Merv Griffin: '70s Showbiz Ringmaster

I probably didn’t really watch the MervGriffin Show every night as a kid in the ’70s, but lookingback on it, it sure feels that way. In a pre-cable era when there wereonly six channels to choose from on any given night (and one of thosewas PBS, which, to an 11-year-old, didn’t count), there was a one-in-fivechance at some point I’d be spending at least a little time with Merv,whose show aired in New York for 90 minutes a night, five nights aweek.

In the retrospectives I’ve seen since Merv Griffin’sdeath yesterday at age 82, the focus has been on his manyaccomplishments as a businessman, with his on-camera life representedby clips of his sit-downs with Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy,Richard Nixon, and other figures of significance. All to be applauded —but those aren’t the moments that left the deepest impression on me.For me, the Merv Griffin Show was a nightly seminarin showbiz as circus.

On any given night, Merv would give us life’s richpageant, ’70s showbiz-style. Orson Welles and Fred Travelena; RichardBurton and McHale’s Navy‘s Joe Flynn. Entertainerswho mattered, and those who maybe didn’t so much, yet there they allwere, interacting, gathered together because on some level, all were inthe business of saying, Hey, look at me. And we did, and to asurprising degree it stuck with me, maybe more than is healthy toadmit. Here are some flashes I remember, mostly moments when mismatchedshowbiz worlds collided with each other, or simply with reality, as in this clip:

  • Andy Kaufman spending a segment telling Merv thathe could fly, then seeming to do his best to convince the next guest,old-time, snooty-persona’d actress Hermione Gingold, that he wascertifiable.
  • Monty Python’s Graham Chapmanmaking Zsa Zsa Gabor livid by his (truthful) insistence he was amedical doctor, because she didn’t think he had the proper demeanor.
  • An entire show devoted to Jerry Lewis’ starringrole in a movie adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick ofAnother Kind, treated with the solemnity of the second comingof Citizen Kane, illustrated with clips that lookedunwatchable. (Merv, coincidentally or not, had a small role in themovie. I can’t pinpoint this, but I think it was quite a while betweenthe time this show aired, and the film’s actual limited, lambastedrelease.)
  • Crooner Steve Lawrence introducing his recording ofthe "Love Theme from Rocky," with Merv telling himover and over that it was a No. 1 record, which made me laugh, thinkingthere was no way Steve Lawrence in the mid-’70s could have a No. 1record. (Yet Merv would actually be sort of right on that one —unfortunately for Steve, it was the similar, but mostly instrumental,"Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)" that topped thecharts. I’d always think of Steve Lawrence whenever I heard it.)
  • Thor, as seen video clip embedded above.(I have to admit, I don’t actually remember seeing this when it aired —but it sums up pretty well what I think of when I think of the endlesspossibilities of what you might stumble upon any given night on theMerv Griffin Show. Please stick with it long enoughto see him stop mid-song to blow up the hot water bottle.)

I guess there’s no telling what TV images you’llnever shake. Odd as they are, all of these still make me smile, and Iguess that’s as good a testament to Merv’s legacy as any. Now, willsomeone please put the great SCTV "Merv GriffithShow" skit, with Merv dropped into the Mayberry universe of AndyGriffith, on YouTube?

Comments (15 total)
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  • donner

    I like Merv (still do) because he knew how to entertain…he know what was interesting…He’s like Johnny Carson in that way – he could make a show out of two people looking at a box of cornflakes…There aren’t many old school performers out there anymore…he was so money…

  • Stephanie Travitsky

    Johnny Carson had a knack for being a true comic but, Merv Griffin was a combination of Donald Trump on a high dosage of Zoloft and Johnny Carson. Griffin was witty,relaxed and an intelligent businessman. He knew what the television audience wanted to see. Jeopardy is a game that is a rare breed. BTW: Just to rememeber him, Fox should should that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer finds Merv’s old show set up and puts it in his apartment. That was hilarious!

  • Stephanie Travitsky

    *should show. Sorry.

  • suz

    two words: totie fields

  • Curtis Cates

    Loved Merv. It all comes back to Kaufman. Stephanie was right, that was a great segment in Seinfield.

  • Dio_K

    Ahhhh, Merv. I loved him. I learned so much weird information on being an adult, I’ll never be able to shake it. I’ve been watching and enjoying him all my life. When I was a kid I thought the conversation on his show was the wittiest most sparkling stuff on TV. We’ll miss you, Merv, and think of you every time we hear the theme song from Jeopardy.

  • Alex Gordon

    If I’m Matthew McConaughey’s agent, I’m on the phone right now trying to buy the rights to Thor’s story.

  • Brian

    Hmmm. Wonder why Merv had that guy on.

  • Help Me Rhonda

    I. Just. Gored. My. Left. Eye. Out.
    What in the name of day old Sara Lee Cheese Cake was that hot mess?

  • sam

    Merv Griffin was a witty, warm and entertaining host. I am sorry that you chose to remember him with more ridicule than respect and the comments that speculate on his private life are in the worst possible taste. I will always remember him as a fond part of my childhood–he talked with world leaders and little old ladies in the audience with the same respect and interest. His show was informative and fun and he was a genius in the game show field. I will miss him and so will television–I hear he was working on a new game show to the end.

  • rhea

    The Hollywood mogul Merv Griffin died at the age of 82 over the weekend after a battle with cancer, and The New York Times actually discuss his sexual orientation, the palimony lawsuit and the male-on-male sexual harassment lawsuit.
    Merv Griffin was an example of how dangerous the closet can be — and how the closet and power are a combustible combination that adversely affects so many other lives.
    Griffin never acknowledged he was gay, though it became widely known in Hollywood, even as Eva Gabor played his beard.
    Griffin’s closet kept him shockingly silent while he had access to the president of the United States as his own people were dying.
    He also stayed silent about the epidemic in the media even though he was a man very much at the center of the media industry and in shaping communications and television in this country. He could have made a huge difference!
    Griffin’s closet had him firing gay men who’d actually made it up through the ranks of his own company, simply because they were openly gay.
    Merv Griffin accomplished a lot and being held up as a example of a stellar Hollywood businessman. But he should also be held up as man who was hugely influential and powerful and yet still allowed the closet and homophobia to manipulate his life. That should not be forgotten.

  • sam

    People are not required to use their personal lives to set an example, no matter how much others may want them to do so. We really don’t know what anyone does in the privacy of their own lives–what contributions they make quietly, what words they convey privately. If one wishes to be an activist, fine, but for others to force someone into the public glare is cruel and insulting. And to attack people when they are gone and unable to defend themselves is wrong. Let the man rest in peace–he did a lot of good in the world and he had a right to his privacy, as we all do.

  • stacydarc

    I always used to confuse him and Mike Douglas. How strange they should die almost exactly a year apart. With Tom Snyder sandwiched in-between, it’s been a bad 12 months for the golden era of chat shows (when celebrities used to CONVERSE with each other like people instead of plug and leave). Please, talk show reaper, leave my Dick Cavett alone!

  • FLIPPER

    Yes, I remember watching Merv during my teen years. The only episodes I recall are the ones that included Zsa Zsa(yawn), Little Richard(enlightening), and of course Charro (ugh). I must say I’d rather watch this water-bottle dude than sit through 10 min. of ‘koochie koochie’.
    Rest in peace, Merv.

  • Stephanie Travitsky

    You know Rhea after seeing that clip, I forgot how campy his talk shows really were (not to mention John Thor can’t sing). If Merv was gay and decided to not come out, that was his choice. Perhaps he felt that there was no need to. I think that singer Michael Stipe said it best when he noted that he(michael)wore eyeliner, and that was an obvious clue.

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