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Bye, Bye Merv

08/14/2007 06:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There is nothing TV likes more than a death of a famous person. The way the medium eulogized Ronald Reagan, I was surprised his head had not been put on Mt. Rushmore. Followed by Gerald Ford's. As TV recounted his greatness in office, I wondered what planet I had been on while this was all going on.

The treatment TV gave one of its own, the late Merv Griffin, who died on August 12, was equally reverential, but deserved. In his way, Merv had greater impact on the American people's lives than any president. Not only was he the first billionaire in entertainment, the sector in which most American heads are sadly in today, his life story was an inspiration. A cornball actor of the 1950s, he was an alchemist who could turn dross (TV programs) into gold. Along the way in his riches to riches story, he helped shape our culture.

His "Jeopardy," running since 1975, raised the audience's IQ level to three numbers. Not that hard, given the moronic level of most other game shows. The most brainy game show on TV since "College Bowl," it introduced binary system of thought that appealed to the intellectual snobs.

He also gave us that think tank of a show, "Wheel of Fortune," now in its 32nd year, without which Vanna White wouldn't have been possible. I even knew public TV viewers who would watch "Wheel." On their way to the "McNeil-Lehrer News Hour" on my local WNET/13, they would stumble on Vanna and stay for a whole half hour. But only to check Vanna"s spelling.

But Merv's real contribution to American culture was "The Merv Griffin Show."

All the rave reviews of Merv's life remembered to mention the talk show, which ran from 1962 to 1986 at various networks (Westinghouse, NBC. CBS) in one form or another, and was the trampoline on which Merv went to gold. But I actually saw the show live, so to speak. Not in the pages of Wikipedia.

"The Merv Griffin Show" was a great American institution. It was on every night, like the Statue of Liberty, until it was suddenly canceled by CBS.

I still remember the flood of obits. Everything connected with Merv was big news. Even his 2,000th program was treated by local and network news shows as hard news. He was so big in the mid -1980s, why I was considering changing my name to "Merv."

For blue collar America, Griffin's was the talk show of record. Its closing was a sad day like the closing of the Jones & Laughlin Weirton steel works. It also was a great loss for all Griffin fanatics like myself.

Where else could we see Arthur Treacher, his second banana who was so much more interesting than Johnny's old Clydesdale, Ed McMahon.

Where else could we get to see the linings of Merv's sports jackets, a competitive event with his guests. He beat even Liberace.

Where else could you get to see so consistently the Gabors, Eva and Zsa, Debbie Reynolds, Monti Rock III, or Orson Welles?

Where else could you hear him sing "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" to music lovers like Charo?

Merv introduced a major change in talk shows. It used to be guests came on only to plug their new movie, LP, book, or latest gig in Las Vegas. Merv pioneered in allowing actors to talk about politics. I always wanted to know what Brenda Lee thought of the situation in Southeast Asia. Most actors didn't get out of high school, but that didn't stop Merv from plumbing their theories on the hot issues of our time.

Merv had the great ability to listen to guests. It was something called having a conversation. That was not such a difficult thing as it sounds, especially since his guests had little to say.

He had a chatty conversational style honed in his many years as a game show host ("Shopping Spree," "Play a Hunch."). His show was the place where you could eavesdrop on Merv grilling celebrities on private affairs.

"Gotta a fellow?"

"No"

"Ever have one?"

"Yes."

He also was a pioneer in being taken aback by the more substantive things guest would say sometimes. Merv's secret: if he was really interested in the revelation, he would go "ooOOOH." Fake interest would be only an, "aaahHHH." For almost 30 years, that formula worked.

Playing dumb and wide-eyed also served as a means of letting the audience know he was more like them rather than the beautiful people he was interviewing.

Another of his specialties was the unexpected question. He was the one who would ask questions about gynecology of a woman who has written books on herbs. It made for exciting unpredictable TV.

He also gave a lot of time to the unknowns and lesser known comedians, like Jay Leno. And it was a launching spot for major thinkers of the period. Merv was the first to give a forum for Jane Fonda to discover what she thought about Vietnam. Merv encouraged people to speak their mind, whether they knew anything or not

There were those who thought Merv fawned over his guests. That he also was a bootlicker, a mayonnaise personality, kissy-faced, submissive, sycophantic, among other adjectives critics used to describe his style.

There were those who said Merv was the only host who made Joey Bishop sound like Steve Allen.

But he knew what he was doing

Some of us like to remember that Merv was a continuing nominee for the Mike Douglas Award for Perpetual Blandness. The thing about him as a late night talk show host is he wasn't bitter, say, like Conan O'Brien. What did he have to be bitter about? Everything he later went into -- horse racing, gambling casinos, resort hotels, was a money tree, culminating with selling himself to Coca Cola for 250 million chips.

While Mike and Dinah, Tom and Dick, Jack and Joey disappeared into the Happy Hunting Ground in the Ozone, the amiable Merv show kept on ticking like a Timex ooohing and aaahing.

It was easy to see why Merv's following was so upset about the cancellation of his nightly talk show.

Who would inspire the SCTV parodies? Where were we ever going to hear "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" again? Or hear Merv talk about being an altar boy? The only thing worse at the time, I seem to remember, would have been the cancellation of "The Joe Franklin Show."

Nevertheless the grim reaper called on Merv on Feb.14, 1986.

"The Merv Griffin Show" was replaced by a hot new concept on my local station: old movies.

I still miss all those things that were unique about Merv on TV, even his being the only best-dressed snazzy host who wore white socks. I still find myself some nights hearing the Coconut song running through my unconscious.

The best thing about Merv was his sense of humor. He never minded that I poked a little fun at him occasionally. At least I think he didn't.

I like to think Merv is up there in the Big Talk Show in the Sky with his favorite audience member, Mrs. Miller. He is still giving away autographed photographs of Mr. Mervyn Griffin, coupons and Turtle Wax, doing his opening monologue and saying "We'll be right back after a pause for this message."