The Merv Griffin Show 1962-1986 DVD Box Set Liner Notes (condensed)
The Merv Griffin Show ranks as one of television’s most highly successful and long-running variety/talk shows. Between 1962 and 1986, the daily program garnered critical acclaim, multiple Emmy Awards, and a loyal audience, setting a standard that remains enviable today.
Over the years, comedians have good-naturedly lampooned Merv’s on-air persona. There was his saunter on stage at the beginning of each show, the devilish manner in which he’d pump guests with probing questions, and the trademark “ooooooh” or “ahhhhhh” in reaction to the slightest revelation.
While Merv’s casual style and mannerisms may provide a good springboard for satire, they denote nothing of his aptitude as interviewer. Certainly anyone who watched the show knows that the man possessed a well-developed set of skills to explore serious (even taboo) subjects. Even more impressive was his knack for putting his guests, and the audience, at ease while doing so. But it was the propensity for listening that Merv would cite as his best quality as a host. In a 1968 Look article, he described himself as “a good listener, a good reactor.” Lucille Ball concurred: “Sometimes I’m not paying attention to what the other person is saying,” she told Merv on the air. “I am watching you listen!”
Talk shows have always relied on a safety net of material mapped out in advance by staffers. But the Griffin show, since its inception, conveyed a level of spontaneity that was almost palpable. Merv had learned from Paar that an undercurrent of excitement or “planned chaos” was the hallmark of a good talk show. And so there was always the anticipation that something unexpected might occur. This might involve a flash of emotion from a major celebrity, a politician making an uncharacteristic comment, or a guest expressing indignation by walking off the show. There would also be moments where it appeared that Merv was losing control of his program with hilarious results. Merv would thrive on such moments and let the show glide in its own direction for better or worse.
Watching Merv today, it’s often hard to comprehend that the man steering this marathon of chitchat would one day become a powerful mogul capable of buying and selling the very talent he was showcasing. But there he was, making even the most lightweight guest feel important. “Merv was to television what Bill Clinton was to politics,” says Tony Garofalo, who began his career with Griffin as a production assistant and worked his way up to talent coordinator, then head writer. “He remembered your name and always looked you straight in the eye when he addressed you.” Producer and TV host David Susskind, a frequent guest in the ’60s, once told Merv: “You genuinely care about people. You’re not thinking of the next joke and you haven’t got a prepared shtick.” Bob Murphy, Merv’s longtime friend and producer for nearly the entire run of the series commented, “Merv was a different host than Johnny Carson. Johnny was the star of The Tonight Show. Merv didn’t like to be the star; he wanted to be second fiddle. Merv wanted all his guests to outshine him. He loved to listen and he didn’t try to top you.” In a 1969 Newsweek article Merv Griffin commented, “You can see what we’re after in our camera work. The last thing I want to do is fill the screen up with my face all the time. We try for the feeling that the guests and I are all just having some fun together.”
Unlike Johnny Carson, Merv was not a comedian. But he was quick witted in his interactions with a diverse range of personalities and performers. His opening monologues were marked by brevity and contained none of the social or political barbs that distinguished Carson’s. Merv didn’t raise eyebrows, he let his provocative guests do it for him.
It was in New York City between 1965 and 1970, in the heart of the theater district, that the show enjoyed its most energetic period. In an era that witnessed unprecedented levels of rebelliousness and contempt for authority, Merv chatted with scores of newsmakers, trend-setters, and raconteurs. It was a show with a remarkably wide scope. As a result, the audience could be convulsed by the antics of a young George Carlin, or angered by the political views of novelist Gore Vidal who called for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment.
Merv rarely espoused his personal views on the air. Consequently, his audience never knew if he was a Republican or a Democrat. He presented both sides and afforded them equal time. The bottom line was simply to produce the most satisfying show possible, thereby keeping guests and viewers happy.
Making people happy was something that came naturally to Mervyn Edward Griffin, Jr. He was born on July 6, 1925 in San Mateo, California. A gifted child with an unwavering interest in music, he was a piano-playing virtuoso before he started grade school. By age 19, he had become a crooning sensation on San Francisco’s radio station KFRC, building a solid reputation as “America’s Romantic Singing Star.” In 1948, Merv made a name for himself by joining the Freddy Martin Orchestra as its lead vocalist. And by 1950, that name had become a household word, thanks to the release of a novelty song called “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” His good looks attracted a loyal female following and nationwide fan clubs quickly sprang up. (The West Coast chapter of the club was run by an enthusiastic teenager named Carol Burnett!)
Several hits later, Merv was a major attraction in Las Vegas. There, he caught the eye of Doris Day, who arranged a screen test for the boyish baritone. As a contract player at Warner Bros., Merv appeared in By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), Three Sailors and a Girl (1953), So This Is Love (1953), The Boy from Oklahoma (1954), and others. Film acting, however, wasn’t the facet of show business that Merv had envisioned for himself. His next stop was the Big Apple where, in 1955, he appeared on Broadway in Finian’s Rainbow and began working in the fledgling medium of television.
In 1958, Merv found a niche as host of the popular game show Play Your Hunch. The program emanated from NBC’s Studio 6-B in New York City, which also happened to be the home of Paar’s Tonight Show. At the height of his fame, Paar habitually cut through the usually empty studio in the afternoon to avoid using the elevators. One day in January 1962, Paar arrived earlier than usual and accidentally interrupted Merv’s taping. Though thoroughly stunned by Paar’s appearance, Merv handled the on-air encounter like a seasoned pro, engaging the late-night star in a few minutes of amusing banter. The studio audience loved it. Paar was equally impressed and asked Merv to substitute for him as guest host.
Like many up-and-coming television personalities, Merv had long aspired to substitute for the ineffable Paar, who took Monday nights off (as Carson would do years later). When the opportunity finally presented itself on January 29, 1962, Merv was a bundle of nerves. After completing the opening monologue (the most demanding portion of the show), Merv was seen headed for the nearest exit in a state of utter panic. Credit goes to talent coordinator Bob Shanks (who also served as producer that night) for shoving the reluctant host back on stage. Merv managed to get through the taping and, by the time the end credits rolled, the new kid on the block was a hit. “That night changed his life and mine,” says Shanks, who would become the first producer of the Griffin show.
Not one critic had found fault with Merv’s performance that night; virtually everyone was pleased with the style and versatility he’d demonstrated behind the desk. Merv now felt he was destined for the variety/talk format, a conviction abetted by Paar’s insistence that he guest host the program twice a week. Viewer and critical response remained positive. In fact, there was speculation that Merv might be hosting the program permanently following Paar’s departure from The Tonight Show. The job, however, had already been given to another daytime game show host by the name of Johnny Carson.
Recognizing potential in the 37-year-old Griffin, and not wanting to lose him to another network, NBC allocated a 55-minute time slot for him in its afternoon schedule. Thus The Merv Griffin Show debuted on October 1, 1962 —the same day that Johnny Carson took over the reins of The Tonight Show. Interestingly, the Griffin and Carson shows were not only seen on the same network, they also taped in the same studio, 6-B. Merv taped in the early afternoon and, after a quick set change, Carson would tape in the early evening. (Upon Jay Leno’s departure in 2014, Jimmy Fallon returned The Tonight Show to the historic Studio 6-B.)
Merv was determined to bring some substance to daytime television at a time when it was largely dominated by soap operas, game shows, and reruns. From the beginning, his guest lists were comprised of many prominent names in politics, literature, and science as well as entertainment.
Although the first Merv Griffin Show won approval from critics, intellectuals, and college students, its ratings fell short of the network’s expectations. Consequently the show was canceled on April 1, 1963. Some industry insiders felt that Merv’s approach may have been too “highbrow” for daytime consumption. Yet Bob Shanks, who produced the Griffin show from 1962 to 1970, explains that the network had initially envisioned the program with a nighttime flavor. “We were actually in the bullpen in case Johnny didn’t work out,” Shanks recalls. “But obviously he did and, as it turned out, NBC didn’t need a bullpen.”
The cancellation generated tens of thousands of protest letters, an occurrence that opened the network’s eyes to Merv’s substantial appeal. By October 1963, he was back on NBC’s daytime lineup, this time as host—and producer—of a game show called Word for Word. Under the banner of his own company, Griffin Productions, Merv would eventually develop and package two of the most successful game shows in television history, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, among many others.
Word for Word was canceled after only a year on the air. Although he was disappointed, Merv still longed for a second shot at hosting a national talk show. The opportunity materialized in January 1965 when Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, through its Group W Division, proposed to revive The Merv Griffin Show for daily syndication. It would be a 90-minute program jointly produced by Group W Productions and Griffin Productions, with Merv retaining full ownership of the program, something very unusual in the television business at that time.
The program needed a permanent location. Uncomfortable with the starkness of television studios, Merv felt that the show would work better in a theater. He inspected several available facilities and ultimately chose the Little Theater, nestled in the heart of Broadway, next door to Sardi’s restaurant on 44th Street. Sardi’s held a special interest for the producer and talent coordinators. The place was always packed with movie stars and celebrities; if and when a guest didn’t show up, there’d always be someone next door who could be persuaded into making an appearance.
The second incarnation of The Merv Griffin Show was launched on May 10, 1965. Because of its lengthy format, the show could book extensively, offering as many as eight guests per show. Merv’s talent as an interviewer was exceeded only by his penchant for bringing together an eclectic mix of personalities. Bob Shanks equates the booking of a talk show with planning a successful cocktail party. “You want to put people together who might enjoy meeting each other, but seldom get a chance to,” says the producer. “And they may hate each other on sight, which can create sparks and make for a terrific show. We were able to do that in syndication because there was no interference and it was pure art.”
Because of Merv’s background, music was a major component of the show. His love of all genres can be seen by the wide variety of his musical guests. Mort Lindsey, a highly respected pianist who had previously conducted for Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, was brought in to direct the house band and remained Merv’s musical director for the next 21 years. Over the years this band featured many of the top players in jazz, including Ray Brown on bass, Jim Hall on guitar, Jake Hanna on drums, Bob Brookmeyer on trombone and Jack Sheldon on trumpet, who became Merv’s comedic foil in the ’70s and ’80s.
If guests couldn’t make it to the Griffin show, the show would go to them. The program is noted for its numerous “remote” segments filmed on Hollywood movie sets and European locales. Bob Shanks recalls an era in broadcasting that predates satellites and overseas cut-ins: “In order to get the European stars, and have a competing edge on Carson, we would tape two shows on Thursday. We’d leave on Thursday night, arrive in Europe on Friday morning, tape a string of interviews from Friday to Sunday morning, then fly back to New York on Sunday night, and do the show on Monday.”
By the late ’60s, variety/talk shows had proven to be enormously profitable, both in network and syndicated modes. CBS, at this time, had learned that its local stations weren’t faring too well with the old movies that were being aired nightly. The network began searching for a candidate, preferably one who was already a name brand, who could compete in the late-night competition. In 1968, when it became known that Merv’s Westinghouse contract was up for renewal, the network expressed serious interest in him. At 43, Merv had strong reservations about taking on the pressures of network television. However, the offer kept nagging at him and, in a dexterous effort to thwart it, he asked for double the amount of Carson’s salary. (Various sources claim Carson was then earning roughly $40,000 per week.) CBS agreed to Griffin’s terms, and in August 1969, Merv Griffin became the latest contender in what would become the first (but certainly not the last) three-way competition in late-night television.
Now operating with one of the largest talent contracts in television history, Merv strove to keep the program fresh by balancing it with the usual eclectic array of guests and subjects. However, from the outset, he was beset by a series of unrelenting obstacles. Though Merv scored an impressive 49 percent audience share in his CBS premiere, his ratings quickly plummeted. (Experts attributed the opening-night triumph to the “curiosity factor.”) The weak numbers, however, were in no way reflective of the show’s quality—it was simply a matter of math. CBS had fewer stations in its lineup than NBC. As a result, in markets where there was no CBS affiliate, the Griffin show could only receive a zero rating. Over time, some affiliates moved the show to less-than-desirable time slots, while others dropped it altogether. Merv was distressed to learn that his show was now playing on fewer stations than it had in syndication.
There was also an issue with network interference. Even though Merv had creative control of the program, he was frequently pestered about the number of guests making anti-war statements or, worse yet, sexual innuendos. The censorship department saw fit to edit certain comments (tepid by today’s standards) out of several interviews.
To further complicate matters, guest procurement was becoming a chronic problem. By 1970, there were four national talk shows based in New York City: The Tonight Show; The Merv Griffin Show; The Dick Cavett Show (which had replaced the Joey Bishop Show in December 1969); and The David Frost Show (which had replaced Merv on the Westinghouse network). All four shows, it seemed, were clamoring for the same big-name stars or acts. When Merv saw the same guests popping up all over the place, he knew it was time to leave New York.
By the start of the 1970-71 season, Merv had relocated the show to CBS’s “Television City” in Hollywood. Merv had begun to exhibit signs of wear under the strain of network pressure. He had gained weight and, at times, seemed ill at ease on the air. Critics began commenting on his graying hair. Nevertheless, the show quietly moved into its second season on the network amid low ratings and affiliate station defections.
The program also underwent changes in format. In an effort to create a more intimate ambiance, Merv got rid of the desk and simply occupied a chair, as did the guests, at center stage. He also began experimenting with “theme shows” that focused on one subject.
The move to the West Coast had resulted in a better selection of guests, but couldn’t garner the numbers CBS needed. Even with big-name stars, creative format changes, and intriguing themes, the show simply couldn’t put a dent in Carson’s ratings. Anticipating a cancellation notice, Merv, still under contract to CBS, secretly negotiated with Metromedia Producers Corporation to return his show to the turf where it had enjoyed its greatest success—syndication.
After departing the CBS airwaves on February 11, 1972, The Merv Griffin Show resumed production on March 6, 1972 at the famed Hollywood Palace Theater on Vine Street. To the home viewer, the transition was seamless.
Early reviews of the Metromedia series were generally excellent, prompting many stations to air it in prime-time, which was very rare for a talk show. (In order to accommodate the needs of certain stations, an edited version of the show was made available in a 60-minute format.) Less than a year into its run, the show had been sold in over 100 markets nationwide (including all of the top 30 and 56 of the top 60 markets.)
In 2014, Jay Leno discussed what the power of an appearance on a show like The Merv Griffin Show could do for your career: “If you did a Merv Griffin Show not everybody saw it, but it was amazing how many people did see it. Nowadays there are 500 channels, but back then it was huge. I would say one appearance on a show in the those days would be equal to maybe 10 appearances on TV now, in terms of the number of people that see you.”
By the mid-1980s, there was talk within the television industry that the Griffin show had lost its punch, evidenced by the fact that some stations had relegated it to the wee hours of the morning. Changing times, as well as changing tastes, may have been responsible for this turn of events. In the summer of 1986, Merv announced his retirement from the program.
The last installment of Merv’s show aired, in most cities, on September 5, 1986. There was no studio audience for the final program. Instead, the retiring host sat alone in the middle of the TAV Celebrity Theater (the show’s home base for the past decade) with vigilant members of the press standing off to the sides. He showed clips of a few wacky stunts, interspersed with highlights of the great comedians who had appeared on his show over the years (some in their first appearance, others in their last). He also shared snippets of interviews with various celebrities and newsmakers. In the control room, Merv thanked his staff, crew, and production team, including director Dick Carson. (Merv: “He’s the best director I could ever steal from his brother!”) At the end of the retrospective, Merv stood by the bandstand and thanked Mort Lindsey. Then he looked into the camera and said, with a tinge of sadness, “We will not be right back after this message.” The credits crawled up the screen and The Merv Griffin Show became part of television history.
Even with his talk-show days behind him, Merv remained ingrained in the nation’s collective consciousness. His ongoing business enterprises, including game-show production and hotel and casino ownership, kept his name before the public until his death on August 12, 2007, at age 82.
Merv’s most enduring legacy is the thousands of hours of footage fortunately preserved for generations yet to come. Unlike today’s contrived chat-fests, which serve mainly as publicity devices, The Merv Griffin Show is a refreshing example of a time when people on talk shows actually talked. The Griffin archive is not only a repository of great entertainment, it’s also a captivating time capsule of America’s cultural and social history from the 1960s to the 1980s.
In 2013, The Merv Griffin Show held three spots on TV Guide’s list of “The 60 Greatest Talk Show Moments”— #25-Captain Mitsuo Fuchida (1965), #41-Whitney Houston (1983), and #46-Orson Welles (1985).
In looking back on the legacy of Merv Griffin, Jay Leno commented, “He doesn’t really get the credit he deserves. He interviewed as many famous people as anybody. He had a very engaging style and he had a nice way about him. He really made you feel relaxed. He never made you feel that if you didn’t do well you would never be back here again. Everybody always got a second chance with Merv. He was a regular guy who just happened to be very successful and pretty darn talented, too.”