August 13, 2007
I was sorry to hear that Merv Griffin had died. He was on the list of people I would have invited if I could have one of those cosmic dinner parties with a guest list of people I would invite if I could. This mythical party has been in my mind for years and includes people from all walks of life, people you really want to spend more time with, people you want to have in your home for a good time.
I used to have Merv Griffin in my home every afternoon in his early talk-show days in the 1960's. He was intelligent, charming, always ready for a laugh -- and really "into" his guests. He seemed to ask the questions I wanted him to ask. And he had such a lineup of interesting people to interview, from Richard Pryor to Orson Welles. I wrote in blogposts over a year ago about his getting into the discussion of duende, Garcia Lorca's concept of the mischievous quality later to be called charisma. Who had it and who didn't became almost a parlor game after duende was introduced to the American public by Griffin's show.
He surprised Richard Pryor by inviting his drama coach from childhood, the recreation director at the community center who pulled Richard out of the ghetto by believing in him. She was smart, no-nonsense and her meeting with Pryor made for great live television. Griffin asked pointed questions of people in politics without really getting political. He had that Irish gift of being genuine and loving to laugh that made him easy to watch and sometimes amazing by what he was able to get people to reveal.
I learned from today's New York Times obit that liquor was served up in the green room of his show, loosening the lips of many a guest. They were willing to say things to this man that they might not have said without it, certainly not before an audience of thousands. They all became our friends and neighbors, over for an afternoon chat.
In those days the talk-show format was, unlike today, more talk than commercials. A segment with any one guest might go on for much longer periods of time. And without the annoying, shrieking commercials, they had a natural, easy feeling. They were like little parties.
And -- with all the other achievements of his lifetime -- Merv Griffin was one of the best at the genre; with a gift for intimacy, a personal charm (and, yes, some duende of his own), and a non-threatening intellect that seemed to really care what his guests were saying. Even though he hadn't done a talk show for decades, I always missed him. I'll miss him more now.