If you were a young stand-up comedian looking to launch a career in the 1960s and '70s, your ultimate goal was to land a guest spot on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. But for many of the up-and-comers who weren't yet on Carson's radar, the first TV stop was a friendlier, more accessible, less-high-pressure showcase run by a former big-band singer and game show host named Merv Griffin.
His show didn't have the cachet or the clout of Carson's. But Griffin and his producers were smart enough to realize that to compete they had to take more chances, and that made him more receptive to some of the era's most groundbreaking new talent. George Carlin and Richard Pryor were little-known stand-up comics performing in the folk and jazz clubs of Greenwich Village in 1965 when scouts from Griffin's show discovered them just weeks apart and booked them on the show. Griffin gave both of them multi-show contracts and had them on regularly for the next year, giving them their first sustained TV exposure and a major boost to their careers. Pryor was a particular favorite. "Our own little Richie Pryor," Griffin would announce as he brought on the gangly, wide-eyed kid from Peoria, who did physical bits and a famous imitation of a children's production of Rumpelstiltskin on Griffin's show, before he developed his more raw and racially provocative style. A few years later Griffin took his nephew to see Pryor on stage for the first time, at a theater in Baltimore. He was shocked to hear "the filthiest routine I'd ever heard in my life."
If Carson was TV's aloof and somewhat imposing arbiter of taste, Griffin, who died on Sunday at 82, was the welcoming, always enthusiastic showbiz uncle, who seemed to want everyone he brought on his show to become a star. He laughed at their jokes, gushed at their stories, joined them in songs. Like that other great TV natural of the era, Bob Barker, Griffin perfected an authentic, unironic, people-friendly manner that was seemingly impervious to the winds of change.
Griffin had been a big-band singer (he had a hit with "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts") and host of the game show Play Your Hunch before getting his first TV talk show on NBC in 1962. That lasted only a year, but in 1965 he returned with a syndicated show for Westinghouse. Though hardly cutting-edge, it had its appealing quirks. Griffin hired Arthur Treacher, the veteran British character actor, as his announcer. In his plummy British accent, Treacher would introduce Merv with a flourish at the start of each show: "And now, here's the dear boy himself..."
Griffin's show moved from syndication to CBS (where he challenged Carson head-to-head for a short time), then back to syndication, where he became a daytime staple until 1986. His guests were an eclectic mix of singers, comics, authors, occasional politicians and Orson Welles, his favorite guest, whom he had on nearly 50 times. His gushy style leaning heavily in on his guests, responding with a fervent "oooohhh" for each innocuous comment inspired one of Rick Moranis's great running impressions on SCTV. It was parody borne of affection, not derision.
Griffin was far more than a TV personality, however; he was a creator and entrepreneur who understood television as well as anyone in the medium's history. In 1964 he came up with the idea for Jeopardy! a game show that supplied the answers and asked contestants to come up with the questions. (A jack-of-all-trades, he even wrote the theme music for the "Final Jeopardy Answer" as well.) A decade later he invented his own version of hangman, creating the most successful game show in TV history, Wheel of Fortune. As usual, his involvement with the show was total; friends used to tell of being at dinner parties with Merv, where he'd stop the conversation whenever he heard a particular clichÚ or bon mot another hidden phrase for Wheel of Fortune, he'd exclaim. When he died, he was in the midst of creating a new game show, Crosswords.
His ideas and his business acumen he made money on hotels and casinos as well as his TV production company made him immensely rich, a mogul who kept the common touch. His name became synonymous in later years with the kind of fluffy, disposable entertainment that epitomized lowest-common-denominator television in the years when the channels were few and the audience huge. One reason for that huge audience, however, was people who had a real instinct for and rapport with the medium. People like the dear boy himself.