Cheery morning television shows like Today, Good Morning America, and Live! with Kelly and Michael are a strange exercise in humans doing superhuman things. The people who host them build their days around waking up before the sun, making sure their hair and teeth look shiny and perfect, and putting on a smiling face — the kind reserved for cocktail parties — to spend several hours feigning interest in everything from cooking salmon to the latest exercise trends to fall fashion to the news of the day.
And even when when they fulfill all those asks, meet every standard, and check every box, it's still fair game to judge whether they're good, nice people, and to apply that strange standard to their job.
Kelly Ripa has been part of that world for the last 15 years as the perky, smiling avatar for Live!
But last week, when ABC announced that Ripa's costar Michael Strahan was leaving Live! for Good Morning America, everything fell apart. No one had warned Ripa, the New York Times reported; she was blindsided. In response, Ripa took a few days off, and a source close to her told the Times she was upset.
In other words, Ripa broke one rule that her job required of her: She acted like a normal human being.
What happened with Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa?
The important thing to keep in mind with regard to morning talk shows is that underneath all the smiles and friendships, they're a business — just like any other bit of television programming. What drives this particular business is ratings. And at ABC, the morning show ratings the network values most are those attached to Good Morning America, which competes against NBC's Today show.
In 2012, Good Morning America overtook Today in ratings — a noteworthy feat, since Today had a dominating lead for 16 years. At the time, NBC was in full damage-control mode because of an acrimonious split with Ann Curry and Matt Lauer's alleged hand in it. Good Morning America started to make gains.
But at the end of 2015, Today wrestled the top spot away from Good Morning America and the latter found itself in a slump. Since then, ABC has been trying anything and everything to get that momentum back.
This is where Strahan comes in. Strahan has been popping in to GMA as a guest anchor since 2014 — while continuing to host Live! full-time — because ABC thought his presence on GMA would help boost its ratings. And last Tuesday, April 19, ABC announced that Strahan would be leaving Live! to take a full-time position on the program.
The problem is that no one let Kelly Ripa know.
Kelly Ripa has been carrying Live! since 2001. She deserved better.
In the days following the decision, Ripa didn't talk to the press about how she found out about Strahan's departure, but sources close to her have told various news outlets that she was not told of the decision until the last minute. The New York Times elaborates on what exactly went down:
After "Live" ended on Tuesday morning, Ms. Ripa was called to a meeting along with the show’s longtime producer, Michael Gelman, and the WABC general manager, Dave Davis (the show is produced by WABC, and it is distributed by ABC and Disney’s syndication group). She did not know the purpose of the meeting.
After a 20-minute wait, Mr. Strahan entered the room and broke the news that he was leaving. It wasn’t long before tensions flared.
"Didn’t I tell you this was going to happen?" Ms. Ripa said to Mr. Davis at the meeting, according to the person. "I told you two years ago this was going to happen."
In the wake of the announcement, Ripa did not show up to work the next day — Wednesday, April 20 — which was when Strahan made his official departure announcement on Live! Ripa then took Thursday, Friday, and Monday off (including a previously scheduled vacation) and returned to Live! on Tuesday, April 26.
"I needed a couple of days to gather my thoughts. After 26 years [Ripa was on ABC's All My Children between 1990 and 2002] with this company, I earned the right," she said on Tuesday's episode. "And let's be honest, I know half of you called in sick to be here, so we get each other."
That's a pretty cheeky, fun joke. And though she is making light of the break she took, Ripa's reaction to the news of Strahan's impending departure is not unreasonable.
Strahan has been co-hosting Live! with Ripa for four years, since 2012. Before he was hired — after Ripa's previous co-host, Regis Philbin, left the show in 2011 — Ripa sat through months of public, televised auditions for Regis Philbin's chair. That's a lot of time and work invested into a co-worker. And his departure means that there will likely be more rounds of auditions that Ripa will have to sit through to find someone to replace Strahan.
It also sent the message to Ripa and fans that Live! isn't a priority for the network — that ABC would do anything to get GMA back on top.
But perhaps the most egregious aspect of the situation is that it was a surprise. Whether you're a morning show anchor or a lawyer or a manager at a restaurant, there's a right way to go about letting employees know about major decisions that will directly affect them.
And Ripa, by virtue of her commitment to Live! and to ABC for 26 years (if you include her time as a soap star), deserved some notice.
"[Being] Blindsided is never good," Oprah Winfrey told Entertainment Tonight when asked to comment on the situation. "I don’t know who’s in charge, but somebody should’ve said, ‘This is gonna happen.’ You shouldn’t have to read it in the paper. Ever."
To be clear, Ripa is not an ABC exec, nor am I advocating that she should get to make hiring and firing decisions for the network. But I'd wager that if she was given proper notice of Strahan's departure, her week-long absence from the show could have been avoided.
Why we love it when morning show personalities reveal they're human
In the wake of Ripa's reaction to the news of Strahan's departure, many people called her a diva. The Cut's Anna Silman has compiled a good roundup of what's been said about her week-long absence, including that it proves Ripa is difficult to work with. Meanwhile, Silman argues that Ripa was treated poorly, and that it's sexist to insist that Ripa is being a diva when plenty of men have had television show meltdowns (see: Charlie Sheen) that were far more contentious.
Speaking to CNN, the Hollywood Reporter's Chief Creative Officer Janice Min said, "I don't believe this would have happened if she were a man. This is a woman that's paid $20 million a year — she's a very valuable asset. It is incredibly disrespectful."
Silman and Min aren't wrong. The way ABC handled Strahan's departure was poor, and there are elements of sexism at play not just in the way she was treated by her employer but also in the way Ripa is being described as crazy and a diva.
But I also think there's another factor in play here, on top of the sexism and mismanagement. It's the strange desire to see morning show anchors crack.
Because morning show personalities like Ripa are so fantastically friendly all the time, they become caricatures of themselves. And there's often a desire to point out that they aren't as nice, as friendly, or as cheerful as they're supposed to be.
In a sense, morning show personalities are a bit like dinosaurs, because we're now used to celebrities who let us into their personal lives through Instagram and Snapchat and what they're constantly thinking through Twitter. It's easier, or so we think, to see through the bullshit, and morning show people are the biggest bullshitters who have ever bullshitted.
The last time we saw something similar to this was Ann Curry's ouster on the Today show. Each day there were new stories (I wrote my fair share) about the plot to get rid of Curry, how much her co-anchor Matt Lauer hated her, and the fallout that ensued. The internet lived on these small tidbits about how much the two didn't get along but were forced to smile for the camera.
It's delicious when we find out that the personality we're seeing on screen doesn't match real life.
Ripa's image is, of course, all about being cheerful. She sells morning happiness. On Instagram, she describes herself as a "Professional Good Time Charlie," and that's followed by picture after picture of Ripa smiling with her husband, her coworkers, her celebrity guests, and her friends. But she hasn't posted in a week. And perhaps for the past seven days, even she's been tired of what she's selling.