Former football player Michael Strahan and host Kelly Ripa during Strahan's… (Donna Svennevik / Disney-ABC…)
NEW YORK — It's 9:19 a.m. and "Live! With Kelly and Michael" is in the middle of a commercial break. Newly appointed co-host Michael Strahan, who's spent the better part of the last 20 minutes chatting with his perky on-screen partner, Kelly Ripa, is now charming the studio audience.
A few seconds before Strahan is due back in his seat to interview the morning's first guest, Jimmy Fallon, a young boy — perhaps 6 or 7 — asks for his autograph. "I promise I will, but I'm in the middle of something right now," Strahan replies, breaking into his trademark gap-toothed grin.
After not quite a month on the job, Strahan is already very much at home at "Live!" the long-running syndicated morning talk show he officially joined last month.
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Technically speaking, Strahan replaced Regis Philbin, the one-man pop-cultural institution who retired from "Live!" in November of last year, but he prefers not to think of it that way.
"I'm definitely not Regis. The sooner you realize you are who you are, the better," he says later, during an interview backstage.
In one sense, he's right: At 6 feet 5 and well over 200 pounds, the 40-year-old Strahan, who was a defensive lineman for the New York Giants for 15 years, stands in stark contrast to the much older Philbin.
What he shares, however, is a certain chemistry with his pocket-sized costar, Ripa. "It's the yin and the yang. We balance each other out because we're the opposite physically, but mentally we're the same," he explains.
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Before he officially got the job in late summer, the former NFL player had guest-hosted 20 times. He was one of 59 temporary cohorts, including singer Josh Groban and "Weekend Update" anchor Seth Meyers, who joined Ripa after Philbin's departure.
The protracted audition process was trying, says Strahan. "It got to the point where you're like, come on, either tell me you want to have another date, or just let me down easy."
So far, the on-screen partnership, though unlikely, is going swimmingly. With Strahan onboard, "Live!" averaged 3.6 million viewers, its highest premiere-week ratings in five years. While the numbers have leveled off somewhat since then, the show continues to improve against its ratings a year ago, proving the honeymoon period is far from over.
"Every indication is that audiences have embraced the new couple and continue to watch," says Bill Carroll, an analyst at Katz Television Group, which advises stations about programming.
In his brief tenure on the show, Strahan has already interviewed presidential candidate Mitt Romney and wife, Ann, and — perhaps an even bigger benchmark of showbiz success — been parodied by "Saturday Night Live."
"I can probably imitate him doing me better than he imitated me," he says of Jay Pharoah, but adds that he considers the spoof a "compliment."
The "Live!" gig means Strahan, already an analyst on "Fox NFL Sunday," which is produced out of Los Angeles, is now working two jobs on two different coasts. To make matters even more complicated, the father of four is also in the middle of planning a wedding to fiancée Nicole Murphy (who's got five kids of her own) and is busy with several side projects, including a documentary he's producing about NFL athletes facing retirement.
It helps that as morning talk-show gigs go, the "Live!" job is relatively sane, with no pre-dawn call times. Strahan rises between 7 and 7:30 and walks the few blocks from his apartment on the Upper West Side to the WABC Studios, near Lincoln Center, arriving around 8:15. (Presumably it helps that he doesn't have much hair to style.)
At 9 a.m. sharp, it's showtime, and by 10:30 or 11 most mornings, Strahan's workday is over.
But what makes "Live!" distinctive is "host chat," the almost 20-minute block of uninterrupted, unscripted small talk between the hosts; it's also what makes their job trickier than it might seem.
"The first week I was worried about running out of things to talk about," Strahan admits, although on camera he's at ease talking about everything from "manscaping" to the perils of shopping with daughters.
While numerous other NFL stars have moved into broadcasting careers, few (if any) have made the leap into the fuzzy and decidedly female-centric realm of morning TV. Strahan's reputation as a quarterback-crushing defensive end — he still holds the NFL single-season sack record, which he set in 2002 — makes him an even more unlikely candidate for the job.
"He is a big, imposing sports figure, but he has a warm, teddy bear quality about him that we all responded to," says "Live!" executive producer Michael Gelman.