NEW YORK — Regis Philbin couldn’t leave without a joke.
Signing off from morning television after more than 28 years, he brought to a close his final hour hosting "Live! With Regis and Kelly" by telling viewers, "I’ll always remember spending these mornings with all of you."
Then, as the studio audience’s ovation subsided after the program’s fade-out, he voiced a kidding postscript to that crowd in attendance.
"I just thought of something I SHOULD have said," he quipped, "I really want to stay!"
No such luck.
Philbin, who at 80 years old has logged more than 16,000 hours on television in a career that dates back to the 1950s, was making good on his decision to leave the daily TV grind, an announcement he delivered on his show last January.
And Friday’s tribute — concluding weeks of Philbin farewell mania — was good for instant TV history, both on- and off-the-air.
The show had opened with cameras following Philbin’s walk from his dressing room to the stage, knocking on Kelly Ripa’s door along the way.
"I love you," she said softly as they stepped before the cameras.
Then Philbin barked out the question his fans have been asking for months.
"Where’s Regis going?" he erupted with a shrug. "Regis don’t know. Stop asking me!"
During the hour, past guests such as Justin Timberlake and Anne Hathaway offered brief filmed tributes.
The show was otherwise devoted to emotion-filled clip sequences of high jinks with Ripa, and such stars as Dana Carvey and Ben Affleck demonstrating their Regis impersonations.
Philbin’s parting gifts included a key and a plaque. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid a visit to thank Philbin for making the city a big part of his show, and presented him with a symbolic key. Walt Disney Co. chief executive Bob Iger showed a plaque honoring Philbin that’s newly installed on the outside of ABC’s Manhattan facility from which the show originates.
But the morning’s festivities had started an hour before the 9 a.m. EST airtime with a coffee-and-pastries reception for the studio audience. This was a hand-picked — and seating-chart-arranged — group of family, friends, past and present colleagues, and celebrities including Diane Sawyer, Bryant Gumbel, Donald Trump, Meredith Vieira, Tony Danza, Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Ripa’s co-host predecessor, Kathie Lee Gifford.
"The world adores Regis," said Judge Judy Sheindlin, "but his friends adore him even more — enough to get up early in the morning, put on some makeup, come out and give him a cheer. Because, he’s just a special, sweet man."
A decade ago, Philbin gained prime-time fame as the quizmaster of ABC’s "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." But his enduring impact has been as a morning show host, and a raconteur adept at weaving something from nothing in the so-called "host chat," turning stories about a night on the town or his frustration with a household product into compelling TV.
Alan Alda described Philbin as "unique in all of broadcasting. He invented a form: going on the air and just telling stories about the day before, for 20 minutes."
"He has such an ease in front of the camera," said "30 Rock" star Jane Krakowski, an occasional guest host. "He’s such an everyman. He makes us feel like he’s one of us."
And Katie Couric hailed him as "completely upfront. You never get the sense that he’s editing himself. And on television, where people are so manufactured and packaged, you rarely see that kind of thing."
Philbin’s unsurpassed quantity of airtime was celebrated by the 14-member troupe from the off-Broadway musical "Rent," which sang a version of the show-stopper "Seasons of Love" tailored to Philbin’s endurance: "995,600 minutes! How do you measure a career? How about love!"
Unseen by viewers during commercial breaks, Philbin schmoozed with the studio audience and occasionally cracked wise about the on-air ceremony, which clearly left him as uncomfortable as he was touched.
"Gelman’s getting carried away," he said at one point, meaning longtime executive producer Michael Gelman. "He thinks he’s Scorsese! He’s NOT!"
And although Philbin had publicly sworn he wouldn’t shed tears at his farewell, members of the studio audience were privy to displays of emotion by him that were unseen at home.
Watching one pre-taped piece where viewers held hand-lettered signs that said "Regis," he finally drew a finger across his throat in mock-desperation as if to signal "Kill it, please," then glanced heavenward as his eyes welled.
Ripa was much more demonstrative on camera, fighting tears as she recounted how terrified she was on her first day as Philbin’s partner, and how he put her at ease.
As they entered the studio that day in 2001, "the audience leapt to their feet, and they were cheering and screaming," she recalled for him, "and you said, ‘You see that, sweetie? That’s all for you.’
"Your light is what shined around all of us," she told him, "and made us look so bright, for so long."
The show will continue with Ripa. Similar to when she was chosen to replace Gifford, a succession of co-hosts will join her, some in contention for the permanent job.
Meanwhile, Philbin has been careful to say he’s not retiring. His immediate plans include a tour to promote his new book, "How I Got This Way."
"I’m so happy for Regis because he’s happy," his wife, Joy Philbin, said after the show, at a champagne gathering in an adjacent studio. "He knew it was time and he wanted to do this."
And with the emotion-wracked hour done, Gelman, who will continue running things in Philbin’s absence, said, "I’m relieved," and added with satisfaction, "Regis is happy.
"He doesn’t like being honored," Gelman explained with a laugh. "So now he’s happy, ’cause he’s not being honored anymore."