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Merv Griffin's legacy went beyond talk show

From game shows to horse racing, his pop-culture influence is undeniable. By Mary Beth Ellis
/ Source: contributor

To anyone born after the Nixon administration, Merv Griffin was the Official Greatest Generation Mourner of “Larry King Live.” Whenever anyone who was on a first-name basis with Bing Crosby died, there was Merv in a little electronic box next to Larry, pancaked up and ready to anecdote. 

When at the age of 82, the far reaches of his remarkable career were largely unknown by the people who currently enjoy aspects of the popular culture he helped to create. Yet he seemed woefully out of step within it; he recently proclaimed to King that long-retired broadcaster Walter Cronkite was “almost the father of our nation” and was heavily involved in that venerable symbol of faded American glamour, Thoroughbred racing. 

The specter of aged celebrity dimming against younger lights was never more apparent in 2003, when Griffin was named celebrity host of the Super Bowl of racing, the outrageously rich-pursed Breeders’ Cup.  The Tobey Maguire smash “Seabiscuit” had just been released in all its shiny Hollywood splendor, and beer-toting younger fans looked from the marquee posters to Merv and back again, asking one another from behind their laptops, “The… “Wheel of Fortune” guy?”

And yet, two years later, a colt owned by Griffin, Stevie Wonderboy, a gritty upstart who looked like his mane exploded, but ran like silk, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and all sorts of gleaming hardware in the year to follow.

Merv was like that, springing forth from behind a gaudy curtain just when you thought he was well offstage.  After nearly singlehandedly reviving the TV game show genre by creating and producing “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”, he moved to financially kickboxing the very modern reality TV star Donald Trump in the real estate market, and was slogging away at yet another game show, “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords,” in his final weeks of life.He was the Regis of his era, once battling Johnny Carson for the “Tonight Show” gig and emerging on the other side a daytime talk-show host with a certain predilection for word games. But to those of us who wore jelly shoes and neon earrings the first time around, Griffin seemed to embody the Beverly Hills Old White Guy lifestyle, with his decades-long friendship with Ron and Nancy Reagan and largest claim to musical fame a novelty song with a title that sounds like something lifted from a Dave Barry column: “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts.”  We knew him as the griffin logo that rolled past Pat Sajak and Vanna White waving good-bye, and we shrugged him off as some far-removed television mogul sort of person. 

Some knew him only from ‘Seinfeld’Griffin, however, has, in a refreshingly non-rehab fashion, created several pop culture waves currently washing over Gens X, Y, and Generations To Be Named By the Mass Media Later. That “Jeopardy!” Final Question theme song we sing at people while waiting for them to decide what they want at the drive-thru window?  Merv. He wrote it years and years before a Sean Connery lookalike was sneering “We meet again, Trebek!” at a weary Will Ferrell in “Celebrity Jeopardy!” skits. In the early 2000s we looked at a heavily make-up Martin Short in a fat suit and saw the blunt-edged, totally original character of Jiminy Glick in absolute transports of celebrity, but our parents smiled fondly at the shades of Merv.

Griffin as talk-show host was introduced, if not culturally enthroned, to millions for an entire episode on that driving force of 1990s break-room conversation, “Seinfeld.” When Kramer dragged the set of “The Merv Griffin Show” out of an NBC dumpster, the orange paneling and bulb-lit marquee blazed forth for twenty-two minutes of irony as Jerry’s neighbor decided to recreate his life as a talk show.

The episode’s plot served as a sharp juxtaposition to the set Griffin inhabited and the world he left behind; where the actual Griffin once exchanged genialities with Richard Harris, in the Clinton era, the Merv set was destroyed by a skirmishing hawk and squirrel after Kramer changed his show's format to the Fox-sounding "Scandals and Animals."  Jerry lost a girlfriend when Kramer urged him to admit a certain dating crime, then produced the furiously wronged lady who was “listening backstage,” Springer-style. Throw in a DNA test and a few hurled chairs, and you have the perfect modern daytime syndication.

The clean-scrubbed Merv likely did not approve of his cultural heirs, but spangled backdrops, big money prizes, “We’ll be right back” nods to big sponsors — these stem from his energies. They dazzle the senses, play to the audience, shine the world of celebrity and glitz as a beacon of social acceptance.  They are, simply, American.

Freelance writer Mary Beth Ellis runs from the Washington D.C. area.  Her first book is “Drink to the Lasses.”