In the very late 1970s the world of talk shows was beginning to change. This was primarily thanks to the outsized efforts of Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show. Prior to Carson, comedy had played a part in the format, but not to the extent it would under his watch. While not a comedian himself, Carson respected the form and one of the great compliments he would afford new stand-up comedians was the honor of, after performing their set, being asked over to the couch for a quick chat. Late Night with David Letterman would take that template and blow it up even harder, for while he would never do a bit like “Art Fern’s Tea Time Movie,” he had a knack for turning interviews into comedy on the spot.
After them, the talk show would take one of two forms: comedy with interviews, or interviews with a component of problem-solving. This is popular with daytime shows and saw its most wildly successful formation under Oprah Winfrey. Before all that, talk shows were really variety shows tied together with interviews. There was comedy and music with the talk, but there were also moments of seriousness and reflection. Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, and David Susskind come to mind. More toward the variety than the political or to current events were the entertainers-as-hosts. Mike Douglas was one of the most recognizable when it came to this variant.
But then there was Merv Griffin. Formerly a songwriter whose novelty tune “I Have A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts” was well-known, Griffin was an entrepreneur, a producer, and he was deeply in love with “show biz.” The last half-decade of his show ran concurrent to his producing Wheel Of Fortune, right in the midst of America’s love affair with Vanna White, so it wasn’t that Griffin needed to be there as much as he wanted to be there. And he wasn’t averse to having politicians and thought leaders on The Merv Griffin Show, either. This is all represented in a new 12-disc set from MPI Home Video in partnership with Reelin’ In The Years Productions, which spans his show’s lifetime from the early-1960s on the networks, to his longest run with Metromedia Syndication beginning in 1973 and ending in 1986 (more on this in a moment).
This set, while just a snapshot of what Reelin’ In The Years has in terms of archival footage from The Merv Griffin Show, is more than complete, with discs containing near-full episodes (minus commercials and clips where new clearance agreements may be necessary). This alone is some kind of miracle, when it is remembered that even NBC’s Tonight Show is incomplete. Many of those shows were either lost (in the series transition from East Coast to West Coast) or consciously wiped over. Who would want to see ten-twenty-thirty year old video from an old TV show, executives may have said as new transmissions went over old. This was years before home video, in its infancy, was even a consideration. And yet The Merv Griffin Show had the same bi-coastal transition, and seems less the worse for wear and travel expenses.
And the footage looks darn good, even the 50-year-old stuff. Only occasionally does a video fleck or a dropout line cross the screen. Most of the time that won’t even be noticed as the viewer gets caught up in the depth of Merv’s guest list. Merv, himself, was not the world’s best interviewer, I must say. He reminds me a bit of Inside The Actor’s Studio host James Lipton in that he is way too in love with the process and with his guests to “properly” stick the knife in. What his real skill set was was the ability to make his guests feel comfortable and to open very broad doors of conversation. More often than not, the subjects themselves offered the most difficult or controversial information, mostly because they were so unguarded. This is especially true during a special episode where Merv focuses on the movie Apocalypse Now. He digs a bit into the personal sacrifices Francis Ford Coppola (just Francis Coppola here, as he explains it) made in order to get the film done. There are glimpses of Coppola’s personal anguish in the thought that, mortgaged to the hilt, he could lose his home vineyard if the film does not do well. It is not a con job to elicit sympathy. It is also not something that would have come out in an interview with Johnny Carson, I don’t suspect.
Along with the movie and TV stars, the authors and the notables, several interesting folks made their turn on Merv’s various stages. Dr. Martin Luther King; Robert Kennedy; Richard Nixon; one of the Japanese commanders who was involved with the bombing of Pearl Harbor; and Gloria Steinem, leader of the feminism movement all were given a chance to speak on the Merv Show. Ronald and Nancy Reagan appeared, during his presidency no less. One suspects that was facilitated both by Merv’s casual demeanor and the show biz connection. These are all a part of the DVD box set, and make a good argument for Griffin’s place in television history, not because he was a dogged interviewer, but more because he was not.
Another highlight of the set features a show devoted solely to The Golden Girls, and each of the primary stars — Betty White, Bea Arthur, Rue McClannahan, and Estelle Getty — receive their special attention from the host. This was not a sendoff show either, as The Golden Girls was actually starting up, not finishing off. The guests were there partially because they were Merv’s friends, and mostly because he wanted them there without any of it being obligatory.
The end for Merv came in three waves. First, as mentioned earlier, comedy was becoming the dominant part of the talk show model. In 1983, Late Night With David Letterman was launched on NBC, and the deferential respect interviewers paid guests was replaced by something sharper, perhaps more cynical, but certainly more geared to getting an audience to laugh. It was Carson’s template, but turned up to ten, and it was poles apart from Merv’s style. Second, the behemoth that Wheel Of Fortune and Griffin’s other properties were becoming meant that he didn’t actually need to do this if it was no longer fun for him. Three, and probably the biggest determining factor of the bunch, is that Metromedia was consumed by a new entity that had the audacity to shoot for being the new fourth network. Fox Television was to introduce programming gradually, one night a week, over time until the takeover was complete. For a five-nights-a-weeknight show like Merv’s there was little room left for him come 1986, so he closed shop with a retrospective last episode. Uncharacteristically, it had him in a seat in his empty theater, reviewing his years on television. The man who enjoyed being the host of the crowded party was now a spectator.
The set is highly entertaining, with literal hours of extra interviews (including a slightly agape Ray Bradbury practically evangelizing about the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind). There is a refreshing innocence, if not naivete, to the approach of Merv Griffin’s style, and again he was the most thrilled to be in a room with these famous people. That sort of wide-eyed exuberance wouldn’t fit in today’s television, and might not even fit into the ever-more-polished YouTube model. It is remarkable that those years could be relived, in such remarkably well-preserved shape, in a box-set such as this.
The Merv Griffin Show is available from Amazon.com.