With co-host Matt Lauer bringing the tissues, the “Today” show threw a going-away party Wednesday for 15-year host Katie Couric, who is leaving to become the next anchor of the “CBS Evening News.”
“I’m feeling happy and sad and completely out of control,” Couric said, “and you know how much I like that.”
Forty-two minutes into the show, Couric couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.
The first tear was spotted in the corner of her eye as “Today” talked to six people she had interviewed — an inspiring school principal, a woman brutally raped in Central Park, survivors of the Columbine school shooting and the World Trade Center bombing and parents of a boy who had died of brain cancer.
“In meeting her and talking to her, I felt that it helped heal me as well,” said Lauren Manning, who was burned during the terrorist attack.
Couric’s parents and two daughters were also in the audience Wednesday for what Couric jokingly called the “celebration of moi.”
At the end of three hours worth of tributes, Couric raised a glass of champagne and said, “to everyone in TV land, thanks so much.”
Couric’s long goodbye began April 5, the 15th anniversary of her first day as Bryant Gumbel’s co-host on “Today,” when she announced that she would be leaving to accept CBS’ offer to replace Bob Schieffer on the evening news. She said the time was right for a new challenge.
“Today” has dominated morning television for more than 10 years, never losing a week in the ratings, and is the most profitable show on television in advertising revenue.
Couric said it was “the best job on television” and poked fun at Lauer, her TV mate since he replaced Gumbel in 1997.
“I know I’ll never have a partner like you,” she said, “because I won’t be working with a partner.”
Lauer said he’ll most remember all the laughs they shared, on and off the air.
“People talk about chemistry,” Lauer said. “I have never been able to define it. From my end it came from genuine love and respect and I’m going to miss you.”
During her time on the air, “Today” fans watched as Couric, 49, grew from a chipper young reporter, to a mother with two girls and a young widow when her husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer. She underwent an on-air colonoscopy that encouraged thousands of Americans to do the same, which doctors called the “Couric Effect.”
She called her work on colon cancer prevention by far her proudest accomplishment.
“Today” has had some troubles in recent years, going through three executive producers and nearly being dethroned by ABC’s “Good Morning America” as Couric’s increasingly glamorous on-air appearance turned some viewers off. But it has rebounded strongly in the past year.
NBC is shutting down its streetside Rockefeller Center studio after Couric leaves for a summer makeover, preparing for Meredith Vieira of “The View” to take over as her successor in the fall. “Today” will spend the summer in an outside studio nearby.
“Today” began its tribute showing Couric awakened by an alarm clock at 5 a.m., followed by a back-up wakeup call from her driver. Al Roker joked how Couric sometimes made it to work with only about 15 minutes to spare.
She recalled her first day with Gumbel, when she was five months pregnant and still trying to decide whether to be identified as Katherine. “I got up, threw up and came to work,” she said.
The first film clips of her career emphasized hard-nosed interviews of politicians like Ross Perot, the first President Bush and Colin Powell, perhaps offering a message to critics who questioned her news credentials after working on a show that mixed in so much lighter fare.
But “Today” also showed Couric’s off-key singing with guests Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett.
“Some of the things I did — whoa!” Couric said.
“We could do a whole three hours on that,” Lauer replied.