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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.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

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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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.


Norfolk, Neb. Festival at the Johnny Carson Theatre Hosts Intersection of Comedy’s Past, Present, Future

January 4, 2012 1 comment

 

One of the top annual comedy events in the United States occurs in what seems be a most unlikely place, Norforlk, Neb., until you realize the northeast Nebraska town is where Johnny Carson grew up and where he helped endow a state-of-the-art theater in his name.  Looked at in that light then, the Great American Comedy Festival that plays there every June and that attracts a roster of emerging and legendary comic talents doesn’t appear so out of place after all.  I did this story a couple years ago in advance f the festival when its emcee headliner was David Brenner and its legend recipient was Bill Dana.  Depending on your age and your knowledge of pop culture figures from the 1960s-1970s and earlier, those names may or may not mean anything to you, but Brenner and Dana were once very big deals in the comedy world.  It was fun to speak with each of them.  Space constraints dictated I could only use a bare fraction of the interview materials.  Time constraints prevent me from posting the full Q&As on this blog.  Maybe some day, if I ever acquire an assistant or intern, I can share those full interviews here.

By the way, this blog contains several stories by me on Dick Cavett, whom I’ve interviewed extensively the last few years.

 

 

David Brenner

 

 

 

Norfolk, Neb. Festival at the Johnny Carson Theatre Hosts Intersection of Comedy’s Past, Present, Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The June 14-20 Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb. honors the legacy of hometown legend Johnny Carson by celebrating comedy’s past, present and future. Twenty-four stand-ups from around the country compete for a grand prize.
The comics qualified via auditions held in 10 cities. Many already boast impressive credits: appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman,” “Saturday Night Live,” Comedy Central and gigging at top clubs. Others are still waiting for that big break.

For audiences of a certain age, however, the real attractions are two venerable comedy stars – stand-up David Brenner and writer-performer-producer Bill Dana. For the June 20 gala finale at the Johnny Carson Theatre Brenner’s the emcee and Dana’s the Comedy Legend recipient (2008’s was Dick Cavett). They’re among the competition’s judges.

The pair’s combined comedy careers approach 100 years. Both claim a strong connection to NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” the fabled program that made the late-night talk format a staple. Norfolk native Carson inherited the gig from predecessors Jack Paar and Steve Allen but, Dana said, Johnny “perfected it.”

Brenner’s 158 “Tonight Show” appearances are a record. He’s guest-hosted 70 times. He made his national television debut there, killing with his sharp observational bits. The show was at the height of its star-making power then. Brenner makes no bones about the impact those early spots meant.

“I’m thrilled to be doing this because not only did Johnny give me my first break and my first shot on television but he kept having me on and that sustained my career, so that you’re talking to someone now who’s still doing comedy after 40 years and that’s because of Johnny Carson,” Brenner said by phone from Las Vegas. That success allowed Brenner to meet the great comics he idolized as a kid.

Before that first Carson set, though, a struggling Brenner was ready to call it quits.

“Think of this – one small room, a pull-out sofa bed, two trunks with things in ‘em, a globe of the world because the person there always dreamed of traveling the world, a little kitchen you couldn’t sit down in, a bathroom, a closet and an outer- wear closet before leaving. Maybe 300 square feet. And three dollars in the pocket. That’s where I lived and how much I had when I walked on the stage to do my first ‘Tonight Show,’ and the day after I did that first one my life changed.”

Brenner, whose father was a vaudeville comic, grew up on Phillie’s mean streets. Having starred in his own live HBO special, hosted his own late night talk show (‘Nightlife’) and been a Vegas headliner, Brenner’s not the sentimental sort but mention Carson and he turns softie.

“I don’t get excited much about gigs anymore. I mean, I haven’t done it all, but I’ve done close to it. When Eddie Brill, who’s talent coordinator for ‘Letterman’ (and the fest’s executive producer), called and told me what he’s doing – keeping the memory of Johnny Carson alive – and would I consider emceeing the thing, I said, ‘What, are you kidding? You got it.’ I can’t wait for that gig, and I haven’t felt that way about a gig in a long, long, long time.”

 

 Bill Dana

 

 
Dana’s eager to pay homage, too. The Quincy, Mass. native and World War II combat vet had no show biz dreams until attending Boston’s Emerson College on the GI Bill. When fellow Emerson grad Gene Wood got on as an NBC page Dana joined him. The page route opened doors for their Dana and Wood comedy act.

Wood went on to write for “Captain Kangaroo” before turning TV’s preeminent game show announcer. Dana hooked up with Don Adams, writing routines that caught the attention of “Tonight” originator Steve Allen, who brought Dana on as a writer/talent scout. Dana soon became the head jokesmith.

Dana has the highest regard for Allen’s pioneering role.

“Everything you see on ‘The Tonight Show’ to this day comes from Steve. The couch, the chair, the desk, the proscenium, the relationship with the orchestra, all of that pabulum with the band leader and the announcer, all of that was done in the original ‘Tonight Show’ at the Hudson Theatre (New York),” Dana said by phone from Nashville. “Nothing has changed to that formula because it was just perfect right from the beginning. It was exciting to be part of that.”

Steve Allen
Johnny Carson

 

 

Dana contributed bits like The Answer Man that morphed under Carson into Carnac. Though primarily a writer, Dana said he acted “as a sort of utility infielder” in select skits. One bit Dana wrote and performed in ‘59 – “My name, Jose Jimenez” – became a sensation that led to his own sit-com.

He was virtually out of the business before penning the memorable “All in the Family” episode in which Sammy Davis Jr. kisses Archie Bunker. He’s toured with comedy legends Cavett, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory and Shelley Berman. In 2005 he launched the American Comedy Archives (www.emerson.edu/comedy) at his alma mater. Dana’s the subject of a new documentary.

Something Allen once told him is coming true. “Steve always said, ‘If you live long enough you’ll start to get awards,’ and it’s starting to happen. These days, I’d rather have a job.” Rim-shot, please.

For festival details visit www.greatamericancomedyfestival.com or call 402-371-2932.

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.

Being Dick Cavett

May 1, 2010 2 comments

TV Guide #1058

Image by trainman74 via Flickr

Former TV talk show host Dick Cavett has been kind enough to grant me several interviews over the years, but we had always spoken by phone, that is until last summer, when we finally met face to face. This story is largely drawn from that encounter.  I have always liked Cavett for his wit and charm and genuine fondness for his native Nebraska.

The story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) more or less as it is here.

Being Dick Cavett

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in a 2009 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Access the story there at  Cover – TheReader.com | Omaha Weekly Reader.

 

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 — Time, Life, Look — 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.”

 

 

carson
Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” in an undated photo. (Courtesy of NBC)

 

 

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.

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