Sunday, August 12, 2007

R.I.P.: Merv Griffin (1925-2007)

Merv Griffin’s most enduring contributions to American pop culture may be Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune – and, arguably, one of the guiltiest of guilty pleasures ever recorded, “I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” – but Baby Boomers of a certain age also will fondly recall his many stints as a genuinely engaging TV talk show host.

Indeed, there was a stretch in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s when CBS programmed him as a late-night alternative to Johnny Carson. Not surprisingly, he didn’t provide much real competition for The King Of Late Night. During his CBS run, however, Griffin did play a major role in a notorious on-air incident that involved a “wardrobe malfunction” quite unlike the one that, decades later, exposed Janet Jackson. I actually remember watching Griffith’s show on the night when… well, let me let Paul Krassner do the honors:

“What is perceived as desecration of a flag depends on the subjectivity of the beholder. In 1970, Abbie Hoffman -- co-founder of the Yippies (Youth International Party) with Jerry Rubin and myself -- wore a red-white-and-blue shirt resembling the American flag (made in France) when he was a guest on The Merv Griffin Show. At the taping, Griffin had asked him, ‘How can you claim that there’s so much repression in America if you’re allowed on my show?’

“But CBS censors blacked out Hoffman’s image prior to broadcasting the program, which began with an apology: ‘It seemed one of the guests had seen fit to come on the show wearing a shirt made from an American flag. Therefore, to avoid possible litigation, the network executives have decided to mask out all visible portions of the offending shirt by electronic means. We hope our viewers will understand.’ Hoffman’s disembodied voice could be heard clearly, however. On that same show, there was a fast-food commercial in which Roy Rogers wore a similar shirt.”

If you weren’t around at the time, you may find it difficult to fathom that, as absurd as this incident may sound now, it was reflective of a dead-serious political divide that polarized the U.S. population. It was a time when, yes, even wearing the “wrong” kind of shirt on a talk show might be enough to upset those timid TV censors who want to keep programs as scrupulously inoffensive and politically neutered as possible. Have things really changed that much? Well, you tell me.

BTW: Merv Griffin enjoyed a fleeting career as an actor, but I must admit I don't remember anything about his contributions to Roy Del Ruth's Phantom of the Rue Morgue or Michael Curtiz's The Boy from Oklahoma. On the other hand: just think of how many "six degrees of separation" scenarios you can spin with Merv Griffin and Michael Curtiz so neatly linked.


Rick Rockhill said...

Nice job with this. I wrote a small tribute, along with the last photo I took of Merv back in March.

Palm Springs Savant

Anonymous said...

What about Merv's cameo in "Man With Two Brains" as the Elevator Killer? Some very droll line delivery as he tells Steve Martin's character, upon being recognized by him, "I just love to kill!".

Anonymous said...

The 1970 Griffin show with Abbie Hoffman was even stranger than Paul Krassner describes it. As Krassner notes, the show was prefaced by an on-camera appearance by a CBS executive (possibly Robert D. Wood, then President of the network) explaining -- sort of -- what we were about to see. It was hard to understand what he was talking about -- how could the entire appearance of someone on a talk show be "masked out"?

The show began without incident, as Abbie wasn't among the first guests. Merv's other guests included Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin from ZABRISKIE POINT and at least two pretty conservative people (one was tv host Virginia Graham). This was one of Merv's "theme" shows, in which all of his guests would talk about a single topic: I believe this one was intended to be a discussion of the counterculture. At any rate, It got unpleasant fairly early on. Ms. Graham clearly didn't approve of Mark and Daria, and the couple couldn't conceal their disdain for her. The other rather conservative guest had even less use for the couple, and I remember Frechette glowering at him.

All hell broke loose, of course, when the typically outspoken and outrageous Abbie came on about a half hour into the program... but what must have been happening at the taping was like nothing compared to trying to watch it at home. Outside of perhaps one unaltered second of Hoffman walking on to the set (and an occasional split second here and there), we didn't see Abbie all night. When Hoffman was alone on camera, the entire inage was blacked out. When he was sitting next to Merv in a two-shot, we saw the host in half of the screen... and black on the other half. A full shot of the panel: Abbie was blacked out -- as though the monolith from 2001 was in his place among a group of people. It was insane.

Add to this: Griffin and others were making occasional remarks about his shirt -- but we couldn't be sure WHAT he was wearing. Was it a shirt made out of the flag? Did it have some arcane anti-American legend printed on it? We just didn't know. [In a photo in the paper the next day, it was clear that it was just a red, white and blue shirt with stars and stripes.] Meanwhile, Merv's "panel discussion" of the counterculture went quite awry. Virginia Graham became apoplectic about something Halprin said, Frechette grew increasingly angry with the attitude of the other guest... and while we couldn't see him, Abbie's uniquely irritating laugh was frequently heard. Merv, a pro to the end, soldiered on, trying to remain above the fray.

After the program concluded, we were treated to another on-camera appearance by the CBS executive, this time explaining -- again, sort of -- what we'd just seen, and why the network had taken such action. It was an amazing show, though somehow just another day in the crazy year, 1970...

Time described the show here:,9171,904263,00.html?promoid=googlep

Joe Leydon said...

As I recall -- and, mind you, we're talking about something I saw 37 years ago, so maybe my memory shouldn't be entirely trusted -- Abbie actually wore a jacket when he first appeared. After a few minutes, however, he said something to the effect of, "Geez, it's hot in here, I think I'll take off my jacket!" And then, of course, all hell broke loose.

Anonymous said...

Joe, I think you are likely right about Abbie wearing a jacket when he came on stage, doffing it later. That sounds familiar. [My memory of 37 years back isn't exactly pristine either.] I seem to recall Virginia Graham almost crying at one point, and I wish I could recall who the other guest was -- I really thought Mark Frechette was gonna take a swing at him... perilous times. It's a shame that the tape of the show apparently no longer exists -- one would have thought that CBS standards and practices would have kept a copy as a souvenir, at least. A memorable night.

Joe Leydon said...

Weirdly enough, I remember precisely where I was when I saw this -- on the living room couch of the family home of the young woman I was dating at the time (my freshman year of college). Wipe that smirk off your face: Edwina and I were watching TV, not making out, when this politicized drama unfolded before us. It's a strange thing -- I sometimes call it The Pinball Effect -- you remember one half-forgotten event that makes you remember another that makes you remember another and so on, until you remember a specific time in your life that makes you remember someone special that makes you remember.... And on and on and on. And you realize that you remember certain things and certain people from 30 or more years ago more vividly than the movies you saw just last month. Such is life.

Anonymous said...

I do remember parts of that show. One particular remark (I'm not sure if it was Mark Frechette or Daria Halpin) was directed at Virginia Graham concerning a facelift. I remember that Virginia was visibly upset.

Anonymous said...

I recall Virginia Graham telling Merv how upset she was that Abbie Hoffman was invited on the show the time she was appearing. "I can't stand this man!" She bellowed. In his New York accent and in order to antagonize Virginia further, Abbie replied, "Va'ginya Graham, the lady that discov'd th' cure fa cancer!". That really see her off.