I'll miss you, Mike
A remembrance of talk show host Mike Douglas
In January, 1973, at the tender age of 12, I moved with my family from the sheltered confines of suburban Des Moines, Iowa, to Las Vegas, Nevada, where my dad, a longtime Midwest radio and TV personality, had landed a new radio and television job. Not long after arriving in our new home, my dad got an additional gig as the new announcer on "The Mike Douglas Show," the hugely popular nationally syndicated daytime talk and music show. My dad was Mike's "Ed McMahon," if you will, when Douglas brought his show to Vegas that year. And I went to every taping.
It was nothing short of surreal for a Midwestern boy to suddenly find himself in a Las Vegas showroom surrounded by all those 1970's-era celebrities on the set of a national talk show. I got a rare behind-the-scenes look at old-school show business, and got to meet and talk to everyone from Douglas to Redd Foxx to George Carlin, who was one of my childhood heroes. I loved every minute of it. And Mike was nice enough to let me roam around the set with my brother and sister and hang out with my dad during the show.
When I heard the sad news recently that Douglas had died at age 81, the memories of those days came rushing back. After Douglas died, the magazines, newspapers and TV news shows all ran their standard garden-variety celebrity eulogies. But virtually none of them picked up on what his passing really represents. I hadn't thought about it much over the years, but I realize now that Mike Douglas really was the last of his breed.
A genial former big-band singer whose show ran from 1961 to 1982, Mike represented a bygone era on television talk shows and, really, in our society in general. To Douglas, civility still mattered. Neither a spectacular singer though he had a pleasant voice nor a particularly brilliant thinker, he was nonetheless an engaging host, and something far more rare and valuable: a kind, decent man.
As you may remember if you're anywhere near or over 40, "The Mike Douglas Show" was, aesthetically at least, a way-hip affair. The set looked like an Austin Powers acid flashback with those big, colorful flowers on the walls and those way-cool white swivel cocktail chairs. But amid all the trippy-dippy decorations, Douglas was defiantly square. He had a disarming everyman appeal that played well in Middle America. His audience was mostly housewives, and he worked hard not to offend them. "I don't smoke," Douglas once confessed. "I don't drink. I get home every night. I'm square."
It's funny: My dad thought Mike was a bit of a square, too. I remember he chuckled when he first learned he had been hired by Mike, because my dad used to gently poke fun at him for his corny singing and his cornier humor. But Douglas was very nice to my dad and to our family. And my dad had nothing but kind words for Douglas throughout the years after he did the show.
Douglas may have been considered a square, even by himself, but he was, in his quiet way, a TV revolutionary. To his credit, he introduced America's daytime audiences, which up that point were privy only to happy talk, soap operas and game shows, to many of the issues of the day and to all kinds of interesting and controversial people. "The Mike Douglas Show" didn't embrace the counter culture quite to the extent that Dick Cavett's show or some others did at the time, at least not in a partisan way. But it didn't ignore it, either.
How many "squares" would have booked rock acts like the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, Neil Young, Genesis, David Bowie, Talking Heads and KISS? How many "squares" would book such controversial guests as Gloria Steinem, Malcolm X, Ralph Nader (20 times) and Black Panther Bobby Seale? Douglas was a traditionalist, but not a closed-minded, knee-jerk partisan. Most importantly, he wasn't mean-spirited. His egalitarian spirit presided over the proceedings; everyone was welcome. That's probably why the show lasted more than 20 years.
It's ironic that Douglas's producer for a number of years was Republican media adviser and current Fox News CEO and Fox TV chairman Roger Ailes, who is one of the architects of angry, confrontational, partisan talk television. Ailes left Douglas' show in 1968 after meeting Richard Nixon on the set and deciding he wanted to join Nixon's campaign staff. Unlike most talk show hosts to whom Ailes has been linked to since, Douglas was not angry, confrontational or partisan. He had the courage to bring on, and show respect for, folks from all political stripes. He never polarized.
In early 1972, soon after the Beatles had broken up and while the bombs were still falling in Vietnam, Douglas brought on John Lennon and Yoko Ono as co-hosts for an entire week. This was at the height of John and Yoko's artsy anti-establishment weirdness, and Douglas couldn't really make head nor tails out of them or some the guests that they invited on, including the eternally angry and unpleasant anti-war anarchist Jerry Rubin. This was the one time in the history of Douglas's talk show when the host almost lost his cool.
Douglas later confided in his memoir that he was close to losing his patience with Rubin and who wouldn't? "He just got on my nerves," Douglas wrote. "It sounded like this guy hated the president, the Congress, everyone in business, the military, all police and just about everything America stands for." While Rubin and Douglas were going at it and the hostilities were clearly coming to a boil, it was Lennon, of all people, who, Douglas would later write, "picked up the mantle of Kind and Gentle Host, and he did it quite well, reinterpreting Jerry's comments to take some of the sting out and adding a little humor to keep things cool."
Can you imagine John and Yoko being interviewed by Sean Hannity? For that matter, could you imagine Richard Nixon being interviewded by Keith Olberman? Mike Douglas was keenly aware of his somewhat benign nature, and of his place in TV history. He once immodestly but truthfully said, "On a cumulative basis, we had the most controversial guest list in the history of television. It just didn't seem that way because we never tried to put anyone on the spot, never forced a confrontation, never asked for trouble. No matter who it was, what they stood for, or what they had to say, we tried to be fair, to give the same unbiased forum to everyone."
From the earliest days of the civil rights movement, Douglas featured more black leaders than any other show on national TV, from Stokely Carmichael to Malcolm X to Angela Davis to Jesse Jackson to Martin Luther King to Bobby Seale. He liked people and it showed. He was innately curious. Mike was not a true intellectual, whatever that tired word really means, but he was smart enough to know his own limitations and smart enough to carry on an interesting conversation with just about anyone.
I think my adolescent days hanging out with my dad on the set of this show had an even deeper impact on me than I may have realized at the time. First and foremost, any time spent with my father was special. But I also remember not only how cool it was to meet all these stars, but just how nice Mike was. It was his decency I will remember most. He was essentially a soft-spoken man both on and off-camera; he rarely lost his temper. And lest we forget, his show's popularity peaked during one of the most tumultuous times in our nation's history. Mike managed to stay civil when even when confronted and surrounded by vitriol.
Nowadays, television is dominated by a mean-spiritedness that was antithetical to Douglas. Talk shows don't even pretend to be civil any more. Most of them are little more than semi-choreographed shouting matches. Even the primetime entertainment shows like "American Idol" and "America's Got Talent" are fueled by a voyeuristic ugliness. Americans in the new millenium love watching people sweat and suffer. It's a kitschy, cruel, jackass culture in which we're now all living.
There's something to be said for the squares; we could use a few now.
Published August 2006