In yet another installment of the Today show’s vaunted wedding feature, the venerable NBC News morning franchise exchanged sacred vows Monday with a blushing new bride.
That bride—and I use the term advisedly, only because of all the over-the-top attention showered on just one party to the marriage on network television—is Billy Bush.
In a “till crappy ratings do us part” ceremony that pretty much overwhelmed Today’s third hour at 9 a.m. the former Access Hollywood host was ushered into his new TV family by a near-endless video parade of celebrities and Today cast members, (including Sunday Today anchor Willie Geist, the suavely intelligent cohost Bush replaced at 9 a.m., who graciously addressed him as “brother”), as well as his parents, his wife and three daughters, and—how could it be otherwise?—Regis Philbin.
“This is like a time machine!” Al Roker exclaimed, noting the eerie similarity, not only physically but in the way they both shout their thoughts as though firing them out of a cannon into our collective eardrums, between the 44-year-old Bush and the 84-year-old Philbin.
When Philbin strode in pushing a cart yawning with Bush’s ostensibly favorite New York food—pizza, hot dogs and soft ice cream—it was impossible not to notice that they even have the same hair—although Regis’s is a steely-gray Bush’s is dirty-auburn—and it’s easy to imagine that if the younger man’s career lasts as long, he’ll be extremely Regis-like when he is asked to wheel in a pile of junk food for a worthy successor.
In an hour largely devoted to everything you wanted to know about Billy Bush—and then some—Philbin also served as a game show host for “Who Knows Billy Bush Better?,” in which Roker and Tamron Hall each slapping a button at a lectern to answer a multiple choice quiz in front of Bush’s crazy-grinning face, competed for…a picture of Billy Bush.
Tieless and wearing an incandescent sport coat that might be described as “country club-pink,” Bush was positioned front and center between Roker and Hall—the ‘Today’s Take’ star’s seat—his hands nervously smoothing out his cream-colored slacks under the glass-topped table.
The percussively laughing trio bantered about this and that (Hall’s lobe surgery to correct earring injuries from last May’s White House Correspondents Dinner, and the Bush family’s weekend lobster bake on a beach in Maine, after which, according to Billy, they tossed their post-meal scraps into the surf), and also sampled a daunting array of cardiac-arresting cuisine.
There were cheese and bacon-infused “Roker Burgers,” BLT burritos, and white-aproned chefs carving tall skewers of Brazilian beef, permitting Hall to confide, “I love meat!”, and Bush to muse about his “meat sweats” while covering the Olympics in Rio the past two weeks.
Eyeing the scantily clad Brazilian dancer on hand for the meat delivery, Bush quippingly revealed: “We had a man in a thong, but he didn’t get past the censors.”
Speaking of Rio, Roker and Bush didn’t ignore their rather belligerent on-air dustup of last Friday over whether U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte had merely “embellished” (Bush’s position) or bald-faced “lied” and “lied” and “lied” (Roker’s) with his tall tale about surviving an armed robbery and having a cocked gun pressed to his forehead.
As video of the talent-on-talent melee went viral, featuring Bush instructing Roker at one point to “calm down!”, it almost seemed possible that he wouldn’t make it to the Today show altar.
After Lochte granted Bush a cellphone interview in which he spun his fantastically false yarn, the follow-up plum interviews with Lochte went to Today’s alpha male Matt Lauer: Bush had not only blotted his Today copybook before officially starting at Studio 1A, he was also being told his place.
In an extended bit of damage control Monday, Roker reassured viewers: “We got into an argue—er—discussion.” Referring to himself and Bush, he added: “What people don’t know is we’re friends. We’ve known each other for a long time. This is what we do.”
Bush explained: “My goal is to play a little devil’s advocate here, just so we don’t have three opinions the same.”
Perhaps to underscore the point that Al and Billy really love and respect each other, lest troublemakers in the media hope for more antagonistic fireworks, Bush could not have been more enthusiastic when a huge, candle-laden chocolate cake was wheeled in to celebrate Roker’s 62nd birthday. (Geez, that all adds up to a near-lethal number of calories for a single hour in the morning.)
Meanwhile, in various video tributes—including from a crowd of preppy-looking men and women with whom Bush apparently likes to gather in Park City, Utah—every single Today show personality found something nice to say about him.
Left unmentioned, because by this point it’s probably unnecessary, is that Bush, for all his frat-boy bonhomie with his penchant for dressing up in drag, is a genuine New England blueblood. He’s the grandson of a U.S. senator, Prescott Bush of Connecticut, the nephew and first cousin of two U.S. presidents, George H. W. and George W. Bush, and, of course, the second cousin of fellow Today show personality Jenna Bush Hager.
Maybe the Bushes these days are not feeling all that welcome in the Republican Party, but they’re popular at NBC.
Bush was visibly emotional, and Hall dabbed her eyes, after video of his parents wishing him well in his new gig played—his father was his best friend, Bush croaked.
While not to everybody’s taste (and Fred Willard for the Hollywood satire For Your Consideration, modeled his goofy sendup of a self-absorbed entertainment show host on Bush), he is actually an able TV performer.
Surely it can’t be said that his family connections guaranteed his successful career path in a very tough business, from local radio jock in Washington, D.C., (where he actually lost his job as Dubya was becoming president) to his present perch as a highly paid Today show host.
Whether his pink sport coat of a personality results in better viewing through chemistry—and a happy marriage—only the Nielsens will have the final word.
Bush himself likely knows what a fragile seat he is occupying, and the eddying pools of personal politics he must negotiate.
“We’ve got one more wish for you…” said Hall, near the end of the morning’s calorific-in-all-ways lovefest.
“To leave?” Bush ventured.