit-chat, whose ambassador over the years increasingly became one Regis F. X. Philbin's weak-kneed, middle-American material did nothing so much as reflect the end of a brilliant era of cultural exceptionalism and the beginning of the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” “America’s Got Talent” era of everyone's their own quiz show host.
So if you do go to Book Passage this Sunday, you might want to leave a space open at the end of the self-congratulatory clap-trap and ask “King” Philbin if it doesn’t give him sweaty palms knowing that he inhabits the outskirts of the cultural space of the marvelous, funny, deep, ineffable Dick Cavett? On second thought, forget it. It’s probably best to let retired Regis’s lie.