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Paula Poundstone talks Dick Cavett, Donald Trump and getting comfortable in her own skin

August 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Paula Poundstone talks Dick Cavett, Donald Trump and getting comfortable in her own skin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Standup comedian, panelist, commentator and author Paula Poundstone brings her wry humor to the Holland Performing Arts Center on Friday, August 24.

She owns history with two native Nebraska television comedy icons. She guested on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. At the 2012 Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk honoring his legacy, she was joined by fellow satirist Dick Cavett, whose own talk show she’d done. Last fall she did a Lincoln gig with the venerable host, author and New York Times columnist.

“I love Dick Cavett,” she said\ “In 2014 we did this series in Los Angeles where writers interview writers in front of an audience, and I interviewed Dick for that. Somehow from that came this thing of he and I working together in Nebraska. It was so much fun.”

“Oh my God, that was a dream night,” Cavett said of their latest collaboration. “We have a rapport somehow on stage together. We just like each other. We don’t interrupt. There’s no trace of competition. That’s rare with two performers both out there pulling for laughs. It’s a little theatrical miracle. We both get each other’s rhythm and it starts climbing and it just gets into a freewheeling situation you don’t want to end. It plays so well you’d almost think it’s a well-directed play.”

“He’s a wordsmith,” Poundstone said of Cavett, “so mostly I try to make sure he has some space to do his thing. You know he’s got so many great stories. I don’t know if he did this by design or if it’s just the way life worked out, but he became friends with legends – Stan Laurel, Groucho Marx …”

Cavett confirmed it was by design he befriended these towering comic figures, but he added he counts himself fortunate to know Poundstone, too.

“Paula is a genuine wit. So smart and so funny. Seeing Paula work an audience is one of the great experiences in performing arts. She’s an acknowledged genius at it.”

He recalls she was one of his few guests who ever hand-wrote him a thank-you note. Chalk it up to her New Englander-by-way-of-Southern-good-mannered-parents-bringing-up. Meanwhile, she defers any IQ edge to her erudite colleague.

“Dick has me there. He’s corrected my grammar before in emails. So he wins.”

It still blows her mind he was targeted by President Richard Nixon. As a pundit, Cavett criticized Nixon and tackled the still unfolding Watergate scandal on national TV when no one else in mainstream media would touch it (see Dick Cavett’s Watergate on YouTube).

“I’ll tell you what Dick has that I’m so jealous of, which is audio tape of Nixon saying, ‘Is there any way we can screw him?” What I wouldn’t give for (Donald) Trump to go down and for them to later find him cursing me along the way that he will somehow get me.”

A Trump-aimed barb she tweeted in the 2016 campaign did trigger a response, only not from the man Cavett’s called “the missing Fifth Marx Brother – Trumpo,” but from what she suspects were his minions.

“For the next maybe 48 hours my Tweeter feed was busting with vicious, cruel, horrible comments about me,” she said, “and then it went away. I’m fairly certain it was, A, Putin, B, bots, and, C, an army of people Trump has ready to do that. But why me, I don’t know, because I’ve tweeted many things since then not flattering to him and it never happened again.

“But an automated tweet is not nearly as good as Nixon saying how can we screw him.”

Even though Trump provides steady fodder, she said, “I would be happy to never come up with another joke again in exchange for justice being served in terms of Donald Trump. I’ll gladly make stuff up. I don’t need our lives to suck in order to think of jokes.”

She’s never thought her work as frivolous but “as the years go by,” she said, “I personally value my job more and more and more.”

“I consider myself a proud member of the endorphin production industry given the evidence of how important it is not just laughing but laughing with other people.”

“When people type LOL, generally speaking, it’s a lie. Looking at something on a screen when you’re by yourself you don’t laugh. You might acknowledge you think it’s funny, but you don’t laugh. The experience of laughing, even if you go by yourself to a theater or a movie or whatever, you have some connection to the rest of the audience. It’s important being in the room with other people.

“I don’t suggest people have to come see me, although wouldn’t that be nice, but it’s really important to go out and be with other people for a night of laughter. To me, the fact I get to do that and I get paid for it feels better and better every day that I live.”

Decades into her career, she feels freer being herself than ever before.

“There is something to be said for experience. The other thing is and I think this goes along with just life in general, I’m becoming more comfortable with who I am. What I endeavor to do on stage is actually to be the most me I can be, whereas when I was younger I don’t know if I was entirely comfortable with who I was in the way one becomes as time goes by.

“I went to my 40th high school reunion last fall and it was so damn much fun. I went to a couple of them before but none were as good as the 40th because you’re just old enough you don’t really feel the need to impress people, nor are you impressed by others who do feel that need. It just felt like everyone had taken a deep breath and exhaled.”

Her new book The Totally Unscientific Study Of The Search For Human Happiness(Algonquin Books) “is a series of experiments doing things that either I or other people thought would make me happy,” she said.

“Every chapter is written as an experiment with the conditions, the hypothesis, the qualitative and quantitative observations, the variable, et cetera. The real question for me wasn’t what I would enjoy because I know what I enjoy, but what can I do that will leave me with a bounce so that when I return to my regular life I have some reserve. My regular life being raising a handful of kids and animals and being a standup comic and being stuck being me 24 hours a day.

“In the analysis part of each chapter I check in with my regular life to see how things are going. it’s the story of raising my kids and by the end of the book they’re all out of the house.”

It took her seven years to write.

“It’s number one job is to be funny and I think it achieves that, But mercifully any number of reviewers noted it was more than that and that’s certainly satisfying..The audio version was one of five nominees for audio book of the year at the Audis last year, although it didn’t win. But it was up against A Hand Maid’s Tale, so I didn’t feel that bad about not winning. It’s pretty good company. You could do a lot worse.

“Now it’s a semifinalist in the James Thurber Prize for American Humor (competition).”

Fame is a relative thing and Poundstone’s content where she falls on the spectrum.

“I’m not a household name except in my house – where I insist on it. Nobody has to close a store for me to go shopping.”

“Crazy-making” is what she calls the social media expectations placed on creatives these days. “Now when your agent sells you to a promoter or a theater they want to know how many followers you have and what social media you do. All of that’s considered part of the package, which is too bad.”

She’s recently discovered the bliss of going unplugged.

“I’ve started doing this thing where I sometimes don’t have any devices on so I can just think. It’s a scary leap.

I can’t say I always like it. But I do find myself being a little bit more productive.”

She prefers authentic human connections. As Dick Cavett notes, she’s adept at improvising with audiences.

“In the beginning I thought I shouldn’t be doing that. But fairly early on I realized the heart of the show was in these unique things that weren’t going to happen in the other show – it’s just unique to that night and to that audience. Sometimes I kind of put my line out there. I’ll start talking to somebody and then I leave it and come back to it later. You just sort of weigh in little pieces of information that eventually connect and fill the show.

“It took awhile to recognize it is a very valuable thing to be doing and to get pretty good at.”

Her Omaha show starts at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit, ticketomaha.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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FROM 2012

In 2012, I also interviewed Paula Poundstone and Dick Cavett – that time on the everof their appearing at the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Nebraska. I refer to that event, which honors Johnny Carson, in the 2018 story featured above. Poundstone and Cavett both had Carson in common: she was a guest on the Tonight Show with the King of Late Night present and Cavett first wrote for Carson (before that, for Jack Paar) and then competed against him with his own talk-show, though they were always the friendliest of rivals.

 

One-liners and nonsequiturs will fly at the June 13-17 Viareo Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., where the late comic great Johnny Carson grew up.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in a 2012 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

This annual celebration of the funny side is equal parts competition, workshop and roast.

Its home base is the Johnny Carson Theatre at Norfolk Senior High, where the legendary Tonight Show host graduated. The event welcomes professional stand-ups from around the nation vying for cash prizes. Paula Poundstone is the headliner. Jimmie “JJ” Walker is the “legend” recipient. Past Legend honoree Dick Cavett hosts a comedy magic show.

New this year is a June 14-15 Omaha showcase at the Holland Performing Arts Center featuring the fest’s standup contestants in 7:30 p.m. shows.

Poundstone and Cavett, long ago paid their comedy dues. They represent different generations in the craft but well identify with the vagaries of starting out.

She broke in during “the comedy renaissance” that saw clubs sprout in her native Boston and everywhere in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Open mic nights became her proving ground.

“They were just coming into being. I just lucked out in terms of time and place,” she says. “They had shows with guys who had no experience and they were awful but because there was no one else around nobody knew they were awful, and I got in on the awful train – when you could suck and it didn’t really matter. Now I think it’s a lot harder to get stage time.”

She was only 19 when she took the first of two cross-country Greyhound bus trips  on an Ameripass, stopping to perform at open mics in places like Denver, living out of a backpack and catching zs on the road between gigs.

“Odd but genius. It was pretty bold. I mean, I look back on it now and think, Whoa, boy, that could have gone bad. It was my nineteeness that saved me. You think you’re invincible…That helped a lot.”

She knew she belonged as a stand-up when she got to the west coast.

“I kept getting day jobs of necessity for a while. At one point on my second Greyhound bus trip I ended up in San Francisco. It was such a great place to be. It was perfect for my age and my personality and for the type of stand-up comic I am.

The audiences were willing to allow the comic to experiment in a way I found nowhere else in the country.

“It was there I gave up my day job.”

The Other Comedy Club near the Haight Ashbury District became her favorite venue.

“A bizarrely unassuming place. I found the best audiences there. Also, the people that ran the place liked me and gave me opportunities. One of the best things I ever did was host the weekly open mic night. Your job is to introduce people but also to kind of keep the crowd, so you’ve got to do a little bit in between. I would run out of material and I got to think on my feet and interact with the crowd and do all the stuff that’s really the good stuff.

“I had some raggedy nights where it just didn’t work or the crowd was horrible. I have better odds now.”

She describes the high that is stand-up as “addictive,” adding, “otherwise why would you?” (subject yourself to it).

Meeting fans after shows holds its own high, especially when this adoptive mother of three finds she’s struck a chord with parents over one of her favorite topics – the impossibility of child-rearing. “When those moments occur it really makes me feel worthwhile,” says Poundstone, whose concerts, HBO specials, books and recurring panelist role on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me keep her busy.

Not surprisingly, Cavett admires Poundstone, who guested on one of his shows. “She may be one of four-five guests in all the years I did those shows who sent a thank-you note. It was a lovely, nice, handwritten note and it gave me a softer spot for her even than I already had. I was on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me a couple weeks ago but I was sorry she wasn’t there that day so I could thank her again.”

Now he gets the chance to tell her in person. She may share her admiration for an impromptu bit he once did with Benny Goodman. Noticing the jazz great’s fly was down and sensing a rare chance to both prevent embarrassment and score laughs, Cavett instructed Goodman “to do exactly as I do.” As Cavett stood up with his back to the audience, Goodman did the same. The gestures that followed were unmistakable and funny, yet gracefully didn’t reveal whose fly was undone.

“I can’t imagine thinking of that,” says Poundstone. “It’s brilliant, just brilliant.”

Unlike Poundstone, Cavett made his bones in the business writing for others. After graduating Yale he worked as a New York Times copy boy when he audaciously wrote a monologue on spec for Jack Paar and personally delivered it to the Tonight Show host at the RCA building. He lived the dream of seeing some of his jokes used that very night on air. He soon became a staff writer for Jack, then Johnny. On the side he did stand-up in clubs. He doesn’t exactly miss it.

“Thank God I’m not doing that anymore. Some nights were awful, some were exhilarating and made you think this is what I’ve always wanted. When you would top a heckler you’d get a big thrill out of that.”

Once he got his own ABC talk show he delivered a monologue every night.

“It’s a horrible burden for anybody doing a talk show.”

The closest he’s come to stand-up in recent years is narrating the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“I treated it as a stand-up appearance, so I did stuff I had thought up that day or had worked the night before. I ad-libbed with the audience. I had a great time doing it. But those years at the Bitter End and the Village Gate and The Gaslight and Mr Kelly’s and The Hungry Eye all helped bring that about.”

His advice to aspiring comics is “get the best material you can, work as often as you can.”

Having Carson in his corner helped him survive the stand-up gauntlet.

“I would go back to work the next day for Johnny and he would ask me how it went the night before and we would laugh particularly hard when it went badly. He would be very helpful with joke wording. He’d say, ‘You’ve got a good premise there but you don’t go far enough with it.’ A lot of good advice.”

Cavett’s still touched by the affection Carson showed him and that he reciprocated.

They’re forever linked by their small town Nebraska roots (Cavett was born in Gibbon and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln) and similar career trajectories. They both performed magic as youths.

“We met over magic in the Westminster Church in Lincoln. As kids in junior high three of us went to see the magician and radio personality Johnny Carson from Omaha.”

That each went on to host his own network talk show still amazes Cavett. “Isn’t that funny – two magicians from Nebraska?” He promises to perform “my genius” rope trick at the comedy fest. Cavett, who pens a Times column and occasional books, regularly gets back here, He hopes to get in some time in his beloved Sand Hills.

Keenly aware he’ll be on Carson’s home turf, at an event paying homage to its most famous native son, his rope trick will be one more link in their shared legacy.

For schedule and ticket info, call 402-370-8004 or visit www2.greatamericancomedyfestival.com. Omaha Showcase details are at http://www.omahaperformingarts.org.

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Ron Hull reviews his remarkable life in public television in new memoir

October 6, 2012 2 comments

Everyone has a story.  Ron Hull’s is a doozy.  In the following story you’ll only learn a few things from the jam-packed adventure his life;s been but those tidbits alone should be enough to engage you.  Because this piece is angled on his new memoir, Backstage: Stories from My Life in Public Television, you’ll learn a fair amount about the very eventful and accomplished professional side of his life.  As you’ll read, it’s fair to call him a television pioneer  because his career in public television goes back so far.  You’ll discover some of the famous figures he’s befriended.  You’ll also be introduced to the colorful way he came into the world.  And you’ll get a select sampling of his world travels.  None of these aspects are explored in much detail owing to the limited space the assignment dictated.  For a fuller account of his life and some of these features of his life you can search or select on this blog the profile I did of Hull a few years ago.  Or you can get to it via-

https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=ron+hull

That earlier story will put in perspective the remarkable journey he’s been on and continues making today.

 

 

 

 

 

Ron Hull reviews his remarkable life in public yelevision in new memoir

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Public television was a dream when Ron Hull joined what became the Nebraska Educational Television network in Lincoln. It was 1955 and the broadcast school graduate arrived inflamed with the possibilities of the fledgling medium.

Fifty-seven years later he’s still enthralled even though he misses live television and finds himself at 84 having outlived his contemporaries from those pioneering days. It’s been quite a ride for Hull as a NET host, producer, director and executive.

He personally brought major arts figures to the network, including authors Mari Sandoz (Old Jules, Crazy Horse, Cheyenne Autumn) and John Neihardt (Black Elk Speaks, A Cycle of the West) and comedian-talk-show host Dick Cavett. Sandoz and Neihardt became friends. Cavett remains a close confidante. He’s enlisted Cavett’s interviewing-vocal talents for many NET and University of Nebraska-Lincoln projects. Hull’s a UNL emeritus broadcasting professor and Nebraska Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee.

History exerts a strong pull on Hull. He maintains ties to the Sandoz and Neihardt legacies through his work with the Sandoz Society and the Neihardt Center. He emcees the annual Neihardt Days. He’s served on the board of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial in Red Cloud and headed the state’s  Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commemoration committee.

His own background reads like a dime novel. At 15 in Rapid City, S.D. he discovered he was adopted and that his birth mother had been a prostitute in a brothel run by one of the West’s legendary madams, Dora DuFran, who’d befriended Calamity Jane in infamous Deadwood. Among her other talents, DuFran was a midwife. When one of the girls in her Rapid City house got pregnant DuFran delivered Hull into the world. Soon after his birth she put him up for adoption. A respectable family raised him.

Buoyed by his search for identity and belief in a shared yearning to find meaning in our lives he’s made history a priority at NET, particularly Nebraska stories. He nurtured the film production unit, whose Oregon Trail, Willa Cather, Standing Bearand Monkey Trial documentaries have aired nationally.

Hull also founded the Nebraska Video Heritage Library that’s preserved NETs archives. He loves that programs are accessible to anybody online. “Young people need to know who they are and why they have this rich culture to enjoy,” he says.

As one of the network’s leading ambassadors, he co-chaired the NET Foundation’s Inspire Nebraska endowment campaign that raised $25 million. A special fund for telling Nebraska stories is endowed in his name.

Today he’s a special advisor to NET.

Hull also served stints with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington D.C. and the U.S. Foreigh Service in Vietnam. At CPB he held large pursestrings and expedited memorable programs,. As a Foreign Service officer he shepherded a project that set-up public TV stations in Vietnam in our government’s attempt to win the people’s hearts and minds.

Stories from this singularly rich career comprise his new book, Backstage (University of Nebraska Press). The long-in-making memoir is his gift to the field he loves, to the network he helped build and to the people he’s met along the way.

“So many interesting people I’ve worked with are no longer here and I wanted to extend their lives by giving other people an appreciation for what they did for us. Teachers. Performers. Poets. Writers like Sandoz and Neihardt – people I was fortunate enough to know over a long period of time. They all contributed so much to our cultural heritage by telling us who we are.”

He writes that working in public TV is “the best way to get a liberal arts education every day.” In an interview he elaborated, “You’re constantly sitting at the feet of scholars. It’s a great pleasure and one of the best parts of the job. I’ve been really fortunate to connect with a whole lot of fascinating people.”

A measure of Hull’s enthusiasm and vision is that he persuaded two brilliant writers of the Great Plains, Sandoz and Neihardt, to do TV at all. He actually produced-directed a seven-hour series with Sandoz talking creative writing.

“I think my (main) contribution was getting her to illustrate her philosophy about writing with anecdotes, with personal things in her life. which to me tells a story and brings it authentically to life.”

He recalls. “She would look you or the camera straight-on and say, ‘You have a great story to tell and I’m going to tell you what it really takes to tell it.'” In the course of shaping his memoir Hull says he came to appreciate what she preached. “She used to say writing isn’t writing so much as rewriting, refining, polishing, reading it, throwing it away, starting over and writing it again. If you’re going to write anything worth other people’s time, you’ve got to be totally honest, you cant soften it, you owe that to yourself and to good writing. You must tell the truth.” He tried to follow that advice in his own book.

He says while “she was absolutely driven she had this wonderful interest in other people. I always loved that about her. When she was in the studio and students came she always had time for those students. Or anyone. And she always listened to people because she learned so much from them.” He recalls she compulsively made notes of her observations about people and places, storing the scraps in shopping bags inside her apartment, and drawing on them when she needed real life details for her writing.

Hull developed a strong rapport with Neihardt as well.

“We connected instantly,” says Hull, who produced three half-hour programs with him in 1962. “It truly was a new beginning for him and his books.”

A particularly memorable program saw Neihardt read from his account of the death of Crazy Horse in Black Elk Speaks.

“He recited that section of the book for 24 minutes from memory in one take. There were no mistakes. He was 80 years old when he did that. His memory was just phenomenal. He was a mystic and I know part of his appeal for me was he was always looking for the allegorical. He believed in the spirit world and that fascinated me. And he was just so accessible. Everybody loved him. Every time he opened his mouth he said something that we all wrote down. He was just one of those people.”

Another mystic became a household name indirectly due to Hull, who was with CPB in the mid-1980s when he and then-director of programming, Suzanne Weil, brought PBS icon Bill Moyers back into the fold. Moyers had left for CBS and Hull says the journalist “was dying to get back to public television.” Hull and Weil jointly controlled a Challenge Fund that helped finance Moyers’ new production company. It wasn’t long before Moyers produced his landmark PBS series with mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Hull hasn’t lost his belief in the medium he’s given his life to.

“I personally believe public broadcasting is more important to America today that it has ever been. We have the only channel that in my view consistently brings top of the line cultural programs, unbiased news programs, documentaries, the best that our culture or world culture has to offer. We are presenting the best media there is.

“That isn’t to say commercial broadcasting doesn’t do wonderful things, they do, but we do it without the tyranny of ratings and profits. We want to edify and inspire.”

He marvels at TV’s technical advances but he says it’s still all about telling stories.

Hull will discuss highlights from the NET archives on Sunday, October 14, from 2 to 4 p.m., at the Joslyn Castle. The event is free.

Dick Cavett’s desk jockey déjà vu


Dick Cavett hasn’t hosted an actual talk show in a long time but occasionally he still settles behind a desk or a table to do a faux version for charity. A few years ago Turner Classic Movies featured him in a special tete-a-tete he did with Mel Brooks.  TCM’s also showed some of his classic interviews with Hollywood legends.  He also has DVDs out of his best programs with film and rock icons.  The following piece appeared before the TCM specials.  You’ll find several more stories by me about Cavett, whom I’ve had the chance to interview multiple times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dick Cavett’s desk jockey déjà vu 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The Dick Cavett Show. Ladies and gentlemen, Dick Cavett …… ”

That intro, silent for a generation, is back, thanks to Turner Classic Movies. The cable channel (Cox 55) is presenting interviews the Nebraska native comic, author, actor and talk-show host did with screen giants on his ABC late-night  The Dick Cavett Show of the late 1960s, early 1970s. On Thursday nights this month and next, TCM resurrects these originals just as a new DVD is out with him and Hollywood legends.

In this spirit of revival, TCM’s produced an hour special, recreating Cavett’s old show. In it, he goes one-on-one with comic dynamo Mel Brooks before a live studio audience. The TCM special marks his desk jockey return of sorts. The Dick Cavett Show’s many incarnations over 30 years ranged from daytime and late-night runs on ABC to versions on CBS, PBS, USA and CNBC. A radio gig in 1998 was his last.

Cavett, born in Gibbon, raised in Lincoln, educated at Yale and schooled in comedy by some of the greats, displays the same ease and wit with Brooks as he did in his exchanges with Golden Age legends. Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Robert Mitchum and Alfred Hitchcock headline the guests he adroitly draws out and trades barbs with in the TCM re-airs.

It must be surreal for the 69-year-old to relive his talk show past. Indeed, as he glides on stage for the special, wearing a perplexed face, the first thing he utters, with senatorial incredulity, is, “That was dééjàà …… something, all over again.” The timing’s just right. “It puts me right back stage at our studio on 58th in New York, right next to the Zip Your Fly sign,” he says, switching from highbrow to low.

A call to his place in Manhattan finds him begging off an interview for another hour. He explains it’s so he has time to finish a letter to the New York Times in which he chides a staffer for her “absolutely, unforgivably erroneous, mean-spirited crappy review” of the special. It’s not the first time he’s taken on a Times’ scribe. His last diatribe, he says, was “to my amazement, spread …… all over the front page of the Sunday entertainment section.”

On the call back, he’s ready to get nostalgic about Hollywood royalty. The thought of those full-blooded figures reminds him today’s stars are, by comparison, “almost entirely” devoid of gravity or grandiosity. “Who would be Tracy or Fonda or Mitchum today? Who do we have? They just aren’t there,” he says. “Cagney (James), there’s nothing like him around. De Niro is about it.” He can’t put his finger on what this means, except, “ …… that’s something gone wrong in the gene pool or something.”

The mention of his odd 1973 show with Marlon Brando, then fronting the American Indian Movement, reminds Cavett how dismissive the actor was of his own craft. “Yes, because of his silly notion he kept peddling all his life that acting was a kind of offhand profession that anybody could do,” he says. “I don’t know if it was on the show or off, but he said, ‘You know, when they ask — Did you pee on the toilet seat? You lie and say no, and that’s acting and that’s all acting is.’ I know I did say to him, ‘In other words, I could have been as good a Stanley Kowalski as you?’ That kind of stopped him for a moment.”

Mitchum, “his eyelids at half-mast,” affected similar disdain for acting, despite all evidence to the contrary. “Yeah, he talked about walking through parts. That it was not really a manly profession,” Cavett says, “but Mitchum was a superb actor and anybody who thinks he wasn’t let’s see them get up and do what he did. He could have done Macbeth. I had to use pliers virtually to get him to admit he wrote poetry. I saw some of it and it was wonderful. He wrote music for some other things as well …… the score to the first movie he produced himself, Thunder Road.”

Of his hero Groucho, whom he did several shows with, Cavett says, “I knew a lot about him going in, so I wasn’t surprised by much, except by how much he liked to read and he was virtually always funny.” Groucho’s perfect one-liners came so fast and often, he says, “somebody should have been around” to record them.

A highlight for Cavett was writing for Groucho, among many temp hosts of The Tonight Show after Paar quit and before Johnny took over. “Groucho was the thrill, of course, for us writers or ‘the Shakespeares’ as he called us.”

Cavett first met Groucho and Woody Allen only a day apart. At the time Cavett wrote and coordinated on-air talent for Paar. Woody was a standup in New York clubs. “I was sent by the Paar show to scout this young man who they said had written for Sid Caesar when he was 17. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to know this guy.’ We met at the Blue Angel where he was appearing and vomiting back stage from stage fright, the master [emcee] making him go on and the audience sitting there talking during his fledgling act. He was a dud. His material was the greatest I’d ever heard. Genius.”

 

 

 

For those who only know the guarded sophisticate filmmaker Allen is today, Cavett says they “will be amazed he was ever a standup comic, in a period of his life he hated, and went on talk shows. Pure gold.”

Cavett, whose sardonic tone and neurotic persona make him a kind of WASPish Woody, would have killed to have been a staff writer, as Allen and Brooks were, for Caesar, whose stable included Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. “By the time I got to New York, damnit, Show of Shows was no longer,” Cavett says. He expresses similar regret to Brooks on the special: “God, I wish I’d been in the room with those guys.” When Cavett tells Mel he imagines those writing sessions as times when “countless gems were flying around the room,” Brooks deflates him with, “They could be counted. A lot of bulls*** flew across the room.”

Brooks played a wild, 2,500-year-old brewmeister to Cavett’s deadpan reporter in Ballantine Beer radio spots that Cavett says showcased Brooks’ “God-given, outrageous, eccentric comic talent.” The crazy Jew and placid Gentile played off each other well. During the special, Brooks ribs the host for being “spectacularly Gentile. You should be in a wax museum as THE Gentile.”

Cavett says there are enough star segments from his old show for more DVD-TCM revivals. His interviews with jazz greats will be on a forthcoming DVD. Still mourning the July death of his wife of 40 years, actress Carrie Nye, Cavett busies himself as much as he can. There’s still that letter to get out and so he excuses himself with his trademark, “I’ll be seeing ya.” We’ll be seeing you, too, Dick.

Check tunerclassicmovies.com for Cavett on TCM.

Dick Cavett gets personal, still gets laughs


 

A celebrity I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a half-dozen times or so in the last decade, Dick Cavett, breezed through Omaha in June and I didn’t even know it or else I would have tried to arrange interviewing him again.  It never gets old.  Neither seemingly does he.  But I can solace in the fact that I did just happen to interview him by phone shortly before that in advance of his appearance at the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., the hometown of his late friend and fellow talk show host, Johnny Carson.  You can find my story on the festival, including some Cavett snippets, on this blog.  The story I’m posting here I wrote based on a public speaking appearance he gave here a half-dozen years ago or.  He addressed his battle with depression at a fund raiser for Community Alliance, a local mental health recovery organization.  He managed to tell his story and to be funny at the same time.  The blog also features the other Cavett stories I’ve completed over the years, including two major feature profiles.  I look forward to whenever our paths cross again.

 

 

 

 

Dick Cavett gets personal, still gets laughs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

On his recent Omaha visit, Dick Cavett revealed glimpses of himself as entertainer, raconteur, pundit and recovering clinical depression patient.

At the October 19 Omaha Press Club “Face on the Bar Room Floor” event, Cavett adroitly made with the quips and rejoinders that made him a talk show-meister from the late 1960s into the ‘90s. He only alluded to his depression. However, in a talk for the Community Alliance’s “Breaking the Silence” dinner the next night at the Holiday Inn Central, he described his odyssey with mental illness as “lots of pills” and “years on the couch.”

Amid the gloom, he said, “it’s so awful and so inexplicable and whatever you do to try and imagine it, you can’t. If there were a magic wand across the room on the table that would make you happy and give you everything you want, it would be too much trouble…to pick it up.”

His career as a host stalled after a manic-depressive episode prevented him from fulfilling a contract to front a radio program. He felt so low, he said, “that it became just too awful to get out of bed in that familiar way.”

His wife, actress Carrie Nye, has been a major support in his treatment and recovery. “She’s been very intuitive and very good about it. She’s the one who said, ‘You’ve got to turn yourself in,’ and because of that I did. It’s good to have somebody there.” Married since 1964, the couple has overseen the restoration of Tick Hall, their historic Montauk, Long Island home ravaged by fire in 1997.

In interviews, Cavett segues from anecdotes about his career to observations about his illness. He said depression poses many questions, is easily misunderstood, inflicts pain on others and takes a toll on the libido. Quoting Mort Sahl, he said, “Sex is great, if memory serves.”

It’s much how he was on his ABC show and later public-cable TV variations of it. He was the hip alternative to Johnny and Merv. While steeped in show biz history, the politically aware Cavett was more plugged into current events than his older counterparts. They favored small talk and shop talk to his substance and represented more middle-of-the-road mainstream views than his counterculture leanings.

Not that the former standup doesn’t cut up. His eloquent banter, filled with asides and non sequitirs, is not above the ribald. In what may be a first for an Omaha society speaking engagement, he ended his remarks, albeit as the punchline to a Groucho Marx joke, with, “f_ _ _ you.”

His ABC show was an eclectic melange of Vegas variety acts, extended interviews with serious artists and self-promoters hawking everything from faith to politics to pet projects. The sardonic Cavett wasn’t above name-dropping or gossip. Indeed, he still sprinkles his comments with juicy tidbits. Rare among TV personalities, he’s been willing to be himself or as close as TV allows. As he’s said, “It’s not you that does the show, it’s the show you that does it. When you go on, you take the show you with you, and when you go off, it’s the you-you, you take home.”

Wry, reflective and smart as hell, the ad-libber loves going off script, whether ruminating on “the anatomical roots” of Truman Capote’s “ridiculous voice” or the correct usages of forte or the unusual way Jack Benny stood while peeing. He’s also self-deprecating enough to acede a compulsion for trivia and minutae. “Annoying little things like that have me very unpopular in conversation,” he said.

 

By Jim Horan, ©Omaha Press Club

 

 

Then there’s his mellifluous bass voice. He uses it to underline the ironic musings and quips he delivers as the studied sophisticate and the mischevious brat that are equal parts of him. His dulcet tones can also resound with warm regard and sage insight, as in the University of Nebraska TV/radio spots he’s lent his voice to for years.

Vulnerable, if not as confessional as Jack Paar, who gave him his big TV break, Cavett’s unafraid to expose his serious and silly sides, often in the same monologue or interview. He doesn’t treat interviews as bits to hurry through, funny-up or dumb-down. As an emcee, he had conversations with guests, engaging them and, by extension, audiences, with exchanges that probed, grated, charmed and cajoled.

He negotiated answers with squirrely Marlon Brando. He told LSD prophet Timothy Leary “You’re full of crap.” He put Norman Mailer’s ego in its place with “Would you like another chair to contain your giant intellect?”He waxed poetic with John Neihardt. He never could draw out Spiro Agnew.

When not challenging taking public figures, the forever star struck Cavett bowed in the presence of their brilliance. One of his many booking coups was getting a reluctant Kate Hepburn for a studio interview, minus an audience. His nerves calmed when he noted “a slight tremor in her down stage cheek.” To his relief, “she was nervous as hell,” too.

A childhood molestation may have “chased” him into emotional distress. His depression first manifested itself at Yale. As a pro, he recalled the inexplicable apathy he felt on the eve of a Laurence Olivier interview, which he struggled through. “I just wanted to go home and get under my bed.” A curious thing about depression, he said, is its affective symptoms overwhelm the victim, but largely remain unseen. “It doesn’t look nearly as bad as you think it does.” That masking can obscure detection.

The gravity that earned Cavett an egg-head label explains why he never resonated with the masses the way fellow Nebraskan Johnny Carson did.

“I hated it whenever it came up and I wanted to say, If anyone thinks I’m an intellectual than the country’s in a very sad state. When people would say, ‘You’re trying to do a more literary show, aren’t you?’ — I’d say, ‘Oh, Jesus, no — I’m trying to do an entertainment show.’”

His comic persona is a complex of Bob Hope’s topical wisecracks, Jack Benny’s relaxed delivery, Paar’s anxious energy, Woody Allen’s neurotic analysis and Groucho’s irreverent bombast. There’s also a lot of Carson in him. Cavett was inspired by Carson, 10 years his senior, from the time he saw the Great Carsoni’s magic act. He followed a similar path as Carson, for whom he became a joke writer.

Their careers paralleled each other’s. He recalled a venerable on-air radio talent at Lincoln’s KFOR saying, ‘You know, Dick, you’re going to get up and out of here the way Johnny did.’ It was a poignant moment because it was a man in his middle-age saying, ‘I’m as far as I’m going to get and I have faced up to that, but you and Johnny…’ I didn’t know what to say.”

 

 

 

Cavett, who as a boy saw Hope perform at the Lincoln Colisieum, couldn’t imagine one day having the icon on his own show. Or being an intimate of Groucho’s. Or joining Carson as a TV desk jockey. Perhaps it was their shared background, but Carson had “a tremendous affection for me,” he said, “and it took someone else to point it out to me. It embarrased me.” Two Nebraskans hosting competing network talk shows, yet Cavett said, “I don’t think we ever did discuss how curious it was. I wish we had.”

Well aware they head “The List” of Nebraskans to find fame as TV performers, he speculates there’s “something about the place” to account for so many legends, but can’t pin it down.

Sharing Carson’s fondness for Nebraska, Cavett often returns. He re-enacted his talk show on stage one night last April for a Lincoln Public Library fundraiser. He’s long made driveabouts through the Sand Hills as a kind of pilgrimmage. “It’s one of the most gorgeous places in the world and it’s a blessing tourists don’t know about it or just don’t get it.”

As folklorist Roger Welsch roasted his old friend and classmate at the Press Club, Cavett interjected, in his best Jack Benny, “Now cut that out” and “Please tell at least one true story.“When Welsch ended with, “He left Nebraska, but he’s never gotten over it and Nebraska’s never gotten over you,” Cavett replied, “Now that’s more like it.”

Great American Comedy Festival Presents Lineup of Up-and-Comers with Legends Paula Poundstone, Dick Cavett, Jimmie “JJ” Walker

May 23, 2012 5 comments

 

 

 

 

Nebraska and hilarity are not exactly synonomous but this nondescript fly-over state best known for its wide open horizons, abundant corn crops, tasty beef, and winning football has given the world more than its share of funny men and women.  Start with silent comedian Harold Lloyd.  Two of television’s best comic minds and most iconic talk show hosts, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, came from Nebraska.  Comedic actresses Sandy Dennis and Swoosie Kurtz called Nebraska home.  Cinema satirists par excellance Alexander Payne and Joan Micklin Silver are natives.  Stand-up Skip Stephenson came from here.  Comedy performer and writer Pat Hazell, too.  Humorist and author Roger Welsch is a Nebraskan through and through.  Author Richard Dooling and political cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba are Omaha natives known for their sharp wit.  Once you know this comic progeny then the idea of a Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb. of all places no longer seems so strange, expecially when you consider it’s the hometown of the late great Johnny Carson and the festival is an annual homage to him held in, what else, the Johnny Carson Theater.  Each year the festival, which is part competition, part workshop, and part roast, presents the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend Award.  Up-and-coming stand-up comics from around the country compete for cash prizes.  This year’s festival headliner is Paula Poundstone.  The 2012 Legend recipient is Jimmie Walker, though dubbing him a legend seems like quite a stretch to me.   Past Legend honoree Dick Cavett, who definitely meets that definition, is hosting a comedy magic show.  It’s great having Cavett involved because of the close relationship he enjoyed with Carson.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) includes bits and pieces from recent interviews I did with Poundstone and Cavett, both of whom are very easy to talk to.  I’ve done a lot of interviews with Cavett over the years and you can seen my resulting stories on this blog.

 

©prairiefirenewspaper.com

 

 

Great American Comedy Festival Presents Lineup of Up-and-Comers with Legends Paula Poundstone, Dick Cavett, Jimmie “JJ” Walker

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

One-liners and nonsequiturs will fly at the June 13-17 Viareo Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., where the late comic great Johnny Carson grew up.

This annual celebration of the funny side is equal parts competition, workshop and roast.

Its home base is the Johnny Carson Theatre at Norfolk Senior High, where the legendary Tonight Show host graduated. The event welcomes professional stand-ups from around the nation vying for cash prizes. Paula Poundstone is the headliner. Jimmie “JJ” Walker is the “legend” recipient. Past legend honoree Dick Cavett hosts a comedy magic show.

New this year is a June 14-15 Omaha showcase at the Holland Performing Arts Center featuring the fest’s standup contestants in 7:30 p.m. shows.

Poundstone and Cavett, long ago paid their comedy dues. They represent different generations in the craft but well identify with the vagaries of starting out.

She broke in during “the comedy renaissance” that saw clubs sprout in her native Boston and everywhere in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Open mic nights became her proving ground.

“They were just coming into being. I just lucked out in terms of time and place,” she says. “They had shows with guys who had no experience and they were awful but because there was no one else around nobody knew they were awful, and I got in on the awful train – when you could suck and it didn’t really matter. Now I think it’s a lot harder to get stage time.”

She was only 19 when she took the first of two cross-country Greyhound bus trips  on an Ameripass, stopping to perform at open mics in places like Denver, living out of a backpack and catching zs on the road between gigs.

“Odd but genius. It was pretty bold. I mean, I look back on it now and think, Whoa, boy, that could have gone bad. It was my nineteeness that saved me. You think you’re invincible…That helped a lot.”

She knew she belonged as a stand-up when she got to the west coast.

“I kept getting day jobs of necessity for a while. At one point on my second Greyhound bus trip I ended up in San Francisco. It was such a great place to be. It was perfect for my age and my personality and for the type of stand-up comic I am.

The audiences were willing to allow the comic to experiment in a way I found nowhere else in the country.

“It was there I gave up my day job.”

The Other Comedy Club near the Haight Ashbury District became her favorite venue.

“A bizarrely unassuming place. I found the best audiences there. Also, the people that ran the place liked me and gave me opportunities. One of the best things I ever did was host the weekly open mic night. Your job is to introduce people but also to kind of keep the crowd, so you’ve got to do a little bit in between. I would run out of material and I got to think on my feet and interact with the crowd and do all the stuff that’s really the good stuff.

“I had some raggedy nights where it just didn’t work or the crowd was horrible. I have better odds now.”

She describes the high that is stand-up as “addictive,” adding, “otherwise why would you?” (subject yourself to it).

Meeting fans after shows holds its own high, especially when this adoptive mother of three finds she’s struck a chord with parents over one of her favorite topics – the impossibility of child-rearing. “When those moments occur it really makes me feel worthwhile,” says Poundstone, whose concerts, HBO specials, books and recurring panelist role on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me keep her busy.

Not surprisingly, Cavett admires Poundstone, who guested on one of his shows. “She may be one of four-five guests in all the years I did those shows who sent a thank-you note. It was a lovely, nice, handwritten note and it gave me a softer spot for her even than I already had. I was on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me a couple weeks ago but I was sorry she wasn’t there that day so I could thank her again.”

 

Dick Cavett

 

Now he gets the chance to tell her in person. She may share her admiration for an impromptu bit he once did with Benny Goodman. Noticing the jazz great’s fly was down and sensing a rare chance to both prevent embarrassment and score laughs, Cavett instructed Goodman “to do exactly as I do.” As Cavett stood up with his back to the audience, Goodman did the same. The gestures that followed were unmistakable and funny, yet gracefully didn’t reveal whose fly was undone.

“I can’t imagine thinking of that,” says Poundstone. “It’s brilliant, just brilliant.”

Unlike Poundstone, Cavett made his bones in the business writing for others. After graduating Yale he worked as a New York Times copy boy when he audaciously wrote a monologue on spec for Jack Paar and personally delivered it to the Tonight Show host at the RCA building. He lived the dream of seeing some of his jokes used that very night on air. He soon became a staff writer for Jack, then Johnny. On the side he did stand-up in clubs. He doesn’t exactly miss it.

“Thank God I’m not doing that anymore. Some nights were awful, some were exhilarating and made you think this is what I’ve always wanted. When you would top a heckler you’d get a big thrill out of that.”

Once he got his own ABC talk show he delivered a monologue every night.

“It’s a horrible burden for anybody doing a talk show.”

The closest he’s come to stand-up in recent years is narrating the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“I treated it as a stand-up appearance, so I did stuff I had thought up that day or had worked the night before. I ad-libbed with the audience. I had a great time doing it. But those years at the Bitter End and the Village Gate and The Gaslight and Mr Kelly’s and The Hungry Eye all helped bring that about.”

His advice to aspiring comics is “get the best material you can, work as often as you can.”

Having Carson in his corner helped him survive the stand-up gauntlet.

“I would go back to work the next day for Johnny and he would ask me how it went the night before and we would laugh particularly hard when it went badly. He would be very helpful with joke wording. He’d say, ‘You’ve got a good premise there but you don’t go far enough with it.’ A lot of good advice.”

Cavett’s still touched by the affection Carson showed him and that he reciprocated.

They’re forever linked by their small town Nebraska roots (Cavett was born in Gibbon and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln) and similar career trajectories. They both performed magic as youths.

“We met over magic in the Westminster Church in Lincoln. As kids in junior high three of us went to see the magician and radio personality Johnny Carson from Omaha.”

That each went on to host his own network talk show still amazes Cavett. “Isn’t that funny – two magicians from Nebraska?” He promises to perform “my genius” rope trick at the comedy fest. Cavett, who pens a Times column and occasional books, regularly gets back here, He hopes to get in some time in his beloved Sand Hills.

Keenly aware he’ll be on Carson’s home turf, at an event paying homage to its most famous native son, his rope trick will be one more link in their shared legacy.

For schedule and ticket info, call 402-370-8004 or visit www2.greatamericancomedyfestival.com. Omaha Showcase details are at http://www.omahaperformingarts.org.


Being Dick Cavett

December 4, 2010 3 comments

Dick Cavett & Alfred Hitchcock

Image by Stewf via Flickr

The recent publication of Dick Cavett‘s new book, Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, is as good enough a reason as any for me to repost some of the Cavett stories I’ve written in the last few years. I’m also using the book’s release as an excuse to post some Cavett material I wrote that hasn’t appeared before on this blog.  I’ve always admired this most adroit entertainer and I feel privileged that he’s granted me several interviews. With his new book out, I plan to interview him again. For me and a lot of Cavett admirers he’s never quite gotten the credit he deserves for raising the bar for talk shows, perhaps because almost no one followed his lead in making this television genre a forum for both serious and silly conversation.  Cavett never quite caught on with the masses the way his talk-jock contemporaries did, and I’ve always thought it had something to do with his built-in contradiction of being both an egg-head and a stand-up comedian at the same time.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) was based on a face-to-face interview I did with him in Lincoln, Neb. in 2009.

 

 

 

 

Being Dick Cavett

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in a 2009 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

While Johnny Carson’s ghost didn’t appear, visages of the Late Night King abounded in the lobby of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Temple Building.

Carson’s spirit was invoked during an Aug. 1 morning interview there with fellow Nebraska entertainer, Dick Cavett. That night Cavett did a program in its Howell Theatre recalling his own talk show days. Prompted by friend Ron Hull and excerpts from Cavett television interviews with show biz icons, the program found the urbane one doing what he does best — sharing witty observations.

The Manhattanphile’s appearance raised funds for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre housed in the Temple Building. The circa-1907 structure is purportedly haunted by a former dean. Who’s to say Carson, a UNL grad who cut his early chops there, doesn’t clatter around doing paranormal sketch comedy? His devotion to Nebraska was legendary. Only months before his 2005 passing he donated $5.4 million for renovations to the facility, whose primary academic program bears his name.

The salon-like lobby of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre & Film is filled with Carsonia. A wall displays framed magazines — TimeLifeLook — on whose covers the portrait of J.C., Carson, not Christ, graced. Reminders of his immense fame.

A kiosk features large prints of Carson hosting the Oscars and presiding over The Tonight Show, mugging it up with David Letterman. In one of these blow-ups Carson interviews Cavett, just a pair of Nebraska-boys-made-good-on-network-TV enjoying a moment of comedy nirvana together.

It’s only apt Cavett should do a program at a place that meant so much to Carson. They were friends. Johnny, his senior by some years, made it big first. He hired Cavett as a writer. They remained close even when Cavett turned competitor, though posing no real threat. Cavett was arguably the better interviewer. Carson, the better comic.

 

 

 

They shared a deep affection for Nebraska. Carson starred in an NBC special filmed in his hometown of Norfolk. He donated generously to Norfolk causes. Cavett’s road trips to the Sand Hills remain a favorite pastime. Though not an alum, he’s lent his voice to UNL, and he’s given his time and talent to other in-state institutions.

Looking dapper and fit, Panama hat titled jauntily, Tom Wolfe-style, the always erudite Cavett spoke with The Reader about Carson, his own talk show career, his work as a New York Times columnist/blogger, but mostly comedy. In two-plus hours he did dead-on impressions of Johnny, Fred Allen, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Charles Laughton. His grave voice and withering satire, intact. He dropped more names and recounted more anecdotes than Rex Reed has had facelifts. Walking from the UNL campus to his hotel he recreated a W.C. Fields bit.

He’s so ingrained as a talking head Cavett’s comedy resume gets lost: writing for Jack Paar, Carson, Merv Griffin; doing standup at Greenwich Village clubs with Lenny Bruce; befriending Groucho Marx. He hosted more talk shows than Carson had wives. He’s had more material published than any comic of his generation.

On the native smarts comedy requires, Cavett said, “comedy is complete intelligence.” He said the best comics “may not be able to quote Proust (you can bet the Yale-educated Cavett can), but there’s an order of genius there that sets them apart. There aren’t very many stupid, inept, dumb comics. There are ones that aren’t very talented and there are the greatly talented, but the comic gift is a real rare order. It doesn’t qualify you to do anything else but that.”

Good material and talent go a long way, but he concedes intangibles like charisma count, too. He said, “Thousands of comics have wondered why Bob Hope was better than they are. What’s he got? I’ve got gags, too.”

For Cavett, “Lack of any humor is the most mysterious human trait. You wonder what life must be like.” He appreciates the arrogance/courage required to take a bare stage alone with the expectation of making people laugh.

“Oh, the presumption. It’s not so bad if the house isn’t bare but that has happened to me too at a club called the Upstairs at the Duplex in the Village, where many of us so to speak worked for free on Grove Street. A great motherly woman named Jan Wallman ran this upstairs-one-flight little club with about seven tables. Joan Rivers worked there. Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Klein, Linda Lavin. Woody (Allen) worked out some material there early on.”

He knows, too, the agony of bombing and that moment when you realize, “I have walked into the brightest lit part of the room and presumed to entertain and make people laugh and I’m doing apparently the opposite.” A comic in those straits is bound to ask, “What made me do this?” The key is not taking yourself too seriously.

“If you can get amused by it that will save you, and I finally got to that point at The Hungry Eye,” he said. “I knew something was wrong because I’d played there for two weeks and been doing alright and then one night, nothing, zero. The same sound there would be if there was no one seated in the place. Line after line. It was just awful. You could see people at the nearest tables gaping up at you like carp in a pool, not comprehending, not laughing, not moving. And I finally just said, ‘Why don’t you all just get the hell out of here?’ It gave me a wonderful feeling.

“Two, what Lenny Bruce used to call diesel dikes sitting in the front row with their boots up on the stage, one of whose boots I kicked off the stage, taking my life in my hands, got up to leave. And as they got to the door I said, ‘There are no refunds,’ and one of them said, ‘We’ll take a chance.’ And she got a laugh. So they (the audience) were capable of laughing.”

He finished his set sans applause, the only noise the patter of his patent leathers retreating. Inexplicably, he said, “the next show went fine. Same stuff.” For Cavett it’s proof “there is such a thing as a bad audience or a bad something — a gestalt, that makes a room full of unfunnyness, and I don’t think it’s you. It might be something in you. Whatever it is, you’re unaware of its source, not its presence.”

Anxiety is the performer’s companion. It heightens senses. It gets a manic edge on.

“Whether you want it, you’re going to get some,” he said. “I can go into a club and perform without any nerves of any kind now. But if it isn’t there you want a little something, and there are ways you can get it. Like be a little late. Or I found with low grade depression, before diagnosed, not knowing what it was, I would do things like go back and rebrush my hair or put another shirt on. ‘This is dangerous, they’re going to be mad,’ I’d think. ‘But that’s alright somehow.’ I didn’t realize the somehow meant it’s giving me adrenalin that lifted the depressed seratonin level. It raises you a little bit above the level of a normal person standing talking to other normal people. It’s a recent realization. I’ve never told that before.”

Cavett was always struck by how Carson, the consummate showman, was so uptight outside that arena. “I’ve said it before, but he was maybe the most socially uncomfortable man I’ve ever known. At such odds with his skills. There are actors who can play geniuses that aren’t very smart seemingly when you talk to them, but whatever it is is in there and it comes out when they work. I have a sad feeling Johnny was happiest when on stage, out in front of an audience. I don’t know that it’s so sad. Most people are sad a lot of the time, but some don’t ever get the thrill of having an ovation every time they appear.”

“It’s funny for me to think there are people on this earth who have never stood in front of an audience or been in a play or gotten a laugh,” he said.

People who say they nearly die of nerves speaking in public reminds him he once did, too. “I had the added problem of every time I spoke everybody turned and looked at me because of my voice. It was always low. If I heard one more time ‘the little fellow with the big voice’ I thought I’d kick someone in the crotch.”

He said performers most at home on stage dread “having to go back to life. For many of them that means the gin bottle on the dresser in a hotel in Detroit. On stage, god-like. Off-stage, miserable.”

In Cavett’s eyes, Carson was a master craftsman.

“He could do no wrong on stage. I mean in monologue. He perfected that to the point where failure succeeded. If a joke died he made it funnier by doing what’s known in the trade as bomb takes — stepping backwards a foot, loosening his tie…’” Not that Carson didn’t stumble. “He had awkward moments while he was out there. Many of them in the beginning. My God, the talk in the business was this guy isn’t making it, he’s not going to last. It’s hard to think of that now. Merv Griffin began in the daytime the same day as Johnny on The Tonight Show. Merv got all the good reviews. He was the guy they said should have Tonight, and Merv really died when he didn’t get it.”

 

 

 

When the mercurial Paar walked off Tonight in ’62 NBC scrambled for a replacement. Griffin “was actually seemingly in line” but the network anointed Carson, then best known as a game show host. In what proved a shrewd move Carson didn’t start right away. Instead, guest hosts filled in during what Cavett refers to as “the summer stock period between Paar and Johnny. People don’t remember that. Everybody and his dog who thought he could host a talk show came out and most of them found out they couldn’t.” Donald O’Connor, Dick Van Dyke, Jackie Leonard, Bob Cummings, Eva Gabor, Groucho. Some were serviceable, others a disaster.

Carson debuted months later to great anticipation and pressure. “At the beginning he was really uncomfortable, drinking a bit I think to ease the pain, and as one of my writer friends said, ‘with a wife on the ledge.’ It was a very, very hard time in his life to have all this happen” said Cavett, “and then he just developed and all this charm came out.”

Off-air is where Carson’s real problems lay. “Many a time I rescued him in the hall from tourists who accidentally cornered him on his way back to the dressing room after the show. They’d made the wrong turn to the elevators and decided to chat up Johnny, and he was just in agony.” The same scene played out at cocktail parties, where Carson hated the banter. It’s one of the ways the two were different. Said Cavett, “I don’t seek it but I don’t mind it. He couldn’t do it and he knew he couldn’t do it and it pained him.”

That vulnerability endeared Carson to Cavett. “I liked him so much. We had such a good thing going, Johnny and I. It dawned on me gradually how much he liked me. I mean, it was fine working for him and we got along well, and when I was doing an act at night he’d ask me how it went, and we’d laugh if a joke bombed. He’d say, ‘Why don’t you change it to this?’ He’d give me a better wording for it. I feel guilty for not seeing him the last 8 or 10 years of his life, though we spent evenings together. The staff couldn’t believe I ate at his house. ‘You were in the house?’ On the phone he was, ‘Richard’ — he always called me Richard, sort of nice  — ‘you want to go to the Magic Castle?’ I’d say, ‘Who is this?’ ‘Johnny.’ And I would think somebody imitating him, even though I’d been around him a million times.”

Something Brando once told Cavett — “Because of Nebraska I feel a foolish kinship with you” — applied to Cavett and Carson.

Cavett realized a dream of hosting his own show in ’68 (ABC). In ’69 he went from prime time to late night. A writer supplied a favorite line: “‘Hi, I’m Dick Cavett, I have my own television show, and so all the girls that wouldn’t go out with me in high school — neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah.’ It got one of the biggest laughs. Johnny liked it.”

Getting more than the usual canned ham from guests was a Cavett gift. Solid research helped.

“I often did too much. I’d worry, ‘Oh, God, I’m not going to get to the first, let alone the 12 things I wrote down. Or. ‘I’ve lost the thread again.’ Only to find often the best shows I did had nothing I’d prepared in it. The best advice I ever got, which Jack Paar gave me, was, ‘Kid, don’t ever do an interview, make conversation.’ That’s what Jack did.” A quick wit helps.

At its best TV Talk is a free-flowing seduction. For viewers it’s like peeking in on a private conversation. “Very much so,” he said. “You’d think that can’t be possible because there are lights and bystanders and an audience, and it’s being recorded, and yet I remember often a feeling of breakthrough, almost like clouds clearing. ‘We’re really talking here. I can say anything I want .’”

With superstar celebs like Hepburn, Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles and his “favorite,” Groucho, Cavett revealed his fandom but grounded it with keen instincts and insights. “That did help. I could see on their faces sometimes, Oh, you knew that about me? I guess I have to confess to a knack of some sort that many people commented about: ‘How did you get me to say those things?’”

He said viewing the boxed-set DVDs of his conversations with Hollywood Greats and Rock Greats reveals “there was a time when nobody plugged anything” on TV. Then everyone became a pimp. “When first it happened it was rare. Then it was joked about,” he said, “and then it got so it was universal — that’s the reason you go on.”

Today’s new social media landscape has him “a bit baffled and bewildered.”

“I have wondered at times what all has changed, what’s so different. It did occur to me the other day looking at the Hollywood Greats DVD — who would be the 15 counterparts today of these people. I might be able to think of three. And that’s not just every generation thinks everything is better in the past than it is now. I know one thing you could start with is the single act that propelled me here — the  fact I was able to enter the RCA Building via the 6th Ave. escalators, which were unguarded, and walk up knowing where Paar’s office was, and go to it.”

He not only found Paar but handed him jokes the star used that night on air, netting Cavett a staff writing job. “No career will start that way today,” he said. Then again, some creatives are being discovered via Facebook and YouTube.

In terms of the talk genre, he said, “it doesn’t mean as much to get a big name guest anymore. They’re cheap currency now,” whereas getting Hepburn and Brando “was unthinkable.” He’s dismayed by “how much crap” is on virtually every channel.” He disdains “wretched reality shows” and wonders “what it’s done to the mind or the image people have of themselves that allows them to think they’re still private in ways they’re not anymore.”

Comedy Central is a mixed bag in his opinion. “I like very little of the standup. I don’t see much good stuff. They all are interchangeable to me. They all hold the mike the same and they all say motherfucker the same. You just feel like I may have seen them before or I may not have. And I don’t believe in the old farts of comedy saying ‘we didn’t need to resort to filthy language’ and ‘they don’t even dress well.’ That’s boring, too.”

Cavett’s done “a kind of AARP comedy tour” with Bill Dana, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Dick Gregory. “It was pretty good.” But he’s about more than comedy nostalgia. He enjoys contemporary topical comics Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, about whom he said, “he gives as good as he gets and gets as good as he gives.” He’s fine not having a TV forum anymore: “I’ve lived without it and I got what I wanted mostly I guess in so many ways.” Besides, who needs it when you’re a featured Times’ blogger?

“Yeah, I like that, although it can be penal servitude to meet a deadline.”

His commentaries range from reminiscences to takes on current events/figures. His writing’s smart, acerbic, whimsical, anecdotal. He enjoys the feedback his work elicits. “My God, they’re falling in love with Richard Burton,” he said of reader/viewer reactions to a ditty on the Mad Welshman’s charms. He covers Cheever-Updike to Sarah Palin. “My Palin piece broke the New York Times’ records for distributions, responses, forwarding. The two from that column most quoted about her: ‘She seems to have no first language’ and ‘I felt sorry for John McCain because he aimed low and missed.’ Many, many people extracted those two.”

He said Times Books wants to do a book of the columns.

When his handler came to say our allotted 90 minutes were up, he quipped, “Oh, God, it went by as if it were only 85.” And then, “I’ve got a show tonight but I said everything. Biga has had my best.” Before leaving he asked his picture be taken beside the Cavett-Carson repro. Two Kings of Comedy together again.

Homecoming always sweet for Dick Cavett, the entertainment legend whose dreams of show biz Success were fired in Nebraska

December 4, 2010 3 comments

Dick Cavett

Image by nick step via Flickr

In his new book, Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, irrepressible Dick Cavett reminds us that though he hasn’t hosted a talk show in a very long time he has much to say about this television genre, one he gave his own distinctive spin to as a writer and host.  A wordsmith at heart, his new work also reminds us how gifted he is at turning a phrase.  Because Cavett is making the rounds this fall and winter to promote his book, he is very much in the entertainment news again, which is why I am reposting a couple Cavett articles I wrote a few years ago and why I am posting for the first time some other Cavett material I wrote. He’s been very generous with me in terms of granting me ample time for my interviewing him over the years.  To be honest, I didn’t even know about this book until a friend mentioned it.  Now that I’m onto it, I will request a new interview with him and I know he will be accommodating again.  As he likes to say, he’s always a good guest, and in this case, a good interview.  The following piece, which traces his career, originally appeared in the New Horizons newspaper in Omaha, Neb.

 

Homecoming always sweet for Dick Cavett, the entertainment legend whose dreams of show biz success were fired in Nebraska

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Dick Cavett’s longing to be “under the lights” burned so hot as a boy in post-World War II Nebraska that nothing seemed more enticing than the prospect of far-off glamour in New York. Then, as now, the Big Apple loomed as the center of all things, certainly of show biz, which the young Cavett saw as his future.

“Always the shot of the New York skyline spoke to me where it didn’t to others my age,” the 70-year-old comic and former talk show host said by phone from his historic coastal retreat, Tick Hall, on Montauk, Long Island. The 19th-century, Stanford White-designed home is where Cavett and his late wife Carrie Nye spent time away from the tumult of New York. The house burned down in 1997 and over three years time the couple had it reconstructed to historic specifications, an epic project that is the subject of a documentary, From the Ashes.

The house hasn’t been the same since Nye died from cancer last July. She had a way of filling any room she was in with her bright spirit and hearty, Southern drawl-tinged laugh. She and Cavett were married 42 years.

Today, when not at the beach, he stays at the Manhattan apartment the couple shared. This son of career educators lives a life steeped in culture — books, the theater, films, fine dining. He writes letters and op-ed pieces. His ability to engage in literature, history, gossip, trivia and one-liners sets him apart from some entertainers. Words fascinate him. He loves finding just the right one with which to prick or prod or parry. Exposing grammatical errors is a hobby, nigh-compulsion.

Cavett, the forever puckish wit, was born in Gibbon, Neb. and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln. Precociously bright, he got laughs from an early age, when he’d surprise others with his large vocabulary, double entendres, confident delivery and deep voice. His humor’s never left him, not even in his grief. Since Nye’s death, however, he has grown more reflective than usual about his Nebraska upbringing and the close ties he’s kept here throughout his nearly half-century career.

Nebraska is where he came back only three months after Nye, a noted actress, passed. He headed out alone by car to its far western reaches, a road trip he’s made many times over the years as a kind of pilgrimage. When things get too oppressive back East, Nebraska is his escape. Here, away from the glare, the noise, the crowd, he can unwind and breath under the clear, open, quiet skies.

 

 

 

 

“Yeah, it is that in a way,” he said, “especially when I do almost my favorite thing in the world to do, which is get in a car and go out into the Sand Hills. I remember one great teacher I had in high school, after I had just been to the Sand Hills, said, ‘Oh, it’s just heaven. Aren’t you glad the tourists haven’t found it?’ A lot of the tourists wouldn’t dig it or get it. But the idea you could take the family car as I did and drive 416 miles on the 4th of July for however many hours and hours it took and see just four other cars on those old roads…,” he said, his golden voice trailing off, choked with the wonder of the memory.

When he’s back, he stops in on old friends like Dannebrog’s Roger Welsch, the folklorist-author, and Lincoln’s Ron Hull, the avuncular Nebraska Educational Television legend. He visits his stepmother, Dorcas, now 90 but still sharp as a whip.

Welsch said, “Dick loves Nebraska and especially the Sand Hills and whenever he can roams aimlessly around the state pretty much taking the place and its people in.  He is as likely to show up at a cowboy tavern in Arthur as he is a church dinner in Broken Bow. Or here. He calls us with some frequency and we have hour-long talks.” A favorite Welsch anecdote involving Cavett concerns the “night he called about nine and we talked until after ten, and as we wound down our conversation I suggested he really should come by and visit us and even stay over some time when he got out our way here in Dannebrog. ‘Really?’ he said. ‘You’d invite me to come by?’ ‘Sure would, Dick!’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I might just take you up on that….I’m kind of in your area.’ ‘Oh…really? Where?’ I sputtered. ‘The Dandee Drive In.’ That would be the old ice cream shop at the edge of town…

“So I went up to our bedroom where my wife Linda had already gone to bed and said, ‘Uuuuuuuh, Linda…Dick Cavett says he’s going to come visit us sometime. ‘Did he say when?’ she said sleepily. ‘Yeah….in about five minutes.’ She never did forgive me…or Dick…for that one.”

Hull said Cavett’s affinity for Nebraska is “genuine. There’s not a phony bone in his body. He’s a very, very honest person.” Cavett often comes back at Hull’s request to emcee benefits or to lend his famous face and voice to a documentary or spot. “He’s never turned me down,” Hull said admiringly. “He’s a very generous guy. He’s always come through. And he’s always done it pro bono, just as a friend. He’s been a very good friend of Nebraska. That’s one of the things I like about him — he didn’t forget his roots. He is proud of those roots. He never lost touch with that.”

Whether at work in the studio or at play over dinner, Hull said Cavett’s “so much fun to be with. He is curious about everything. He listens. He has this marvelous, retentive mind. He’s so good at words. Don’t ever play Scrabble with him.”

“He is a pleasant soul,” Welsch said. “It’s hard not to like Cavett. His visits here are…definitely not an exercise in royalty visiting the peasants. Yes, he talks about Woody Allen and Mel Brooks…while I talk about my pal Bondo, the auto body repairman, or Dan the plumber, but somehow there isn’t a feeling of inequity. He appreciates the humor I find in ordinary people out here and in turn shows me the ordinary side of the notables in whom he finds his humor. I really don’t consider Dick Cavett to be a famous person who is a friend of mine; to us he is a friend…and oh yes, I guess he’s also famous. Perhaps the best part is that even as a world-famous star and intellect, he is still, through and through, a Nebraskan.”

 

 

Roger Welsch

 

 

Cavett’s love for the wide open spaces, solitude and history of Nebraska was implanted early on, via road trips his family made out West when he was a boy. Book, film and museum images of Plains Indians fixated him. As an adult he immersed himself more deeply in the land and legacy of its native peoples, familiarizing himself and the nation with the works of John Neihardt, Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. He’s proud of the remarkable figures Nebraska’s produced and will name, without any prodding, some of the great film, theater, literary and athletic icons from here.

Whenever someone suggests there’s a characteristic that describes a typical Nebraskan, he’s quick to point out that personalities as diverse as William Jennings Bryan, Darryl Zanuck, Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Malcolm X, Sandy Dennis and Johnny Rodgers emerged from this same terra cotta.

For the book Eye on Cavett he wrote of returning a celeb to his Lincoln High class reunion. He and Welsch were classmates and bandmates, not buds. Cavett suspects Welsch thought he was “one of the fancy people.” Welsch confirms as much, but adds, “I admired him…He was always one of the stars at the talent shows, theater productions, and that kind of thing, and yet he was never an arrogant pain in the ass…just a nice guy who had a lot of talent.” They both coveted luminous Sandy Dennis, another classmate bound for fame, but neither had the guts to ask her out, much less speak to her. Cavett later got to know her in New York.

Nebraska is where Cavett’s heart is. New York’s where the action is. Even as a boy, he felt the pull of that place. How could it not beckon a starstruck kid like him? Especially after he nearly committed to memory the classic book, The Empire City, an anthology of great stories about New York by great writers.

“It’s just wonderful. Every famous writer who ever wrote anything about New York is in there,” he said, “from E.B. White to Groucho (Marx) to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht. And I would read that thing and then read it again. I knew more about New York then, sitting on the glider on the porch reading that book than most New Yorkers did. I could describe Chinatown and how to get to it and around it and in it,” without having been there. In the book Cavett he co-authored with friend Christopher Porterfield the entertainer calls New York “a siren call.” Made all the more alluring by anecdotes of it told by his parents’ friends or the genuine New York actors he shared the stage with one season of summer stock in Lincoln.

For him, the future was a New York or bust deal. He wasn’t sure what path would take him there — “I had no idea how you got there” — but he knew his destiny lay in the crackle and glow of theater marquees, not the scraping of chairs on floors and chalk on backboards. His late parents, and stepmother, were all public school teachers and while he suspects he too would have excelled at it, he would be dissatisfied knowing he’d missed out on his dream.

“I think I could have enjoyed being a teacher a great deal,” he said. “They would have liked me. I would have been funny and all the things you didn’t associate with most teachers.” Like his dad. “My father was always the most popular teacher anyone in Lincoln ever had,” he said. “My father always attracted the most forlorn types…and made them feel better and gave them confidence and all these things. He gave them meaning. He didn’t mean to do that, but it just happened.”

One of those the elder Cavett tried reaching out to was the garbage man on their block, a young, sullen, self-made rebel named Charlie Starkweather, an obscure boy and striking name soon to strike fear on the Great Plains.

Cavett’s “toyed with the idea” of what might have been if he hadn’t left Nebraska. “Would I go nuts? Probably not. But I certainly wouldn’t have had what I wanted and at times got more than enough of later on. Let’s just say I can’t imagine contributing a covered dish to the picnic of the neighborhood,” he said dryly.

As “drawn” to show biz as he was, he said, “I can’t think of ever wanting anything else. It wasn’t as though, If I can’t become a comedian or a magician I’ll become a lawyer or a plumber and I’ll be happy doing that. Noooo…” That didn’t stop some from trying to dissuade him. “I didn’t have any interest in dental college, one of several things — it seems so humorous now — my father tried to interest me in. And of course his pitch was. ‘You’re talented, but you know a lot of people don’t make much of a living in your business, You really ought to think about something that’s going to be steady.’ I just nodded and let it pass.”

Once bit by the bug, no appeal to practicality could change his mind. “Yeah, because in effect you don’t really have any choice,” he said. “The thought of trying to go to law school was not even in question. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.” The death of his mother from cancer when he was 10 only made him retreat more into the world of make believe. On the whole he counts his childhood a happy one, but the trauma of his mother’s death still stings.

“The worst part of that was not only watching her dying,” he said, “but no other kid I ever heard of lost a parent. Nobody.” He said his wife’s death made him relive the pain of his mother’s death and elicited “the resentment of, Screw this — I have to do it again? That was awful.”

There were also molestations he suffered at the hands of strangers, once at a Lincoln movie theater. He doubts the abuse triggered the depression he struggled with for many years, although he doesn’t discount the possibility.

But mostly he looks back fondly at a solid rearing. While his folks were far from bohemians, they were no squares, either. His mom and dad were intelligent, culturally astute people. As is his stepmother. His dad and step-mom co-founded a high brow social club, the C.A.s, whose name was a closely guarded secret. Critics Anonymous brought together a group of like-minded adults, plus Dick, for celebrations and excoriations of different subjects or themes. Sometimes, a country’s music, food, literature and customs came under scrutiny.

All the talk of exotic places only fueled his fire to see the larger world.

Like the boy who runs away with the circus, Cavett heeded the call of the lights, only gradually, in small measures. While growing up here he did some magic, some acting, some announcing. Even his favorite athletic pursuit, gymnastics, put him out front, under the lights. He studied the great comics, absorbing their stances, their inflections, their timing. His models were as near as Johnny Carson, then a popular magician on the Chautauqua circuit and, later, a dashing television-radio personality in Omaha, and as distant as the greats he glimpsed in the movies or on TV.

He once saw a young Johnny’s Great Carsoni act, and it left an impression. Perhaps, he thought, he could emulate a fellow Nebraskan’s success on stage. And once in awhile one of those bigger-than-life legends, as Bob Hope did, would come to perform in Lincoln or Omaha, giving him a first-person dose of show biz magic.

On those occasions, Cavett would, through sheer pluck, wend his way backstage before and after the show, something he continued doing once he finally made it to New York, becoming a habitue of the club-theater-network TV district, all the better to run into celebs. Just seeing Hope in the flesh was enough to feed his imagination and project himself into that rarefied company.

Besides Hope, long a hero of his, Cavett’s star gazing in Nebraska found him finagling seats and trading backstage banter with the likes of Charles Laughton, Basil Rathbone, Phil Silvers and Spike Jones. Each encounter only intoxicated him more with the idea that he belonged “in that world” with them.

Still, the stars were ethereal enough that even his “wildest dream could not convince me I would one day have Hope as a guest on my own show.” But he did.

After one of those head-in-the-cloud nights in Lincoln, enraptured by the sight of his idols and the exchange of a few words with them, his return to dreary Earth felt like defeat. “To go to school the next day was just murder,” he said. I thought, ‘I belong with them (the stars)’” as they set off by train for the next stop under the lights. Wanderlust ran in the family. His maternal grandfather was a Baptist preacher who immigrated from Wales and evangelized his way across the Great Plains. “My hell-for-leather Uncle Paul, as my father always called him,” was a rover who rode the freight rails. A young Cavett was captivated by their experiences of setting off for distant spots. “Oh, yeah, they had dramatic adventures in faraway places,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be T.E. Lawrence or Frank Buck. I didn’t see myself in jungles or deserts, though I’ve been to both…” He said he was like this character from a long-forgotten novel who startles her parents when they ask — ‘What do you want to be, a nurse or a school teacher?’ — by saying, and my wife used to quote this, ‘I want the fast cars, the bright lights and the men in tuxedos.’” Only substitute women in cocktail dresses for men in tuxes.

Cavett was spotted early on as a talent to be watched, even if he didn’t know exactly what talent might send him on his way. As a teen he acted in and eventually directed, too, a Lincoln Junior League Theater program, Storytime Playhouse, on popular radio station KFOR, the same station Carson used to launch his career. Cavett once did a 15-minute Macbeth.

“One day out on the street I run into Bob Johnson, who was of course this huge celebrity in Lincoln because he was a longtime announcer on KFOR. He did Bob Johnson’s Musical Clock and Bob Johnson’s this-and-that. We were both heading for the studio and he said, ‘Let’s walk around the block,’ as if he was about to bring up something sensitive and didn’t quite know how to. So we made small talk and then he said, ‘You know, Dick, I have a feeling about you — you’re going to get up and out of here the way Johnny did.’ And it was a poignant moment because it was a man in his middle age saying, I’m as far as I’m going to get and I faced up to that, but you and Johnny, well…

“I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what to say. I kind of hoped he was right, but I didn’t know how Johnny did. I can’t imagine what we said for the last half-block.”

 

 

 

 

Johnny was of course Johnny Carson. “Johnny was 10-12 years older than I was,” Cavett said. “He was doing his television show (The Squirrel’s Nest) in Omaha and soon going on to New York for various things, He hadn’t utterly ‘made it’ yet, but as far as anyone in Lincoln was concerned he had.” Cavett’s since wondered what might have happened if they had bumped into each other then to discuss their nascent show biz dreams. He’s sure they would have recognized in themselves then what kindred spirits they were.

As it was, they both made it big time, their careers following nearly parallel courses. Cavett was a talent coordinator and writer for Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, the slot Carson, who’d hosted TV game shows and written for Red Skelton, inherited when Paar retired. Carson made Tonight an even more popular and lucrative brand name for NBC. Cavett joined Carson’s staff of writers before getting his own talk show.

“I guess I just always had this sort of pull, as I think he (Carson) must have, to go where the action is. Mingle with Jack Benny and Bob Hope and Lucille Ball and maybe Groucho if you were really lucky.”

Cavett’s opportunity to leave Nebraska for the bright lights came courtesy of a family friend, another older man who saw in him the hunger and potential to excel.

“A friend of my parents by the name of Frank Rice taught at Omaha Central. Frank sort of looked like Vincent Price. He had a Whitney Fellowship, I think it was called, at Yale for a year. He came back and said, ‘Dick should apply at Yale.’ Nobody took this very seriously and Frank insisted. And somehow that came about.”

“I remember Frank saying, ‘You’ll like it at Yale, if you’re lucky enough to get in, because the Shubert Theatre is right across the street from your freshmen campus. Every week or two a new Broadway show comes through on its way to New York.’’ Broadway show? I didn’t even care it would cost me a dollar-forty to sit in the front row of the second balcony.”

This was it — his entree to the glimmer of New York theater and culture. If he could get in. And then one day, as he tells it, he was “on the same glider on the porch that I was probably readingThe Empire City on” when the mailman brought a letter from Yale that said, ‘You have been accepted in the Class of 1954.’ And the whole world just swam for a moment. ‘What will all this mean? God, what could happen from this? It’s hard to say. Damn near anything.’ I walked around in a daze.”

By the time he headed east he was a certified TV junkie, so much so he said that when his family got their first set in the mid-’50s “I did almost nothing but watch it. Sundays, my God, I got out graham crackers and peanut butter and started with ‘Super Circus, live from Chicago, and went all the way through the evening, including Mr. PeepersWhat’s My Line?Ed SullivanThe Web…I made the mistake of getting a date once on a Saturday night and she did not want to watch Show of Shows, so that was the end of that relationship.

“When I thought of going away to college I wondered, Will they let me watch all my television?”

Yale let him have his catho ray tube fix, although with only one set in the dorm he couldn’t always watch his favorite shows. More importantly, New Haven, Conn. put him within easy reach of where it all happens. With such close access to New York, his idea of a good time was far different than most of his fellow red-blooded Yalies, who had scoring girls on their mind.

“Instead of going to girls schools on the weekends, Wellesley, Smith, Vassar, I went down to New York. I thought, How can you be so dumb as to want to go there when you can go to New York…see a play with the Lunts, Paul Muni or Bette Davis, and sneak into the Jackie Gleason Show and What’s My Line?,” a show he ended up guesting on.

As he did in Lincoln, he gushed to classmates about the stars and shows he saw and that he sometimes talked to. There were more all the time. Now that he was an Ivy Leaguer and a big city sophisticate, he wanted to go home “to parade around” in his Oxford blue shirt and tweed, three-button jacket from Saks and regale everyone with where he’d been and whom he’d seen.

“That was everything I’ve lived for — to come back and cause amazement,” he said. It was also a case of homesickness. But as he found nothing stays the same.

“My first trip from Yale back to Nebraska I couldn’t wait to get to Grand Island and as soon as I got around the corner to see where we used to live, it was gone,” he said. “There was a Safeway there. They had obliterated the Christian church, my best friend Mary Huston’s house, our house, the whole block. And it was one of the most devastating things that’s happened to me. How could they raze this without my permission? A horrible feeling. It hurts me right now.”

He was near finishing up Yale when walking on campus one day in 1957 he heard the news stand jockey hawking papers, Cavett recalled, with “the words ‘murder in Nebraska.” An incredulous Cavett remarked to the man, “It sounded like you said murder in Nebraska.” He confirmed he had. “There in the Journal American, now defunct, in big letters just short of what you put War Declared in, it said, ‘Ghastly Murders, Lincoln, Nebraska.” The headline referred to Charlie Starkweather’s killing spree. It gave Cavett the creeps.

“I don’t know now if I thought, I hope nobody I know was murdered. I guess you wouldn’t necessarily assume it. Had I known and glanced down at the name Starkweather I could have had a horrible moment recalling if my father said, ‘That’s our garbage guy.’ My father said he always seemed like a kind of forlorn kid. He seemed nice enough. My dad made people seem nice enough that weren’t anywhere but in his presence. Though I suppose I doubt if my father was anyone he toyed with as a victim.”

Even that incidental connection to a serial killer was enough for Cavett to closely follow the Starkweather manhunt, capture, trial and eventual execution.

 

 

 

 

By the time the notorious case became a sensation, Cavett was taking courses at Yale School of Drama and that’s when he met the woman who would become his life partner. Carrie Nye was her theatrical name but also her full first name. When Cavett met her her surname was McGeoy. She was flamboyantly Southern. Brilliant. Funny. Serious about her craft. Independent. Opinionated. An original.

The Greenwood, Miss. native attended Stephens College where, Cavett said, she “probably had the record number of violations there of books not returned, walking on the grass, smoking behind the lockers…”

His reaction upon first setting eyes on her? “I didn’t like her very much…I said ‘God, who the hell is that? She looks affected,’ or something like that to one of the guys at the drama school and he said, ‘But have you met her?’ I said, ‘No.’ When I did I saw what he meant. She was not like anything or anybody I ever met before. No one could ever say, ‘She’s just like Carrie Nye.’”

 

'Otherwise Engaged' Cast Party : News Photo

Dick with Carrie Nye

 

 

Their drama mates included, at one time or another, Paul Newman and Julie Harris. Cavett and Nye performed at Yale and in summer stock at Williamstown, Mass. They were soon an item, marrying in 1962. For a time, her career overshadowed his. When things broke for him, they broke big. Working for Paar, Carson, Jerry Lewis. Doing his own standup comedy act. Guesting on panel/game shows. Hosting his own late night network TV show, followed by TV desk-jock stints on PBS, then cable. Prime time specials. Commercials. Voice-overs. Films. Plays. She enjoyed success in regional theater and on Broadway, also taking occasional small and big screen  parts. Their marriage survived the ups and downs of their respective careers.

It’s been awhile since Cavett’s had a talk-show gig. He laid to rest any question of whether he’s still “got it” with his 2000-2002 role as the narrator in the Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and his 2006 appearances on Turner Classic Movies, which revived some of his late night ABC shows with Hollywood greats. For a new TCM special he taped with Mel Brooks, Cavett proved his quick wit and verbal acuity are still intact. The Hollywood shows are out on DVD, as is a rock icon collection. A new DVD set featuring him with jazz-blues legends is planned.par

It’s interesting to note that even after all the dreaming he’d done of New York and all the trips he made there from New Haven to cozy up to the stars, Cavett still hadn’t made plans to move there after graduating Yale. He was doing summer stock when, he said, a fellow actor remarked, “‘Well, I guess you’ll be heading for New York, looking for an apartment.’ But to that point I hadn’t thought very far beyond the edge of the season. I really hadn’t thought it out. I figured I’d probably trip back to Nebraska. But as soon as I heard ‘you’ll be going to New York,’ I did.”

Cavett lived the life of a struggling young hopeful, making the rounds in casting offices, taking bit parts here and there, working all kinds of side jobs to keep himself alive. He was a copy boy atTime Magazine when he screwed up the nerve to go to the RCA Building with a batch of jokes he’d written for Paar, the king of late night. His plan? To somehow bump into the Great Man, slip him the material, and be discovered for the brilliant comic mind he is. Amazingly, it all came true.

 

 

Jack Paar

 

He still marvels at “the sheer chance of taking the monologue to Jack Paar,” running into him in a hallway, Paar accepting the envelope containing jokes penned by a unknown, then sitting back in the live studio audience to hear hisone-liners go out over the airwaves from the mouth of a star; and later, backstage being thanked by the star and encouraged to feed him more jokes. It all led to Cavett being hired on staff. The surreal experience was just one of “the phenomenal breaks, coincidences and other such things” that helped launch his career.

Cavett found his niche as a writer. “Once I get an idea I can go with it,” he said. “That was true as a monologue writer. If Jack or Johnny would give a subject, then I could be very fast and, to the irritation of the other writers, the first one to Johnny’s desk. Not that it mattered, because the first was not always the best.” He gets a high from writing that’s akin to the buzz he gets from ab libbing. Some, like old friend Ron Hull, suggest the entertainer could be a serious writer. “Yeah, I’m reasonably certain I could have made a living that way,” Cavett agrees.

While the two never talked about it, Cavett said he and Carson understood they shared a special connection. Like Carson did, Cavett’s given back to his home state.

He recalled one of the rare times the intensely private and supposedly cold Carson invited him out to dinner in L.A.

“That night we were sitting in a booth, just two guys from Nebraska in California, and he described the special (Johnny Goes Home) he’d just done in Norfolk and he said ‘there was this moment when I opened the door at the school building and there were all my teachers.’ And it was astounding because he was moved and he stuttered, and I thought, Oh, if people who think he has a ramrod up his ass and he treats people horribly could see this…He wasn’t a bit embarrassed by the emotion.

“He had a tremendous affection for me, and it took somebody to point it out. ‘Do you notice Johnny’s a different man when you’re on his show?’ one of his staff told me. ‘We wish you’d come on all the time. Johnny’s so easy to get along with when you’re on.’ It almost embarrassed me.”

Johnny’ gone. Cavett’s beloved Carrie Nye, a woman Ron Hull called “a perfect complement” to his friend, for her brilliance, humor and taste, is gone now, too, leaving “a void” no amount of quips can fill.

Given Cavett’s comic bent, her humor may be what he misses most. “The obit man at the Times spoke to me and said, ‘I feel I know your wife a bit,’ because he had talked to her twice on the phone about people who had died she had worked with, like Ruth Gordon. He said, ‘I remember those two conversations as the funnest experiences of my life and I wish I’d recorded them.’” To which Cavett can only concur, saying, “She was just vastly entertaining in the way nobody else was.”

Even in her absence he finds himself thinking of things to amuse her with — “Oh, wait till she hears about this” — or moving things lest she trip. Then he catches himself with the stark realization, “Oh, you’re talking about someone who ain’t there no more.” He recently shared his feelings with writer and friend Calvin Trillin, whose wife Alice died five years ago.

Yes, Dick Cavett is hurting, but he knows he always has Nebraska to return to. Here, amidst the wide expanse of land and sky, and the warm embrace of its people, he knows he’s back home. Back to where his dreams first took hold.

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