John Leonard and I were as one on many things, especially when it came to television. (Among our shared enthusiasms: The Rockford Files, Bill Russell’s NBA commentary, Dana Delany.) He, as much as I, believed deeply that Ed Sullivan was one of the indispensable figures of the 20th century for making his weekly variety show a spectrum of culture from Broadway to the Bolshoi to the Beatles to the Great Ballantine. But for all the props John gave Ed, he had little use for Merv Griffin, to my mind, as far-sighted and boundary-breaching an emcee as Sullivan.
“Charlie Brown in a Rep Tie” was the handle for John’s withering 1972 Life magazine column on Griffin, whose talk show had just gone back to syndication after a brief late-night fling on CBS. “Embarrassingly personal,” he wrote of Merv’s persona. “…[a] hybrid of Nelson Rockefeller, Kahlil Gibran, Little Beaver, Gunga Din and the Little White Cloud That Cried. Throw this man a security blanket!”
As with similar Leonard tantrums, this came as much from a keen sense of injustice (towards the ratings-besieged Dick Cavett, whom he – and I – preferred at the time to Merv and Johnny Carson) as from distaste. Griffin was indeed every bit as moist as Cavett was dry and I, too, can take only so much moisture on my screen.
But Griffin, as everyone now knows, was soggy like a fox. No one who became as wealthy as he did from inventing Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune could be as needy or as naïve as he seemed to Leonard. Before he became a media mogul, the Mozart of the game show, Griffin was a cabaret/nightclub performer who’d seen a lot of great jazz, R&B, Broadway shows and glossy pop during New York’s post-World War II golden age. He couldn’t avoid bringing such paraphernalia to the mainstream. For instance, Play Your Hunch, the Goodson-Todman daytime game show he hosted from 1958 to 1962, included such cutting-edge legends of the moment as Jon Hendricks and, in this clip, songwriters Jerry Lieber and Burt Bacharach.
Once he got his own talk show, Griffin took even bigger chances, bringing to the desk-and-couch format such unlikely visitors as Bertrand Russell, Norman Mailer, Abbie Hoffman, both Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick (She did most of the talking) and Phil Spector, who managed to piss off every other guest on the panel that evening – including Richard Pryor, who achieved his first nationwide exposure on Griffin’s show as did the more venerable Jackie “Moms” Mabley, whose renown had heretofore been mostly a “black thing” no white person could literally understand. Both would eventually appear on the Sullivan show, but one doubts either of those loose cannons would have made it there without Merv clearing a path to the mainstream.
If you want to know how truly…extraterrestrial Pryor was from the start. Check out this clip where he does some amazing contortions to “The Kid From Red Bank” — and later gushes all over Jerry Lewis. This was regular TV back then. Now it’d be an Event!
No Moms-on-Merv has surfaced yet on the web. except for this unnervingly treacly stream. (“My little Bobby”?) I want more of her on the couch. I used to love the way she would, in mid-gab, suddenly remember to lean to her right and say “Hel-lo, Aw-thuh” to Merv’s Veddy British sidekick Arthur Treacher, who always looked, at best, startled that she bothered to notice.
These days, wet-and-fizzy seems to be the order of the daytime talk show circuit with a new brace of hosts competing for the attention spans of Oprah Winfrey’s lost tribes. These hosts all yearn for the moistness of Merv, but, so far, seem to have little of his vision. They’re hugging the corners, bending over backwards to date people choosy about their fulltime dancing partners. Don’t count on Katie or Jeff or Steve or, for that matter, Ellen or Phil, mining the underground orcruising the cutting edge in search of today’s Edie Sedgwicks or Richard Pryors. Merv, whatever else you may think, was never worried about unnerving the straights. He liked going where no show bothered to go. Now, these shows seem more interested in telling people what they already know (or think they want to know).
Personally, I think they all (hosts and audience) should hang out more. Merv would.