Reassessing Merv

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Today is the birthday of Merv Griffin (1925-2007).

When I was a kid Merv represented the summit of bad show biz to me. His syndicated talk show came on in the afternoon after school where I grew up. I probably watched it every weekday for ten years. In retrospect, I saw a lot of historic television on The Merv Griffin Show, for which I’m now grateful. But at the time, when I was in high school, compared to the SNL and SCTV guys whom I revered, the host seemed clueless and phony. There was a kitsch overlay to the program that was not leagues away from the aesthetic of Liberace. Merv liked to be cute and pixie-ish. Old ladies loved him. To us (teenagers) he seemed dumb. He never seemed to “get” anything or anybody.

I had no idea (if such a thing matters) that he was one of the wealthiest men in show business. Everyone knew that in addition to his daily talk show he created and produced Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, his name was at the end of every broadcast, but I don’t think I ever came to the conclusion that he was actually ON THE BALL, which he absolutely must have been.

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Among the things that I hated at the time (but I’m now grateful for) was that his smorgasbord of guests included older musical performers, singers of the big band generation like Rosemary Clooney, etc — which means that I can say that I have memories of their performances (even if I didn’t care for them at the time). Griffin himself was a singer from the radio/ big band days (he occasionally trotted it out on the show) and in his early days he fronted for Freddy Martin and His Orchestra, scoring a 1950 #1 hit record with”I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” .

He had small roles in a number of movies, and then began subbing successfully as guest host on The Tonight Show and others in the early 60s. He launched his own show in 1965. For the first few years his sidekick was Arthur Treacher, but Treacher left in 1970, before I ever started watching.

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I think the general attitude among young people was that Merv was a joke, but you couldn’t deny that he was important.

The first place I ever became aware of Ronald ReaganThe Merv Griffin Show. He and Nancy were guests early in Reagan’s 1980 Presidential campaign. Merv always had old movie stars on the show, so it makes a great deal of sense that he had the Reagans on. (For some perspective for young people — I’d never heard of or seen ANY of Ronald Reagan’s movies before he became President. I’d never even heard of him. But older people knew him well). Nancy and Merv were besties, and I think there’s little doubt that appearances like this, in which the otherwise scary Reagan came off as funny and charming, played a role in his getting elected.

And I distinctly remember seeing A Flock of Seagulls on the show in the early 1980s. Merv asked the group’s leader Michael Score “What’s the difference between punk and new wave?” and Score said something like “New wave happened when the punk bands learned to play their instruments” and Merv looked at the camera and said “Ouch!”

Merv put his talk show to bed in 1985, and concentrated on running his empire, which grew to include real estate, hotels and the like. His last creation was Merv Griffin’s Crosswords which began airing in 2007, shortly before he died.

For more on show biz history, including talk and variety television, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fa-a-abulous books are sold.

 

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