I'LL BE RIGHT BACK
Memories of TV's Greatest Talk Show
by Mike Douglas with Thomas Kelly and Michael Heaton
Simon & Schuster. 307 pp. $25
"The Mike Douglas Show" ran from 1961 to 1981, five days a week, an hour and a half a day. It was a pioneer in daytime television, precursor of all the talk shows we either enjoy or endure to this day. It wasn't unique; Douglas gracefully concedes that he was forever being mistaken for Merv Griffin, even by one of Merv's ex-wives. And his wasn't the first talk show by any means: As far back as 1951, two well-meaning jokesters named Wheeler and Rourke whiled away hours of television time talking to celebrities or semi-celebrities, listening to bad violinists saw away on their instruments, cracking lame, if amiable, jokes. Once you have something new and amazing like television, how do you fill the space it generates? With the same old tried and true things.
Douglas threads his book with a double message: The show was hard to do, harder than it looked, almost impossible to put together on a daily basis. And yet he had a dream job; he was the luckiest man in the world. His guests were professional and courteous, but he was dealing with popular entertainers in the '60s and '70s, and of course there was a fair amount of drugs, drink and temper tantrums. Douglas has a huge stake in presenting himself as a "nice" person; he's not here to do a "tell-all" memoir, he says, and that presents a narrative problem: If everyone he knew was a wonderful person, where's the conflict? Where's the interest?
He does tell us that John Lennon and Yoko Ono trashed their dressing rooms when they came on the show for a one-week run, but Douglas even has kind words for Ono: "I have to tell you that, by the end of the run, I think I came to understand something about John's affection for this woman." Douglas wasn't crazy about Margaret Trudeau, the former wife of the Canadian prime minister: "I wanted to hear what she thought about her rough treatment from the press, especially the tabloids. She wanted to talk about drugs, nights with Mick Jagger, and problems with Pierre." Douglas is irritated with Chevy Chase--who stood him up, twice--and has nothing but bad memories of John Derek, who wanted to show a hopelessly vulgar film clip from "Tarzan the Ape Man" and got huffy when Douglas refused.
And that's that for bad or troublesome memories. The rest is celebrity-filled history, iced with thick layers of sugar.
The format of "The Mike Douglas Show" went like this: A co-host (or hosts) would be chosen to appear for a week. These hosts were only paid scale, but the publicity was priceless: 450 minutes of television time before an audience of millions of people. (Almost everybody who was home in the afternoon--senior citizens, students after school, all those stay-at-home moms and flocks of the feckless unemployed--tuned in.) The co-host would be encouraged to choose his or her own celebrity friends--or perhaps even family members--to appear with, but the frenetically industrious staff would also be adding other guests to what Douglas refers to, reverentially, as "The Mix." The result: Politicians would find themselves hobnobbing with sports stars, musicians and actors, and often some animal or other--a crazed bull, a crazed chimp, a crazed bear.
The effort was to entertain and entertain only. "The Mike Douglas Show" was family oriented, and it was sweet. When, on Page 230, the bemused host recounts the tale of a blind water skier who blams into a banyan tree at 25 miles an hour on live television, it's an astringent relief. When, eight pages later, that aforementioned crazed chimp terrorizes a live audience and escapes backstage, wreaking havoc, the reader feels gratitude because the rest of these memories tend to be well-mannered platitudes.
Mike Douglas seems like such a nice man! He hates the idea of leaving anyone out, but he was on 90 minutes a day, five days a week for 20 years. This leads to sentences, and sentence fragments, like this: "The lovable Totie Fields, marvelous Moms Mabley, fabulous Phyllis Diller," or "Elke Sommer, Cybill Shepherd, Linda Evans, Lauren Hutton, the Gold Diggers, Jayne Kennedy, Miss Americas, Miss Universes, Virna Lisi, Angie Dickinson, Pam Grier, Susan Sarandon, Charlie's Angels--what am I complaining about?" Or, "Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Hedy Lamarr, Gene Tierney, Dorothy Lamour, Olivia de Havilland, Gloria Swanson, Joan Fontaine, Rhonda Fleming--the grand dames of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and they shared an abundance of something sorely lacking in postmodern show business: class."
Douglas was replaced in 1981 by poor John Davidson, who soon flopped. After two decades, forced retirement was a personal blow, but Douglas put a game face on it, maintaining that he learned to love spending time with his family and improving his golf game.
But this sweet book seems to leak sadness. Where is that talk show of yesteryear? Where are the lovable Totie Fields, or the odious John Derek, or the trashmaking John Lennon? Where are the crazed chimp, the bull, the bear? They've gone, they've left the planet. That particular set of good times is gone.
Talk shows themselves have either become far better (Oprah Winfrey may be the most angelic human being in the country) or far worse (Jerry Springer--yuck!). Entertainment for its own sake has become increasingly scarce and fleeting. Mike Douglas tries to bring those lost days back in these pages, and to a surprisingly respectable extent, he succeeds.
Upcoming in Book World
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ASSUMING THE POSITION: A Memoir of Hustling, by Rick Whitaker. Reviewed by Laurent Cartayrade.
FASTING, FEASTING, by Anita Desai. The tale of two siblings, one tied to home and family in India, one unmoored half a world away in America. Reviewed by Carolyn See.