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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.”

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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