Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Bunch of Coconuts

I find myself strangely moved by the passing of TV icon Merv Griffin. He made buttloads of money inventing Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, but I remember him primarily for his talk show, which was in its heyday back when talk shows were just that. They were not promos for the guests' newest film, album, or TV series. Back when I was watching The Merv Griffin Show, talk shows were for talk.

It must have been in the late 60s that I watched Merv regularly. My family had a rule (with some flexibility, I must say) that dinner happened at the dinner table, and not in front of the television. This made watching Merv difficult, as his 90 minute syndicated show was broadcast during our dinner hour in Atlanta, where I grew up. Thankfully, my mother was more amenable to dining on a TV tray if Dad was held up at work, and since he almost always was held up at work (Thank you, Lockheed), I often dined while enjoying Merv and his guests.

And what an outlandish group they were. We had Merv's announcer, the incomparable Arthur Treacher, a hilariously pompous British character actor whose film career consisted of a series of butlers. I'm not sure he knew how funny he was, as he attempted to translate the Americanisms which were thrust at him, but he had a strong chemistry with Griffin.

Back then, Merv excelled at presenting the Entertaining Guest. These were not people booked to hock the latest project, these were people who could actually speak extemporaneously and entertainingly. Merv loved eccentrics, so we were introduced to Monty Rock III, Stanley Myron Handelman, Prof. Irwin Corey and, a particular favorite, Hermione Gingold.

Aging TV writer and wit Jack Douglas was a frequent guest with his much younger Japanese wife, Reiko. I didn't know at the time that Reiko was a skilled comedienne, all I knew was that the duo was a scream. Their routine usually included humor aimed at Reiko's ignorance of the English language (a put-on, I'm sure, but who cares? It was funny).

A typical encounter:

Merv: "So Reiko, what have you been doing here in the States for fun?"

Reiko (recited as if she had learned the answer phonetically): "Photo-graphing Mi-li-tary In-stall-ations..."

Charo was another frequent guest who capitalized on her lack of knowledge of English. Married to elderly bandleader Xavier Cugat, she looked for "sook sex" in America.

I still remember the comics Merv showcased back then. Ruth Buzzi was a frequent guest, as was Joanne Worley, with her trademark feathered boa. This was several years before they gained fame in "Laugh-In."

Moms Mabley was a frequent guest, getting huge laughs for politically incorrect, semi-racist humor. And I have a strong memory of wacky Dody Goodman, years before gaining a bit of fame on "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," singing a hilarious old tune called "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." (That number still sits on my list of possible audition songs.
It's true that Merv lavished a lot of screen time on his favorites, which included the Gabor sisters and the Reagans. But he should be applauded for booking interesting people who could fill 90 minutes with witty repartee, with nary a project to promote.

Thanks, Merv, for all those evenings in front of the TV.