Merv Griffin died in 2007, but he lives on in TV history thanks to having created the remarkably durable game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. He even composed the iconic Jeopardy theme song. But for baby boomers, Griffin will always be remembered for his talk show that ran in several incarnations from 1962 to 1986. Thanks to a hilarious impersonation by SCTV's Rick Moranis, Griffin developed a reputation for being an obsequious lightweight who ooh-ed and ahh-ed at every word his guests said.
In retrospect, The Merv Griffin Show provides a fascinating window into American pop culture and politics in the second half of the 20th century. Much of that has to do with Griffin's ability to step back and give his guests room to roam, evident in the new 12-disc DVD box set of Griffin programs released last week by MPI Media Group.
"Merv elevated so many conversations because unlike so many other talk show hosts, it wasn't about him," says David Peck of Reelin' In The Years Productions, the company that licenses Griffin's show and programmed the set. "He wasn't looking for the laugh. He let the guest talk. To some that made him seem like he wasn't a good host and that he wasn't engaging."
After stints as a band singer and actor, Griffin was hired by NBC to host a daytime program the same time Johnny Carson replaced Jack Paar on Tonight in 1962. The network wanted Griffin around in the event Carson faltered. That didn't happen. Still, Griffin became a fixture in the conversation business for the next 24 years. From 1965 to 1969, his Westinghouse Broadcasting show was a syndicated hit, taped at the Little Theater in the heart of Times Square. He hand-picked his sidekick, British actor Arthur Treacher (known for playing butlers), who introduced him every night with the phrase "look sharp now, here's the dear boy himself, Merrrr-vyn."
Groundbreaking comedians George Carlin and Richard Pryor built a following on the show, which moved to CBS as a network late night entry. Griffin returned to syndication in 1973, signing with Metromedia. He kept the show going into the next decade, where it became a regular stop for the then-rising stand-up comedy careers of Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno.
While Griffin often indulged in showbiz small talk, he also courted controversy. The set includes a 1965 appearance by Dick Gregory, still making the transition from comedian to a leading political activist for the black community. Griffin allowed Gregory to explain at length the reasons behind the racial tensions that led to rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles. "When you close your eyes and you don't see who it is and you don't know what year it is, you'd think he was talking about police brutality today," Peck said.
Politicians used entertainment talk shows then just as they do now — as a platform to show a looser side of themselves and reach viewers who don't watch the news. Merv schmoozed with Richard Nixon, who was on his way to launching his 1968 campaign for the presidency — the greatest political comeback in history. Artist Andy Warhol only gives one-word answers during his 1965 appearance (with Edie Sedgwick at his side). A number of complete or near-complete episodes included in the set provide a sense of how TV talk shows were a bizarre, big tent, before cable channels proliferated and fragmented the audience. On another night in 1965, Griffin went from a lengthy segment with comedian Phyllis Diller to a historic sit-down with Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese Navy captain who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Griffin was a fan of classic Hollywood, and his shows serve as a fascinating repository of stars looking back on their careers. Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Bette Davis, William Wyler, Ingrid Bergman and John Wayne are among those represented. Fans of surreal TV moments will appreciate Orson Welles as a fill-in host, interviewing comedian Andy Kaufman. An unabashed devotee of the sitcom Taxi, Welles spent an entire segment deconstructing Kaufman's character Latka Gravas. Another Welles appearance included in the set was taped just hours before the film auteur died in 1985.
Peck says that if this first DVD set does well, there are plenty of compelling Merv-moments in the Griffin estate's archive for a second volume. There's another haunting one, too. A 1966 episode filmed on the streets of London includes a young actress named Sharon Tate — three years before became a victim of Charles Manson.
Even with 4,500 hours of Griffin talk shows in the vault, there are major gaps as networks and stations routinely erased and reused videotape in the 1960s and '70s. Very few hours of Griffin's CBS years exist, but Peck and his producing partner Tom Gulotta did manage to mine a few from Nixon's presidential library. President Lyndon Johnson installed a videotape machine in the White House so he could record his speeches and TV appearances. Nixon inherited the device and used it to monitor TV appearances by his political enemies, such as George McGovern-supporter Warren Beatty in 1972, and Gore Vidal, who in his 1970 appearance, calls for the president's impeachment. "It's fascinating," says Gulotta. "The only reason we have those tapes is that Nixon preserved them for himself."