The Merv Griffin Show (10:00pm ET)
Date: October 3, 1967
Guests: Robert F. Kennedy, Carl Reiner, Genevieve Page and Josephine Premice
Why You Should Watch: Not to put too fine a point on it, this is an extraordinary episode, unlike anything you'd see on today's late-night chucklefests. Yes, Carl Reiner is funny, but it's because he's naturally a funny guy. He volunteers that he's wearing his toupee for the show, sparking a discussion of when one wears their rug and when they don't. And any anecdote about Reiner's buddy Mel Brooks - in this case, a story about Brooks' time as a writer for Jerry Lewis - is bound to be good for a laugh.
Merv has more in mind than setting up the next one-liner, though. He asks Reiner about writing for television, and what makes a show funny. Reiner's response: if his children can predict what happens next, he'd better do something different. His kids know television, having grown up watching so much of it with him, and if they can see the next gag coming, then it's probably become a cliche. And while you can decide to use a cliche intentionally, under no circumstances should you use it just because it's the easy way out. When asked about television's latest trends, Reiner notes adventure shows (Mission: Impossible, I Spy) and Westerns (although he didn't mention them, he was probably thinking of shows like The High Chaparral and The Guns of Will Sonnett); when Merv notes that some people have pronounced the half-hour sitcom dead, Reiner acknowledges it's lean right now, but reminds us that television is often cyclical, and that sitcoms would be back - as indeed they were.
The questions were serious, and Kennedy's answers were serious - except for when Merv broached the topic of the 1968 elections. LBJ is the presumptive Democratic nominee - Kennedy says that he is not a candidate for president and does not encourage anyone to organize on his behalf - and when asked about the Republicans, RFK says he knows who they'll nominate, but won't say for fear of encouraging him. Merv poses an interesting hypothesis, that if the GOP nominates a liberal many Democrats might vote for him, while conservative Republicans could vote for Johnson, and asks Kennedy if he can see that happening. RFK's response is a sly "yes," so reminiscent of when his brother was asked if he'd encourage young people to run for office, and JFK said no, at least not for a few years.
I know many would cite Stephen Colbert as the host bringing serious discourse back to late night, but I don't see it, at least not this way. Yes, Merv could be goofy and silly and self-centered, as all good hosts must, but he wasn't interested in how Robert Kennedy felt, or in humanizing him. He wanted to know Kennedy's plans for the nation, just as he wanted to know why Carl Reiner was successful. Throw in Genevieve, whose interview we don't see but who interacts with the other guests*, and Josephine Premice, who ends the show with a dramatic song, and you have a prime example of what I'd call television for grown-ups, when only adults stayed up late enough to watch talk shows, and were rewarded for their insomnia.
*Pointing out yet again the value of having guests stick around after their segment was done. They're called talk shows for a reason, you know.
The Judy Garland Show
Date: December 8, 1963
Guest: Mickey Rooney
Regular: Jerry Van Dyke
Why You Should Watch: If there's one episode of Judy Garland's single-season variety show that people are familiar with, it's probably the Christmas episode, which featured Jack Jones, Mel Torme, and Garland's children Liza Minnelli and Lorna and Joey Luft. Most people who see the episode probably think it was a special, but in fact it was merely a regular episode of her series, aired a mere two weeks after this particular episode.
Anyway, we're reminded why Rooney was known as one of the greatest all-around entertainers, as we see him singing, dancing, joking around, while Garland's solo efforts demonstrate why her series had been so eagerly anticipated. CBS didn't really know what to do with this show, and by the time they figured all the audience really needed was Judy singing with Mort Lindsey's* orchestra, it was too late to save the series. Less than six years she would be dead, a flame that burned far too brightly for too short a time. That's why this series, imperfect though it may be, is so important.
*Merv Griffin's orchestra leader, incidentally.
Carol Channing & Pearl Bailey on Broadway
Date: March 16, 1969
Why You Should Watch: 'Cmon, it's Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey singing showtunes! What more reason do you need?
You might not think this show will appeal to you; it was the last of the three previews I watched, and while it might lack the historical significance of Merv's show or the backstory of Judy's, it's an hour of great fun, the kind of variety show that used to be rolled out as one of a network's big guns.
There's been a boom in television nostalgia over the last few years, with networks such as MeTV, Cozi, Antenna, and Decades leading the way; and there's a tendency to wonder how long it can last, given that vintage television shows are by definition a finite number, with the same shows tending to show up over and over. Up to now getTV has concentrated on movies, but with the addition of vintage Westerns on Saturdays and this variety show lineup on Monday, the network has now joined the battle. By addressing a programming niche - the variety show - that has mostly been ignored by the other networks, they have the potential to become a serious player indeed. Let's hope they keep looking for opportunities to introduce different kinds of series to their lineup, ones that have played such a major role in the history of the medium and the hearts of its viewers.