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Hoda: Secrets of ‘Surviving’ Kathie Lee

Hoda Kotb, co-host of TODAY's fourth hour along with Kathie Lee Gifford, has battled breast cancer, weathered Category 5 hurricanes and laughed in good humor when being parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” She recounts her highs and lows in a new memoir, “Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer and Kathie Lee.” In this excerpt, she dishes on what it’s really like working with the
/ Source: TODAY books

Hoda Kotb, co-host of TODAY's fourth hour along with Kathie Lee Gifford, has battled breast cancer, weathered Category 5 hurricanes and laughed in good humor when being parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” She recounts her highs and lows in a new memoir, “Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer and Kathie Lee.” In this excerpt, she dishes on what it’s really like working with the famously spontaneous Kathie Lee.

I’m often asked, “What’s Kathie Lee really like?”

It’s funny, at the beginning I really didn’t know. We hit the airwaves without even one rehearsal. Would she be a diva? Is she a hard worker? Would she be nice to people behind the scenes?

Here’s what I now know. Kathie Lee is not a diva. She’s always on time and she comes to play. She asks everyone about their family and friends and keeps up with all the happenings. She sings to me every morning when she strolls into the makeup room to the tune of “Oklahoma!” (Where, of course, you now know I was born.)

“Hoooooooooooooooda woman, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain ...”

Kathie Lee is funny, generous, opinionated, and passionate. Her brain is always in overdrive. If you get in the back seat of her car, there’s invariably a notepad stuck in the back pocket of the passenger seat, along with pens and five pairs of glasses. She’s always writing something. When I ask her what she has planned for the weekend, the answer is never what most of us would say. It’s always: “Well, I’m gonna finish that song I’ve been working on, and, oh my gosh ... I’ve got this great idea for a children’s book ... and I’m reading this thing that is so fascinating ...” Kathie Lee has an active, curious, creative brain. There’s no downtime for her and that’s how she likes it. I remember when we wrapped up our show live from San Antonio, “Welcome to San Antonio, Ain’t It Fun,” and we were all pooped. We had flown into San Antonio late at night, woken up very early to tape some segments before the show, did the show, and then tried to fly out, only to have several flight delays. When we finally boarded, I looked over to see Kathie Lee starting a new book. On that flight, she read “The Eleventh Victim” by Nancy Grace. Then I caught her reading the back flap of the book because she had nothing else to do. I, on the other hand, could barely stay awake and was flipping through Star magazine.

“What’s it like sitting next to her?” people often ask me, too. Well, for one thing, I sit next to Kathie Lee on her right side because the left chair (screen right) was always hers when she worked with Regis. It’s like sleeping on the usual side of the bed for her. And for me, it’s a little like sitting next to Regis. Kathie Lee has settled nicely into the role of Velvet Barb Thrower. And I’m the bull’s-eye.

“So, were you really divorced on Valentine’s Day?” she asked me during one of our very first days on the air.

That’s what it’s like sitting next to her.

But, here’s the bottom line: Kathie Lee is very funny and she has a knack for targeting stuff that sticks. For instance, she nicknamed me “Hoda Woman.” She calls me her “Egyptian Goddess.” She thinks I have pretty feet. So, you can imagine my surprise when all that crazy stuff connects with viewers.

“Hey, Hoda Woman!” a truck driver will shout at me along Broadway. “Nice feet!”

I smile and just laugh at the power of KLG.

“Wow, I didn’t realize you were from Egypt,” someone else will say on the street.

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Can Kathie Lee be a pain in my ass? Yes. Some days I want to take her to the mat and stick gum in her hair. But, love her or hate her, Kathie Lee knows how to do live talk television. And don’t worry about me, I can take whatever she dishes. Would you really want to watch a show where we held a meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society every day? Dull. A colleague once told me, in a television duo there can’t be two drivers because there’ll be a head-on crash. There has to be an actor and a reactor. (Guess which one I am?) As the actor cog, Kathie Lee catches some flak for her outspoken wit. The actor part of the team usually pays that price. I just get to react and deflect, so I don’t take the same heat. And for me, it’s all about intent. I know Kathie Lee has a golden heart and she has my back. So, cracks she makes about me are simply done in good fun. Her intentions are good. Like when your brother ribs you. Plus, I really don’t have many Achilles’ heels for her words to penetrate.

“Oh, a study about dating,” she’ll say on the air. “Remember what that is, Hoda Woman?”

But I do date! So that doesn’t bother me. It’s a joke.

“Well, you could wear that, Hoda Woman,” she’ll point out. “You’re a bigger girl.”

My weight is not an issue for me, either. I’m 5 feet 9 and weigh around 150 pounds. Put me down for a size 8 or sometimes a 10.

Sneaky math never occurs to me. Weight is just not a hot button. In fact, during my life, it probably should have been on my radar screen a bit more. I look back at work photos and am shocked. Was I eating the people I was interviewing?! Good Lord, I was big. Back when I worked in Greenville, Mississippi, with good old Stan as my news director, he actually tried to ease into the topic with me. “Hey, Hoda,” Stan began. “You may want to think about (picture Stan now beginning to swing his bent arms back and forth in a workout motion) getting on the treadmill ...” I laughed! I thought Stan was joking around with me. That crazy Stan!

These days, I’m more aware of keeping a healthy weight and lifestyle, but again — viewers need not worry that Kathie Lee’s jabs are anything but good fun (and good TV). Plus, I get to pop her during those “Saturday Night Live” skits!

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Have you seen those? They crack me up. And what’s even funnier is Kathie Lee’s take on them.

“That is nothing like our show,” she’ll say.

Are you kidding me? They are spot-on, with a delectable dose of satire.

In January of 2009, on the Thursday the “Saturday Night Live” cast was rehearsing the very first skit about us, an NBC colleague came into our makeup room and said, “Hey, ‘SNL’ is doing a spoof on the ‘Today’ show,” he laughed. “And it’s sort of specifically about you two.” Kathie Lee had been spoofed before during her "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" days, but I wondered what the heck they would do about us. “Are we gonna think it’s funny?” I asked. I didn’t care how I was portrayed, but I was terrified that cast member Kenan Thompson, a burly black guy, would be in drag — playing me. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “You’ll think it’s funny.”

That Saturday night, I watched the bit hit the air. What a weird 6 minutes and 23 seconds. I grew up watching “SNL” — now this?! The skit was hilarious. Kristin Wiig played Kathie Lee brilliantly (sorry, Kath), and Michaela Watkins was a very good me.The jokes, of course, targeted my name, with Kathie Lee calling me “Ho” and “Yoda.” She popped her Spanx under her dress and talked about Frank on a Hoveround. I mostly just sat there as Kathie Lee elbowed me and said I had no man in my life. Nothing like our show? Right.

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Neil Patrick Harris then appeared in our segment as a fitness guru and brought down the house. He was dressed in a headband and tights under short shorts. We followed along in our dresses and heels as he barked out aerobics moves. “Now, box step, and box step ... now crunk it, and crunk it ... now grapevine, and grapevine, now double time, double time ...” Then, at 5 minutes and 55 seconds — the money shot. Neil Patrick Harris began instructing us to “Punch it out ... now punch it out ... punch it out ...” Kathie Lee shuffled over next to me, and that’s when I let loose.

Bam!

I socked it to her, right in the jaw! She flew across the room.

Watching at home, I knew I’d have to milk that right hook for all it was worth. The next morning, during the show, I had producers replay and replay and replay the video.

“Hey, guys ... let’s see that again.” I smiled.

Bam!

“SNL” spoofed us several more times. I saw Kristin Wiig in the hall one day, and she said, “Did you guys think it was funny or are you mad at us?”I told her we loved it! She is so nice and so damn funny.I know Kathie Lee would have told her the same thing. KLG can hardly be thin-skinned, considering how she “brings it.” And she brings it with great skill. Honestly, one of the most unique strengths she offers our hour is her magic with guests. I never anticipated how much of a shortcut her entertainment background would bring to the interview process.

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Here’s how it works: She’s one of them. Kathie Lee is viewed by our guests as a woman in their business, not a newswoman who wants to ask some tough questions. Her background as a singer, actress, musical theater composer, author, and entertainer creates an instant common ground. Plus, she has a history with so many of the people we invite on our show that she rarely, like most of us, has to start from ground zero. If Beyoncé is our guest, Kathie Lee already knows her because she interviewed her when she was just starting out with Destiny’s Child. The dynamic is amazing. We don’t have to spend time with the typical warm-up questions, because there’s no need to break the ice.

“So, how much plastic surgery have you had?” she’ll ask. That’s her ice-breaker. And the guests love it.

I remember watching Judi Dench’s face, searching for how this classy, superstar actress would react to Kathie Lee’s particular brand of humor. We were interviewing Judi for her role in the movie “Nine,” and she was telling us about a certain part of the movie that she couldn’t show us due to movie rights.

“It must be because you were naked, right?” said Kathie Lee.

I watched — and waited — and regal Judi Dench threw her head back and burst out laughing. Only Kathie Lee can pull that off.

“So, how many wives have you really had?” she asked one of our guests.

And then — the magic.

“C’mon, Kath. You know I’ve had five,” laughed the guest. “You were at two of the weddings.”

I think part of the energy that makes it work is that these folks are used to getting their asses kissed. So, finally, when someone says something that’s a bit irreverent, they find it refreshing. Plus, Kathie Lee has perfect pitch for whom she can play with.

“I like your dress ...,” she said one morning to Cheryl Hines, an actress from the hit show “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“... but it’s not ... really ... age appropriate,” Kathie Lee added.

Again, I waited — and I watched — and Cheryl burst out laughing.

Believe me — we’re prepared for times when a guest or viewers may not embrace the humor of KLG. In the control room, producers have access to a “CYA” button that, when pressed, crawls the following across the bottom of the screen: “We would like to apologize for what she just said, what she is currently saying, and for what she is about to say.”

The level of fun that Kathie Lee and I are allowed to have is scary and wonderful at the same time. Someone told me that at an annual NBC gathering of advertisers, NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker began talking about the faces of the “Today” show.

“So, as you know,” Jeff began, “we’ve got Meredith, Matt, Al, and Ann covering the first few hours, then Natalie joins in at the nine o’clock hour, and then we have those crazy bitches at ten!”

Read Hoda Kotb biography on TODAYshow.com

That’s right. And the crazy bitches would like to place all the blame on comedienne Chelsea Handler. Sometime after she was a guest on our hour, we began to drink more often on the air. The morning she appeared, our producers decided to make three vodka drinks for us in Chelsea’s honor. She was pitching her new book, “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea.” We had so much fun that day that we decided to sample some libations on another show, too. Our guest was a wine expert and we took our glasses with us into the next unrelated segment. Then, all of a sudden, we were featuring Wines Under Seven Dollars off the top of the show. We knew when Time magazine called our hour “The Happy Hour” that a theme had developed. And that’s really what we try to be (not in a boozy way) — an escape from all the bad news reported around the world. We’re escape artists.

There’s still a part of me that struggles with it. I’m a news gal who spends more of her job now talking about cleavage and sipping cocktails on air. My mom called me one day and said, “It’s weird, my friends are saying you are drinking all the time.” She tried to make her voice have a smile in it. “But I told them, ‘She only has one.’ Right?” I could tell she was worried and trying to get reassurance. “I told them it was just for the show ... right?”

I had to laugh, because I don’t drink a lot. Never have. But, I can see where our ten o’clock hydrating could send a different — burp — message.

“Mom, I only drink on the air.”

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That’s reassuring, eh? Mom, just tell your friends your daughter only likes to get boozy in front of 2 million viewers. It’s funny, I seem to take more heat from people for how much I eat on the show rather than for how much we drink.

“You always eating!” says my nail gal to me. “You eat, eat, eat!”

Excerpted from ”Hoda” by Hoda Kotb. Copright © 2010 by Hoda Kotb. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.