Let us now praise Merv Griffin, who doesn’t get the old-school talk-show-host veneration that Johnny Carson received or the classy-act kudos that have sustained Dick Cavett’s reputation. Griffin, now 80, presided over truly chatty chat shows on NBC and in syndication, in the evenings and afternoons, off and on from 1962 to 1986. He was a former singer and game-show host, and about as confrontational as Elmer Fudd. When the great Canadians of SCTV parodied Griffin, Rick Moranis embodied Merv as possessing a cat’s-purr voice and a lurching alacrity — Moranis captured the way Griffin would lean in with a sly smile and murmur his questions. Always cheerful (no Jack Paar tantrums or David Letterman sarcasm for Merv), he lobbed softballs his guests enjoyed fielding, eliciting quite a bit of surprisingly intimate info from a vast variety of people, two score of whom are represented on the three-disc Merv Griffin Show: 40 of the Most Interesting People of Our Time.
Before talk shows became ancillary publicity machines for stars to plug movies and politicians to parrot their party lines, Merv simply booked people he found interesting or entertaining. He engages in serious conversations with Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon, and Rose Kennedy. He talks to actors ranging from Orson Welles to a Splash-era Tom Hanks (dig the white-boy Afro). A Barbarella-era, miniskirted Jane Fonda shimmers in. A prickly Richard Burton calmly calls the moon-landing astronauts ”idiots” because they said nothing eloquent about their experience and declares that he has ”definite Communist leanings.” (If an actor said that to Jon Stewart nowadays, it’d make front-page news and signal the end of the speaker’s career — my, how we’ve regressed.)
Merv loved to let loose with a throaty, belly-jiggling laugh, so it’s no surprise that one disc is devoted entirely to comedians: a 1965 George Carlin with short hair and a sharkskin suit; a 1986 Jerry Seinfeld rattling off his routine with shotgun precision; a 1966 Richard Pryor getting laughs from a pantomime bit, lighting the filtered end of a cigarette while distracted by an imaginary girl.
Not all of this stuff ages as well, however. I’d been looking forward to seeing Totie Fields, a ’60s comedian who’s attained cult status as a pioneeringly ruthless female comic since her death in 1978, but the guest spot here finds her braying tired jokes about how expensive vacations are. There are no real DVD extras on The Merv Griffin Show; the ”bonus guests” on each disc are just a few more interviews. Of these, the most piquant is a 1966 glimpse of Monti Rock III, a no-talent of the sort that doesn’t exist now — a parody of a long-haired rock star who was treated like a real one by Griffin and his baffled big-band-reared guests. Still, the host’s ebullient generosity toward even a put-on artist is utterly charming.