To understand who Merv Griffin was and why he was a legitimate celebrity as well as a show business entrepreneur, the place to go is last year's DVD set The Merv Griffin Show: 40 Of The Most Interesting People Of Our Time, which presents Griffin fully in his element, talking to other rich, famous people. The appeal of Griffin's chat show was the way he invited the audience into his world of pleasant cocktail party conversation in elegantly appointed homes. He was from a generation that separated the social from the personal, so that he could talk for hours–and engagingly so–about sports and movies and the issues of the day, without ever ruffling any feathers. He clearly enjoyed that social time, and any angst he had, he left at home.
When I was growing up, Griffin was one of those ubiquitous celebrities that seemed to have been imposed upon us for no discernible reason. Those of us who missed Griffin's decade-plus as a big-band vocalist in the '40s and '50s didn't really see him as an entertainer, but as somebody who came with our TV, like the inert model photos that come with a picture frame. It wasn't until I got Game Show Network and a wireless-enabled laptop that I could sit and re-watch the TV of my youth and research people like Charles Nelson Reilly and Bobby Van, and learn to respect what they achieved.
For Griffin, it helped a lot when GSN showed an old episode of Play Your Hunch during one of the much-missed "Black And White Sunday Night" blocks. Play Your Hunch was a neat game show concept, in which contestants were presented with three objects or people or situations on a stage, and then asked to guess which one fit Griffin's question. ("Which set of barbells is real?," "Which of these three musicians is only pretending to play his instrument?," and so on.) There were frequently celebrity guests and musical interludes, which allowed Griffin to show off all his talents, as a singer, an interviewer and a host.
On the particular episode I saw, Griffin and Anita Bryant–another celebrity whose reason for being eluded me when I was a kid–performed a gently mocking pop song that ripped on rock 'n' roll stars for their inability to sing without mumbling or relying on deep echo. They both seem so sure of themselves; both big TV stars secure in the knowledge that their careers would outlast this rock 'n' roll fad. And in a way, both did. Rock 'n' roll remained an anomaly on TV until well into the '70s, by which point Griffin was an avuncular talk show host and Bryant an orange juice pitchwoman and touring performer, popular among conservatives for her vocal anti-gay-rights stance.
But that moment from their shared past–unavailable on YouTube, sadly–remains simultaneously embarrassing and glorious. Embarrassing because both Bryant and Griffin seem so smugly out of touch, deserving to be steamrolled by the youth culture revolution waiting for them at the end of the decade. And glorious because, damn it all, they sing the dickens out of that song, dancing about and harmonizing like they were born with microphones in their hands. It's not a timeless performance, by any means, but that's what's great about it. It's pop as "today's headlines," freezing a point in time and the entertainers still clinging confidently to its center.