Smarm Offensive.Posted: April 10, 2008
Was he hipper than he seemed? He’d almost have to have been.
Mike Douglas hosted a daytime TV talk show that at its peak was syndicated to 171 U.S. markets and watched by 6 million viewers a day. The show began as a local effort by station KYW in Cleveland in 1961. Westinghouse Electric, which owned the station, started airing it on its four other owned-and-operated stations in 1963. (One of these was WJZ in Baltimore, which is how I became acquainted with The Mike Douglas Show as an after-school watcher early on.) In 1965 the production of the show moved to Philadelphia, and it was seen on stations all over the country.
You never knew whom you might see on the show during its near-20-year run. From Barbra Streisand to Mother Teresa, from Mel Brooks to Martin Luther King, from The Rolling Stones to Richard Nixon, from Alfred Hitchcock to a two-year old Tiger Woods in his first television appearance, the show had them all.
Douglas had an amiable wit about him, but you always sensed him playing safe because of his keen awareness of his audience, comprised mainly of women at home in the afternoon. He’d been a singer in show business for twenty years when the show first aired. But on his show, he played the naif, easily shocked by anything outside the mainstream. Undoubtedly he was pandering to his audience, playing the surrogate (as he imagined it) for the 38-year old housewife from Council Bluffs. He had a square and smarmy hit record, improbably enough in 1966, called The Men in My Little Girl’s Life, which continued the brand. Listen if you dare.
One of show’s trademarks was to have a celebrity sit in with Mike each week as co-host for all five shows. Undoubtedly the strangest mashup occurred February 14, 1972 through February 18, when Mike was joined all week by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The whole week is available on DVD, and I thought it would be a gas to watch. I was wrong. But it is fascinating, for one thing to try to figure out just what Mike Douglas really feels about John and Yoko.
Because the mythical housewife in Council Bluffs valued politeness towards ones’s guests, Douglas seems to strain hard to adopt an air of nonjudgmentalness towards his radical cohosts—a politesse that seems to cloak a genuine disapproval.
But you can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t, because he may very much want Mrs. Council Bluffs to feel that he has contempt for these Commie hippies, and so wants that disdain to come through.
Yet it may have been a disdain he didn’t actually feel.
Does he think he’s conveying nonjudgmentalness, unaware that his underlying disapproval (if genuine) is obvious? Or does he want to convey contempt, and thinks he’s being clever to disguise it as nonjudgmental curiosity, well-aware that the disguise is transparent? When he conveys disapproval and distance, is that what he actually feels, or does he dig them and can’t show it because appearing to dig them would alienate his audience, sponsors, and corporate masters?
In this eight-layered Napoleon pastry of real and faux, how many of the layers are phony and how many are genuine, and which are which? Are layers 1, 5, 6 and 8 sincere, while layers 2, 3, 4 and 7 are not? The permutations are endless. It’s exhausting to try to figure out, and not that pleasant to watch.
And yet perversely fascinating.
What led to the bizarre booking? John and Yoko had something to gain. John, regarded as a political enemy by the Nixon White House, was fighting deportation. (A fight that’s documented in the recent film The U.S. Vs. John Lennon.) Finding some way to appeal to “middle America,” prove he wasn’t a threat to national security, and win the hearts and minds of moms everywhere, was obviously their game plan.
Nevertheless, I will probably get the new DVD, Mike Douglas: Moments & Memories, that came out a couple weeks ago. Essentially a highlights-reel from the show’s long run (plus bonus interviews), it may provide a clue to the enigma wrapped in a conundrum wrapped in a sweet flaky crust that was Mike Douglas, who died in 2006.