Gleeful Gravitas: Regis Philbin and the Last Great Game Show

I don’t know how young the readership is for our site. Sometimes I slip into a realm of understanding that everyone alive has experienced the things that I have, and I could not be further from fact. Around the turn of the century, the late Regis Philbin was the hostof Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, a quiz show that was such a phenomenon that it seemed to permeate everyday life. In the year of our lord 1999, the only thing bigger than Millionaire was the impending apocalypse when the new year arrived. The reason the show was the cultural touchstone that it became was because of the stakes, the production of the show, and most of all, its charismatic host. We lost Regis, a true icon of Millennial adolescence, on Saturday at the age of 88.

It’s easy to see why Millionaire was so popular. Everyone could answer those first few questions. The stakes involved made it seem like we were MENSA-caliber for knowing that, in the popular nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle, the cow jumped over the moon and not the Sears Tower. That’s the kind of difficulty a $100 question would bring.

By the time the contestant made it into the thousands, we had to furrow our brows and remember something like what kind of pasta was shaped like a loose coil or what was the sixth planet from the sun. Sure, given the options, we might know it was rotini and Saturn, respectively, but we had to think. All the while, Regis was poking our ribs with some playful banter about getting nervous too early.

The show transported us from our couches into the contestant’s chair like no quiz show had done before. The presentation on screen was so claustrophobic that we could feel the tension in that room. Even when a contestant used their 50/50, it’s not like they cut us a break. The show would ALWAYS provide the correct answer and the one you just couldn’t mentally eliminate. Regis, steward of the screen, would poke the anxiety bear in all of us with a look that projected “I don’t even know what the hell the right answer is!”

Oh boy… I should know this one… I just rented the movie!

It was an up and down, tantric dance with wealth. One person would make it to $100,000 and falter. Five more would collapse before hitting $5,000. Then you’d just believe in someone. They’d make it to 8:58pm and get the $50,000 question right… only to have to wait until the next show to move up.

It should have gotten old quickly, but it just became more of an everpresent force in American culture. Teachers asked if that was “your final answer”, quizzes with multiple choice questions always had one silly option, much like the early rounds of the show. The phrase “phone a friend” was EVERYWHERE. So was Regis’s face. Not only was he the popular host of the daytime talk show Live! with Regis and Kathy Lee, but he commanded prime time as well. His face, hair, and trademark emphatic, witty delivery of every line was undeniable. Then came the night we all waited for. Hell, I remember watching this live. Everyone did. For those scoring at home, in a few months this iconic television moment can buy its own beer.

It’s an absolutely king shit move by contestant John Carpenter to use his lifeline like that. It’s one of the greatest moments in television history, full stop. The look on Regis’ face when he tells his dad that he doesn’t need any help was emblematic of what he brought to the show. He understood the energy of it and wanted nothing to do with taking that moment from Carpenter. He merely guided the show to its climax with gleeful gravitas.

He was everyone’s great-uncle, the one who would have the best stories at Thanksgiving and would never let the conversation coast into controversial topics. He seemed to always be in command of whatever room he was in, all while never being the subject himself. It’s a rarity, truth be told, that someone can talk as much as Regis did without being vain, and that’s what made him successful.

It wasn’t long before Regis and Millionaire were compressed into a Playstation game to frustrate everyone at home. My family rented it no fewer than four separate times. It became a game of memory. After all, there were only so many questions that could be written onto a disc in 2000. Regis’s digital essence was there to console you every time you’d miss the million dollar question, or poke playful fun at you if you fell out in the first few rounds. Without his presence, it would not have been nearly as entertaining.

There were coffee mugs, t-shirts, hats, stickers, buttons, cardboard standees, board games, and just about any other collectible piece of junk you’d find at an FYE, Babbages, or Spencers. The show was so massive that it stayed on nearly 20 years after Regis initially left, just surviving on daytime TV on name recognition alone.

Years later, when Meredith Vieira was the host, Regis had his own turn in the hot seat. The question he faced was self-referential to the show. Vieira, who was a fine steward of the American version of the show, is still no match for the charisma of Regis Philbin, who seems to exhaust his mental capacity out loud trying to answer the question.

He was just as lovable and amicable as a contestant as he was as host. He never had to turn it off, because frankly that’s just who he was.

Millionaire was not the first quiz show, not by a long shot, but it was the one that revived the genre. It’s likely the popularity of trivia nights today is somehow loosely tied to the collective memory of thirty and forty-somethings coalescing into a need to answer mindless questions of increasing difficulty.

When I heard that “the hardest working man in show business” had passed away, that’s the first thing that came to mind. Not the talk shows or his love of Notre Dame football or any of the products he endorsed. It wasn’t the over half-century of busting ass in the entertainment industry as a page on the Tonight Show in the ’50s through his retirement from Live! in 2011. No, it was the one show he ran for only a few years that captivated the nation in a way not seen since on network television.

Who Wants to be A Millionaire? was a transcendent game show in its prime, and its success is owed all to its host. His tone and delivery were iconic, so much so that you can probably read the following in his voice:

For one million dollars, which television personality holds the Guinness World Record for most time seen on screen?

Hey dad, I don’t really need your help. I just wanted to let you know I’m gonna win the million dollars.

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