Perhaps Merv Griffin never displaced Johnny Carson as the king of late-night TV, but you could make the argument that Merv was, in many ways, more successful than Johnny. After all, starting out as a $100 a week singer and winding up as a a business mogul, a friend of presidents, a true TV icon (who could forget Rick Moranis' hilarious Merv Griffith sendup on SCTV, a fusion of Merv's talk show with Andy Griffith's Mayberry) - well, that's not too bad for one lifetime. We all know about his two creations - Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune (he also composed the Jeopardy theme), and he probably could have lived off the money from those alone and had a pretty comfortable life.
He was also into real estate - The Donald might have thought he saw a band singer and comedian accross the table instead of a shrewd businessman, and Merv took him to the cleaners in taking over Resorts International. He dabbled in horse racing, and his horse Stevie Wonderboy won horse of the year in 2005. He was a close friend of the Reagans, and viewers might remember seeing him as an invited guest at Ronald Reagan's funeral.
On that note: in the August 17, 1968 issue of TV Guide (with the cast of Gunsmoke on the cover), Joe McGinniss - soon to become famous for The Selling of the President and Fatal Vision - writes a profile of Merv, who has just taken his syndicated show to CBS to challenge Carson. Merv is shown preparing for his show, trying out a new game show idea, working the suits because that's how you get ahead in the entertainment business. The topic, as one might expect with McGinniss, turns to politics. Merv voted for Nixon in 1960 - but calls him "Darting-eye Dick" - and LBJ in 1964, but his misgivings about Vietnam soon turn him against Johnson. They want him to interview Humphrey, and he says he will, but comments that he's not very enthusiastic about it "because I honestly can't think of a single question I'd like to ask him." Trying to express this dissatisfaction, he concludes that "[w]hat we need in this country now is someone like DeGaulle. Someone to give us pride in ourselves." And it's not unreasonable to think that he, like so many Americans, found that someone in Ronald Reagan.)
So maybe he didn't bump off Johnny - nobody was going to knock out Carson, after all - but the Merv Griffin Show did run for 20 years, longer than any of the other challengers. His syndicated show was a fixture on daytime TV; CBS recruited him as the late-night challenger to Carson in the late 60s, and after that failed he went back to the syndicated airwaves, where his show continued to 1986.
As I've said before, anyone can write an obit; it's actually pretty easy to do. And so you can go to any number of news websites and read about Merv's life and career. But, as cultural archaeologists, what we try to do around here is dig a little deeper, to come up with the things not everyone remembers. For example, I always thought of Merv Griffin as being just right - comfortable, like an old shoe. He was glib, charming, smooth, even (as Judie suggested) a bit randy . Remember Arthur Treacher, the dignified English comedian who (besides selling fish & chips) was Merv's sidekick? Remember Charo, the Cuchi-Cuchi girl? Or Orson Welles, who made his final appearance on Merv's show and died just hours later?
It's easy to forget, as I did, that many thought Merv was too "sophisticated" for daytime TV - his guests included Pablo Cassals and the historians Will and Ariel Durant, and his stint with CBS was filled with controversy, as this exerpt from The Muesum of Broadcast Communications demonstrates:
He immediately ran afoul of network censors with controversial guests and topics. Concerned with the number of statements being made against the War in Vietnam in 1969, CBS lawyers sent Griffin a memo: "In the past six weeks 34 antiwar statements have been made and only one pro-war statement, by John Wayne." Griffin shot back: "Find me someone as famous as Mr. Wayne to speak in favor the war and we'll book him." As Griffin recalls in his autobiography, "The irony of the situation wasn't wasted on me; in 1965 I'm called a traitor by the press for presenting Bertrand Russell, and four years later we are hard-pressed to find anybody to speak in favor of the Vietnam war." In March of 1970 antiwar activist Abbie Hoffman visited the show wearing a red, white and blue shirt that resembled an American flag. Network censors aired the tape but blurred Hoffman's image electronically so that his voice emanated from a "jumble of lines." The censors interfered in other ways as well, insisting Griffin fire sidekick Arthur Treacher because he was too old or that he not use 18-year old Desi Arnaz, Jr. as a guest host because he was too young.
This was enough for Merv, and soon enough he was back where he was most comfortable, in the world of television syndication, where he continued to thrive. And so what was it about Merv Griffin that brought him from the world of band singer and game show host to become a television icon? Some of it is undoubtedly what he was not: there was none of the volatility of Jack, the ocasional edginess of Johnny, the acedemic bookishness of Dick. He was more successful than Joey and, unlike Mike, made a successful transition to nighttime. No, as I said, Merv was comfortable, and that was undoubtedly one reason for his longetivity. (And if you're too young to remember Merv, the wonderful TVParty site has a couple of great clips from his show.)
But perhaps there was another reason why the audience was always there for Merv. And if so, I think it can be found in the closing lines of McGinniss' TV Guide profile. But whether this explains it or not, I can't think of a more fitting way to conclude a tribute to one of my favorites, the TV icon Merv Griffin, who died today of cancer at 82.
You work a lot and smile a lot and if you are, in your guts, an exceptionally decent person, then you are nice to everyone you meet and you meet everyone you're asked to.
And when the show is over you walk out onto 47th Street, into the bright electric night, with the new Gore Vidal play across the street, and Cyril waiting to take you home. But there is a crowd waiting and you sign your name for everyone and make pleaseant little remarks and the people see that you really are a good, warm person, just the way you seem on the show, and they walk away happy because for once, maybe for the only time, someone they admired from a distance did not turn ugly up close.