The Magazine

Televised Talk

Dick Cavett, master gabmeister of the 1970s.

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By DAVID SKINNER
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Working for Paar, Cavett made two comedian-friends who would influence his style, appear on his own show, and become regularly dropped names in his boldface conversation. One was the pre-auteur standup comedian Woody Allen, and the other (whom he met the very next day) was Groucho Marx, then in his 70s. Cavett spotted Groucho at the funeral for George S. Kaufman, and proceeded to keep him company as he walked downtown. Paar retired in March 1962 after only five years of hosting The Tonight Show. But Cavett stayed on, writing briefly for Paar's replacement, Johnny Carson, and then for the shortlived Jerry Lewis Show, before giving up writing to pursue a career in standup comedy. On the advice of Groucho Marx, who repaid Cavett's worshipful attention with mentorly moments, Cavett tried to make the most of his Nebraska upbringing and his college years.

The autobiographical comedian and stargazing show business buff were both prominent in the persona that Cavett unveiled on his late-night talk show, which actually started as a morning show: the nice young man who wants to know everything about you, but who is also sufficiently convivial to spur things along with light banter or even his own thoughts and feelings. He could play the foil or, for that matter, the star.

His interviewing technique was a marvel of tone. He could make banal questions into little occasions--for storytelling, opinion, whatever--as he ceded control to his guest with the expectation that they do what was necessary to make the conversation lively. Also, his interest in his guests was sincere, establishing a threshold of civility and amusement high enough to generate good talk but low enough for a truly interesting person to rise above it and deliver surprises. The dirty business of booking big names and promoting other projects then faded from view, as the exchange of personalities absorbed the spotlight.

On the phone, Cavett mentions the one piece of advice Jack Paar gave him for his new job: "Don't have interviews. Always have a conversation." In Cavett, he was even more explicit that the interviewer's role must consist of more than asking questions. "It's so much nicer when it's more of a dialogue. It's so much easier when you have that breakthrough, and you get into something that resembles actual speech as it would be spoken away from the lights and the camera. . . . When that happens, I feel that I'm in it as an equal, rather than as somebody who is standing aside."

Over the last year, a stream of old Cavett episodes have been collected and released on DVD. Music, rock especially, figures prominently in the collections, though not as prominently as fame itself. This set of greatest hits might instead be called Cavett's greatest gets. An excusable bias, it is, however, corrected somewhat by the wise decision to present full episodes, thus letting in an assortment of second and third guests, several of whom make for better conversation.

Take the convoluted, hilarious, and slightly ribald appearance of Tony Randall, who, though a big star at the time, was actually a second-string guest on an episode featuring Ray Charles. After a couple of songs, Cavett and Charles chat about--what else?--what it's like to be blind, and then Randall comes on and talks about all the naked women hanging around the hotel pool where he stays in Hollywood.

Which is pretty funny, but then the conversation turns to the subject of Wilfrid Lawson, a recently deceased English actor whom Randall worked with in a production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Like many an actor trying to recreate what existed only on stage, Randall seems in every gesture and word a little precious and overdetermined; but he is totally engrossing as he describes what this little known performer did so well.

The Dick Cavett Show and its host were stalked by the adjective "intellectual," but the topics were rarely ideas, and what guests said, like most conversation, issued from personal experience. "Intellectual" served as a substitute for the category "other," so unlikely was it even then to have a TV show that encouraged guests to talk about whatever they were thinking. Actors and their ilk were not treated as thinkers, but they were expected to be good and spontaneous talkers. Cavett's was a variety show in which chatting was its own performing art.