When Merv Griffin died in 2007, the lion’s share of obituaries emphasized his game-show empire. Griffin created Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! and profited handsomely from both. Today the proliferation of branded global entertainment tailored to local needs is rampant, particularly with reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor. But international versions of Wheel proliferated ten years before the premiere of Survivor, and in 1986 Coca-Cola bought Merv Griffin Enterprises for $250 million, making Griffin one of the most successful and forward-looking entertainment producers in the United States. Yet the average TV viewer saw Griffin in a different light: he was simply "Merv," one of the most popular talk-show hosts in the country.
Looking back, it’s a bit hard to believe. Merv was dull. In fact, SCTV‘s Rick Moranis’s faultless impersonation of him—and his signature sycophantic exclamation, "Fascinating!"—could make watching the real Merv Griffin Show seem pointless. Chat host Mike Douglas was too humdrum even for parody. He and Merv were easygoing, always wearing relaxed smiles and never offending or browbeating their guests. There was one major difference, though. Merv understood himself as a celebrity (or, at least, as a hanger-on) and would casually mention that he had played tennis with Errol Flynn, or had sublet an apartment from Marlon Brando, or that Marilyn Monroe had once jumped up and down on his bed sans foundation garments. Douglas—the "national icon of square chic," as Rick Perlstein puts it in Nixonland—presented himself more as an everyman, an afternoon guest at your coffee klatch who just happened to bring along some swell friends.
Somehow Douglas summoned the nerve to invite John Lennon and Yoko Ono to co-host for a week in 1972. The three discussed topics ranging from racism and women’s lib to biofeedback and macrobiotic cooking, and their guests included Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin and Ralph Nader. It was a ratings coup, but Douglas noted in his autobiography that he had been quite anxious the whole time. He was no doubt worried that his guests were too controversial to appear uninvited in America’s living rooms, but he was damn lucky his own live studio audience did not rise up in revolt upon hearing his Velveeta-smooth performance of "Michelle." Douglas had been the singing voice of Prince Charming in Disney’s Cinderella. Edgy he was not.
Mercifully, Merv sang less than Douglas, though he did sometimes perform a punchy rendition of "I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," his one and only hit, from 1950. He devoted a whole program to examining Transcendental Meditation, but countercultural figures like Yoko Ono were not among his guests. At heart, Merv was dedicated to interviewing an older generation of entertainers, the glamorous Hollywood stars. Unfortunately, he didn’t have anything particularly interesting to ask them. To Sophia Loren, he posed the question "Do emotions like bitterness and hate show on one’s face?" When an obstreperous Richard Burton opined that humankind had made no progress in 2,500 years and that the astronauts who walked on the moon were complete idiots, Merv was flummoxed and tried to smooth things over by asking, with all the finesse of a can of Glade air freshener, "Who were your heroes growing up?"
Merv did have an eye for stand-up comic talent, and he took credit for discovering Jerry Seinfeld. (Seinfeld paid homage to Merv in a final-season episode in which Kramer installs the set of The Merv Griffin Show in his living room.) Both Richard Pryor and George Carlin appeared on Griffin’s show in the ’60s and were brilliant. Merv let funny guys be funny and political figures of all stripes run through their talking points unchallenged. Martin Luther King Jr. explained why economic disparities between Negroes and whites persisted and why the war in Vietnam was a mistake. Ronald Reagan rather outrageously proclaimed that no other administration had ever done so much for women’s issues. Merv has been praised (perhaps mostly by himself) for daring to ask Nixon in 1967 how he could overcome the wide perception that he was "a loser." But this question was the elephant in the room and, really, exactly the one Nixon wanted, since he was, once again, trying to invent a New Nixon. One year later Nixon would steal away a young Mike Douglas Show producer—one Roger Ailes—to package the New Nixon for the media. A few years earlier, Nixon had hired a writer from The Jack Paar Program to craft jokes for his speeches. If Nixon was headhunting talent from talk-shows, he obviously felt that these folks knew how to speak to "the average American."