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Merv Griffin, when he dents the public consciousness at all these days, is usually remembered as the creator of Jeopardy! and the composer of the game show’s tick-tock final-question music. But as the generously copious 12-disc DVD box set The Merv Griffin Show 1962-1986 (MPI Home Video) makes clear, Griffin hosted a frequently fascinating talk show, over which he presided with a canny mixture of modesty and manipulation.
Like Johnny Carson, Griffin came to the talk show format after mastering other disciplines. For Carson, it was magic; for Griffin, it was singing — he was a big-band vocalist with a warm voice that wasn’t distinctive enough to make him a star in the recording studio, but more than sufficient to make him an inviting presence in millions of TV homes.
Watching Griffin lean in toward guests as varied as Jack Benny, Robert F. Kennedy, Richard Pryor and Phil Spector over the 24 years covered here, you realize how good he was at conveying interest and curiosity, how self-effacing he was in declining to make jokes aimed at topping those of his guests. He seems the least ego driven of the most popular talk show hosts. The rap on Griffin over the years was that he wasn’t a stinging wit like Carson or a polysyllabic punster like Dick Cavett, but mostly just a grinning pushover.
But this fails to credit Merv for his skill at keeping the chat lively, of mixing questions both serious and light-hearted in the space of a single exchange. Much has been made of Cavett’s handling of feisty egos such as Norman Mailer or Mary McCarthy, yet look at how well Merv handled a mischievously combative Spector when the latter tried to pick fights with everyone on the set.
The Merv Griffin Show box contains valuable glimpses of personalities who should not be forgotten. Griffin discussed the civil rights movement with comedian Dick Gregory at a time when the latter was assiduously torpedoing his career by telling few jokes and inveighing against racism. Merv also guides a visibly shaky Oscar Levant — the witty comedian, pianist, and hyper-articulate hypochondriac — through a rewardingly long, loopy 1965 segment covering Levant’s then-recent institutionalization.
There are segments of Griffin’s show that simply would not occur on the playful picnics hosted nowadays by Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel. During a 1970 segment with Gore Vidal, the author blithely calls for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment to scattered applause and a few boos. The interview includes an audience vote: Merv asks a series of political questions of the studio crowd such as, “Do you think the government is out to destroy dissident groups like the SDS and the Black Panthers?” I was startled to hear the tallied votes: 53 “yes” votes versus 30 “no” votes. Those were the days, kids.…
To be sure, there was a strong element of teddy-bear softness to many of Merv’s performances. We all owe Griffin an additional debt of gratitude for inspiring Rick Moranis’ superb 1980s impersonation of Merv on SCTV, and the show’s great parody of the guests who nestled down in Griffin’s chairs.
But The Merv Griffin Show 1962-1986, with its chitchat with Tim Leary (“It takes courage to take LSD!”) and its footage of the remarkably rubber-bodied comedian Charlie Callas, will reintroduce many contemporary viewers to performers and ideas that have vanished from television today, as well as prove that Merv was more than just an affable chuckle.
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