Meredith Vieira Opens Up About Learning of the Sexual Misconduct Allegations Against Matt Lauer

"Matt and I were very close," Meredith Vieira tells PEOPLE

It’s been over eight years since Meredith Vieira left the Today show, but in 2017, after her former co-host Matt Lauer was fired for allegations of sexual misconduct, Vieira was quickly forced to contend with her former job.

Learning the news of Lauer’s firing “was like a gut punch,” Vieira, 65, recalls to PEOPLE. “I was [in L.A.] and my phone started going off at 4 a.m. I didn’t know what to make of all of it. It was a shock.”

And Vieira, who is now hosting 25 Words or Less, Fox’s syndicated game show, says the news was especially painful given her close relationship with her former colleague, with whom she had worked for five years.

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Today - Season 62
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“Matt and I were very close,” says Vieira. “He was very kind to me. We both have similar senses of humor. We’re both sarcastic.”

And when it comes to her own experience with Lauer, 61, Vieira says that, despite a viral clip that showed Lauer commenting on her backside when they worked together, she never felt unsafe on set.

“There was totally joking around,” Vieira says. “But I never took it as anything. We were like brother and sister.”

Continues Vieira: “If somebody were a fly on the wall in any newsroom, they’d be shocked by the language, and by the gallows’ humor. You made a joke because otherwise you’d implode when you’re covering something.”

Looking back, “you could take [that moment] and go, ‘Look, now can’t you see what you were dealing with?’ But I didn’t feel that at all.”

Meredith vieira
Amanda Friedman

And ultimately, “it’s so complicated,” says Vieira, who declines to define her current relationship with Lauer. “The whole thing is just sad. And it’s been rough in a lot of places with a lot of people.”

Now, Vieira is focused on the future, and that includes 25 Words or Less, in which a contestant tries to have his or her two celebrity partners (Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow and Chelsea Handler are on board) to guess 10 answers in 25 words or less.

“It’s fun,” says Vieira. “I can do a talk show or a game show. It’s all just adding to my repertoire!”

25 Words or Less premieres Sept. 16 (check local listings).

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