January 30, 2011
(Dick Cavett onstage at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, CA this past December, at an event sponsored by Writers Bloc. Cavett’s special interview guest was Mel Brooks.)
By Terry Keefe
During the varied runs of his television talk show, Dick Cavett arguably conducted in-depth interviews better than anyone in the media before or since.
From 1968 to 1975 on ABC, and then later from 1977 to 1982 on PBS, “The Dick Cavett Show” hosted a literal who’s who of both America and the world. The guest list included Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Noel Coward, Salvador Dali, Mel Brooks, Katherine Hepburn, and Ingmar Bergman, to name just a few.
The show was unique in its time, but even more so today, in that the host and guest rarely engaged in stuffy Q&As designed to promote the latest project, nor was the format a non-stop quip fest. Cavett had conversations with his guests, real conversations which sometimes lasted an hour or more. If you want to see what, for example, David Bowie would have been like to speak with during the early 70s, watch his sometimes manic, often rambling, but always 100 percent authentic dialogue with Cavett.
Although Cavett always kept the talks lively with his wit when needed, his interviews were never about him. He never got in the way, or interrupted the flow of conversation to get in a good joke, of which he still managed to deliver plenty of regardless.
While many of Cavett’s guests were entertainers, politics often found itself center stage, such as the show featuring a debate on the Vietnam War, with future Senator and Presidential candidate John Kerry on one side, and future Swift Boat founder John O’Neill on the other. It was this show that reportedly led to Nixon asking H. R. Halderman on the Watergate Tapes, “Well, is there any way we can screw him?” in regards to Cavett.
Cavett has been writing an online column for The New York Times for the past few years, much of which became the inspiration for his latest book, Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets. The book runs the gamut of Cavett’s life: his boyhood in Nebraska, where he became a highly-paid teenage magician, eventually leading him to meet a fellow, older magician from the state named Johnny Carson; his interviews with troubled chess genius Bobby Fischer; the legendary show where Norman Mailer got into a serious throw-down verbal tussle with Gore Vidal; the day he finally got to meet Richard Nixon; and his friendship with Groucho Marx.
I reached Cavett by phone when he was in his home on Montauk, Long Island, getting ready to write his next column.
You write in Talk Show about the first Bobby Fischer interview, which I’ve just watched. Your technique with him…it’s deceptive, because he doesn’t say a lot, but you never allow any dead air. How much preparation did you have in terms of your questions going in? Were you able to just do that off the cuff and keep it moving?
Dick Cavett: I just…as usual, I tried to find out as much as I could in the limited time you have when doing five shows a week, for anybody, to get as much as I could about him. I don’t know. He seemed to like me better than anybody else in the media – it sounds silly for me to say that, but other people have written about that.
He didn’t much care for his other TV experiences, and I think if there’s something good about me, I think it’s that I have always – I got this from my father – been able to sense the potential discomfort in other people, and cover for it, in a way.
I’ve never tried to say this before, so it may not be coming out very well [laughs]. But it also would often result in, afterwards [the guests saying], “I don’t know how you got me to talk about that. I can’t believe I told you that. Do you edit this show at all?” “No, I’m afraid you’re stuck with it.” And that added to people saying, “I’m more comfortable than I’ve ever been in this setting.”
It’s embarrassing for me to try to analyze what that is.
Well, your guests did clearly feel very comfortable with you. Your classic interviews are very popular on YouTube, and in the comments sections, one of the things that I read again and again was that the difference between Dick Cavett and today’s talk show hosts is that Cavett really listened to the guests.
Yeah, I used to hear that, too. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. It sounds like it would be, all you’ve got to do is shut up.
But at the beginning, it was nightmarish trying to listen! I think I wrote about that in the book Cavett, where I talked about the fact that it looks easy, because what they see on the screen is two people chatting. What the one person sitting there sees is the host, and what the host sees is the guest — and the stage manager, and the prompter they put up about a commercial coming up, and somebody else has just waved a hand-lettered sign and taken it down before you could read it, and somebody else has sent a timed signal of some sort, to somebody – Was it you? Was it me? Was it – oh my god, the guest’s lips have stopped moving! [laughs]
A lady named Deanne Barkley, my first female producer, one of two, said, “You’ve got to always have a specific question ready for those moments when you blank, or the guest seems to have died, or something.” She suggested, “Do you pee in the shower?” – because it had to be something that everybody can identify with.
And I’m not sure if I ever asked it. I once thought of it, while [former New York Governor] Averell Harriman was on, and I thought, “This is not the place.”
Along those lines, one of the deadly things for any interviewer is the subject who continually answers in one sentence, or even one word. I watched your Brando interview and at first he was pretty monotone, but then you managed to get him to open up. Were there any guests that you could never get out of that mode, despite your best efforts?
One who is dead. And he was the star of Zabriskie Point. Mark Frechette. Two people, the two young stars. He and the young lady [Daria Halprin] who were in Zabriskie Point.
I guess he decided – it was weird – apparently, that it would be amusing to answer softly, slowly, and without interest. These are not the three traits you look for.
He also decided, I guess, where it might be considered admirable, to not just do a clichéd talk-show appearance to plug his movie – by saying that in effect he didn’t think it was very good.
I heard that he’d got in a fist fight of some sort, backstage on “The Merv Griffin Show” or something – and he said, “What do you want to know about it?” I said, “Details.” [laughs] And that forced him to talk a little bit.
But the greatest moment was supplied by a third party, Mel Brooks, being there. And either [Mark Frechette], or his equally-silent female co-star partner, were trying to think of a name of some object, something in the world. It went something like, “And there we were looking at it, a, um, uh, a, um…” And Mel goes, “A bread box!” [laughs]
That was needed.
If you have Mel Brooks on every show, it’ll save moments like that.
It’s good to have Mel around.
(Cavett interviews Mel Brooks at the Saban Theater, left.)
You write in the book, about the Norman Mailer/Gore Vidal show, where they had their argument. It struck me on a number of levels, in regards to how times have changed so much. Today, you might have two reality stars mixing it up on a talk show, but here, you have two literary giants.
Imagine how it would go over if somebody told his producer today, “Let’s do a show with three famous authors…”
There’s also Janet Flanner [on the same episode], who, in a way, when you watch that thing, a couple of times steals the show.
She was, an equal, if not as well-known a writer, probably because she chose to write under the pseudonym Genet for thirty years in the New Yorker — which I only realized about a week ago is of course ‘Janet’ – Genet the playwright with a circumflex or whatever over the ‘e’ – but she just wrapped Norman around her little finger, causing him to refer to her as “the most wonderful presence in the history of television.”
Did you actually think Mailer and Vidal might escalate to real violence, or were you confident that they would rather keep it an intellectual battle?
Well, when you’re sitting next to a man [Mailer] who’s not only stabbed his wife but pointed it out on the show, shortly after you thought of it, and is known for enjoying the manly art, and once came on a show of mine and boxed three rounds with José Torres…that’s what I had in mind.
Norman is at a disadvantage in a situation like that in a way, especially when facing a brilliantly articulate and funny, witty man like Gore Vidal — and Janet Flanner — Norman is a little bit unarmed, in that humor is largely left out of him. And his efforts at it were sometimes as strenuous as his appearance that night.
But I’m very fond of Norman, and Gore said he was too, on the show – “I was always very fond of you, Norman — I’ll tell you what I detest about you…”
You write about John Lennon a bit, and your testimony for him at his deportation hearing. Did you see Lennon much outside of the show?
No. I wish I had more. He wrote me with strange letters a couple of times, which was kind of fun. He liked to write long letters, chatty letters. And I didn’t see him for all those last years of his life. I should have. Of course, he could have tried to see me, too.
I’ve run into Yoko since his death a couple of times. And she can be very sweet. I got away with saying “dragon lady” in the first part [of the interview]. Maybe not. It caused them to have still another Viceroy each.
They were so damned nervous in the beginning, and in that case it’s great to do a full show with people because they loosen up. They go on another show for ten minutes, and then start to relax, but then they’re off.
You recount your chance encounter with Richard Nixon and his daughter Julie at the famed restaurant, Gosman’s Dock, in Montauk. Was there much of an audience for this? Did he have Secret Service there, or was it just you and them?
Every time I go over to the dock I get a chill…where the Great Unindicted Co-conspirator and his daughter were sitting. And, no, there was no security, none, not any kind.
Roberta Gosman, up in the main part of the restaurant, said, “Did you see our special luncheon guests waiting for us to open?” And I looked down, and there was the Yorba Linda Wonder, sitting there with his daughter. And I think I said he was looking like an old sea bird, looking out over the water, all clad in dark clothing…which at least were more attractive than striped pajamas.
But no, nobody heard it, nobody can verify it except the three of us. It’s as if there were no one else on the landscape except the seagulls.
You discuss in the book agonizing over finding the right words in comedic writing, because just the wrong order of words, or the omission of one word, can change how funny a line is. Is this something that you still agonize over just as much as you did when you were starting out, or does it get easier?
I only agonize when I catch it in a re-reading and it’s already been published.
If I were teaching a comedy writing class and trying the impossible – which would be to make someone able to write comedy, who has no knack for it – [I would tell them] a thing I said that broke Johnny Carson up.
I was a guest on his show. A Cavett show had gone off the air. This happened a few times, so every time it did, Johnny had me on the following Monday, as a fellow Nebraskan, and he would say something like, “I’m afraid next time it’s gonna be Armed Forces Radio for you!”
We were great friends, and at the end of one of his shows in California, I was the least illustrious guest, out of work and on with three stars of various fields, so at the end of the show he said [to each of the guests], “Well, we’re out of time, what are you doing now? You’re opening on Broadway?” [to the next guest] “What are you doing?” “I’ve got a new musical coming in.” [the next guest] “I’ll be starring in a new series…” And I didn’t have anything. I thought, “I hope the time runs out before they get down to me.”
And Johnny said, “Richard,” almost sympathetically, “What are you up to?”
And I said, “The gods allowed me to say I’m working on a sitcom, Johnny. It’s a humorous version of ‘Gilligan’s Island.’”
Well, he went off the chair with laughter, real laughter.
And tin-eared quoting newspaper ink-stained wretches with columns invariably quoted it as, “a comedy version of ‘Gilligan’s Island.’”
It’s not nearly as good.
It’s the same joke, but it’s a little like saying, “And then he said, ‘That was no lady, that was the woman I’m married to.’” It’s the same joke, but it’s so dead in the water.
Maybe you heard or read my great moment with Groucho in Lindy’s Restaurant, when a famous columnist came up and said, “Say something funny, Groucho!”
I had to turn away for some reason, and get the waiter or something, and I turned back and the guy was walking away writing happily with his stub pencil, and I said, “Whatever you said, he’ll kill it, you know.” He was famous for killing punch lines and ruining (them).
And Groucho said, “I know. The only way to get Leonard to print a joke right is to tell it to him wrong.”
When you had Groucho on as a guest, did you go over backstage what he was going to bring in terms of stories and gags? Or did you just kind of go onstage and hear it for the first time?
No, the answer is never. I don’t think there ever was an instance where we planned anything beforehand, or he said, “Do you mind if I do this?” He would like to determine that he was going to get to sing.
And when you went to dinner at Groucho’s house, you were in for a brief concert afterward. Marvin Hamlisch would be there playing the piano.
The one Groucho show that was from the summer, and was one solid hour in length, everything he did and said was funny, all the way through. It might have been straining the point a little [to say that it was] the last of his prime. Each succeeding show, with watching all them all at once, for editing purposes, for a special of some sort, you could see a little failing, a little. Watching them individually, he seemed fine, even up to the last. But that brilliant sharpness changed just a bit.
Groucho as a guest must have been something that you looked forward to so much, because you knew it was going to be a great show no matter what he did.
Yeah, you never had to worry. And, when he was sitting there watching other people…like when [famed zoologist] Jim Fowler was on with a sloth.
There’s this sleeping animal hanging there, on a string or a branch, and I thought, “Groucho must be bored with this and wishes he were on and talking.” And Groucho looked at the sloth and he said, “That’s the worst-looking dog I’ve ever seen!”
One of the chapters talks about the racism charges against Don Imus. Could you have done your show today, in its relaxed, conversational format, and not have had some line of dialogue eventually spur that type of outrage?
I don’t know about that. I’m embarrassed by the infantilism of the phrase, ‘the N-word.’
I think it means nigger…I think most people who hear it know that’s what it means. Does anyone think it means the nicotine or, for those who can’t spell, the “nome”? And why endow any word with such — well, this word’s been ruined for all time: “awesome” – such thundering significance and grandeur that it cannot be spoken?
So I just find it silly. But I think I strayed off your question: Would something like that have hit the fan?
Well, I have my own “nigger” incident, with of course John and Yoko…and “Woman is the Nigger of the World” – (Note: The song of that title was played by Lennon and Ono on the Cavett Show.)
Did that spark a controversy at the time?
Oh yeah. They did the song, well, first, and then ABC saw it. The show wasn’t going to be aired for a few days, it’d come out later.
And then they announced that the song would not appear in the show, and I said, “Yes, it will.” What do I lose by saying that? Supporting it with, “I get the booking of the year, regarding getting John and Yoko, and you’re going to censor and edit that?”
Well, they saw something in that, fearing the inevitable support I would get, and in a lot of the press, by publicizing this as much as I possibly could. And I decided that there would be an insert of my saying, “The following song is, of course, controversial, and we hope that we can treat you as mature” – I don’t know what all I said.
And then I loved the fact that about two hundred protests came in, none of them about the song, all of them about, “the mealy-mouthed apology you forced Dick to say on the air.” That was gratifying.
Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, by Dick Cavett, is in bookstores now.
(Special Thanks to Nancy Bishop and Venice Magazine.)