In a talk-show format defined by glib sound bites and canned one-liners, Dick Cavett became famous for the erudition and depth of his interviews, as well as his famous friends and propensity for name-dropping. Like kindred spirit Johnny Carson, Cavett grew up in Nebraska and worked as a magician; he also dabbled in acting and stand-up comedy. After attending Yale, he wrote for The Tonight Show's revered Jack Paar, as well as Merv Griffin and Jerry Lewis' legendarily ill-fated talk show.
But it was as an empathetic and cerebral talk-show host that Cavett rose to fame. During a 1969-1974 run on ABC, The Dick Cavett Show became a critics' darling for its engagement with social issues and in-depth conversations with everyone from a young John Kerry to icons like Marlon Brando, Orson Welles, and Cavett's good buddies Woody Allen and Groucho Marx. Cavett went on to host other talk shows (many under the name The Dick Cavett Show) and act sporadically in films like 1988's Beetlejuice. Recently, he's experienced a resurgence in popularity and recognition due to Shout Factory!'s elaborate, multi-disc Dick Cavett Show box sets. These have proved essential both as sociological documents and for their rare, intimate glimpses into icons' psyches. The A.V. Club and Cavett recently shared a surprisingly foul-mouthed conversation about talk shows, interviewing, working for Jerry Lewis, and of course, Johnny, Groucho and Woody.
The A.V. Club: What do you tell people who ask you how to conduct good interviews?
Dick Cavett: Well, in the book Cavett, there are 10 rules of conversation that I was forced to come up with. The lady interviewing me asked, "What are the 10 rules of conversation?" and I said, "I didn't know there were any rules of conversation." She said, "But that's my assignment." So I can't do them all for you, because I can't remember. I remember the first one was "Try to have one language in common." She beautifully wrote that down, and after a couple more, I started to get weirder: "Try to be in the same room or within hearing distance of the person you're speaking to." She wrote that down, I got her started on, "Don't take hold of a wart on the other person's face and go 'Beep beep.'" And she began to get that I was maybe not totally serious.
I guess the best advice I ever got or anyone could get for doing a talk show, though it has not been easy very often, was from Jack Paar, who said, "Kid, don't make it an interview. Interviews have clipboards, and you're like David Frost. Make it a conversation." And I notice, as astute critics watching the DVDs have said, "Nothing like this could happen on television today." [On The Dick Cavett Show,] you see people sit and talk for a good length of time, if not the whole show. Nobody plugs anything! [Today,] a pretty girl comes on and says, "I'm so excited about my new movie, and I'm so excited about my new director, and it's so exciting to be here with you, David," or whoever she's on with. They show a meaningless clip, and she's excited once more, and she leaves. You can tell that in every production office for talk shows now—and it was much the same back when I was writing on [Johnny] Carson and [Jack] Paar, more with Carson than Paar—they ask "Okay, who's on, so-and-so, what's she plugging?" and there was always an answer. It was always fucking something. It was unheard of to go on and not sell bicycles, mints, or your new movie. I'm not condemning it, it just doesn't make the shows that interesting.
AVC: Most talk shows seem to have a very rigid format: six minutes with the guest, anecdote number one, anecdote number two, plug the movie.
DC: Once, I was at a Tonight Show staff meeting, and I looked down at a list of the guests. And I noticed we had Peter Ustinov, the greatest talk-show guest to ever be. Perfect, brilliant, hilarious, wonderful. We've got him down for two segments, and we have Jaye P. Morgan the singer [and popular game-show guest] down for two segments. I said "Would anybody ever think of having Peter on longer and the other people on less, or maybe even have him on for the whole show, which he could probably do five nights in a row if necessary?" And I was looked at as someone who should be institutionalized for thinking such a crazy idea.
AVC: How were you able to be so spontaneous and free-flowing?
DC: I have no idea, I just know that talking to people was certainly better than interviewing them, or asking any questions at all. Once the conversation set in with multiple guests, I often went from there without using anything that I had prepared. You wouldn't want to try that with some people, you'd have a four-minute show.
AVC: How were you able to get so many great guests?
DC: It's kind of startling to me when I look at the list, not only the shows that are on DVD, but the whole lists. It's staggering. Another odd part is that you don't remember some of them. It's hard to believe.
Johnny's doorman asked him one night, "Who do you have on the show tonight, Mr. Carson?" He told me this during a break when I was on his show. He had said to me, "Richard"—and he kept the band playing loud during breaks so that he didn't have to talk to the guests during the break. That was his sole reason, and it's not a bad one in many cases, because guests say stuff that you then don't use on the air, and you waste it. But he seriously, with his brow slightly furrowed, signaled Doc to lower the volume a bit with the band during the station break, and he asked me if I ever forget my guests. And I said, "Oh, sure," and he said, "No, Richard, I mean do you ever forget them that day?"
And he told me about the doorman asking him, and Johnny said, "We had, um, Jesus, we had, um," and he told me, "I couldn't think of one name that I had just taped with, or one face." But I think he thought he was having a mental problem, and he was very glad to hear me say, "Oh yeah, I know what you mean. In fact, a couple weeks ago I came home, my wife said, 'How'd it go?' and I said, 'Fine, it was a one-person show,' and she said, 'Who was it?' and I said, 'Um. Oh my God." It took many minutes to remember that it had been Lucille Ball. What that points to is that somehow you leave your work there, when you leave the studio or the theater or whatever. It stays there in some psychological way. Otherwise, you'd be all jammed up with it. Also, the you that does the show isn't the real you ever, really.
AVC: What do you mean by that?
DC: Well, you have your performing mode that you go into. It isn't that everything you say is dishonest, nothing like that. It's just that you're the person who has to worry about commercials coming in, and who are the guests, are the guests comfortable, are you calling the guests by the wrong names by any chance? Is that a cue they just gave me and I missed it, somebody held up a card? And through all of that, you have to converse, so in a sense, it's artificial without being fake, because nobody talks in real life with all those distractions.
AVC: Since you were on so often, it seems like the shows would bleed together for you.
DC: Oh, absolutely. I've seen 8x10 photos of me with people, and I could pass a lie-detector test saying that I never had them on the show.
AVC: Living 60 minutes of your life on television per day has to be kind of strange.
DC: Or 90 minutes. Nobody does that anymore. You know, the Tonight Show, by tradition—this is a trivia question. How long was The Tonight Show when Jack Paar started doing it? It was an hour and 45 minutes, and it started at 11:15. Jack hated that, because not all the stations carried the first 15, so he'd blown his monologue for a good portion of the country. So eventually, he just stopped coming out at that time; they changed it to 11:30.
AVC: The Jerry Lewis Show was 90 minutes, wasn't it?
DC: Oh God, The Jerry Lewis Show was two fucking hours. I want you to print that just that way.
AVC: The Jerry Lewis Show is kind of this legendary showbiz farrago that you worked on.
DC: It's almost like the Hindenburg.
AVC: In Jerry Lewis' 1984 autobiography, there's a page leading up to The Jerry Lewis Show, and then a paragraph like, "Yeah, then the show was on—let's talk about something else." What was it like to write for that show?
DC: It was the first time I made four figures a week, which in those days was almost unheard of. I'll have to ask Woody [Allen] sometime what he made on Caesar's Hour, when he wrote for Sid Caesar. He never wrote for Your Show Of Shows, though people always said he did.
Actually, it was great fun. I didn't thoroughly hate California, so it was sort of an adventure to be living out there with a big new show and all. And [Jerry Lewis] was ideal, not a schmuck to writers as some big names are, were. And I enjoyed it. What did I get, $1,200 a week I think it was? And I nearly shat when I heard my manager Charlie Joffe working the deal over the phone. I heard him say, "No, no, that's no good, my client doesn't work for under $1,000 a week." I thought, "Jesus Christ, I work for $480!" But he got to $1,200, so that made it very pleasant.
It was a weird, weird experience. Jerry was having a lot of problems personally, and it was awful to watch good stuff get blown or not used at all. But I had a decent time doing it, and then Kennedy was shot, and though Kennedy being shot was not what made The Jerry Lewis Show go off the air, it kind of darkened everything in life. I think right after that, we did two more shows and bagged it.
AVC: Why was it such a failure?
DC: Jerry's difficult. He often didn't know what he wanted to do on the show. I think it dawned on him that he had bitten off a very great deal of time to fill. The producer Perry Cross pulled out large clumps of his hair every week. He had to deal with [Jerry] and the guests and changing his mind about stuff. I don't know. It was not a great idea to begin with; I think Jerry realized that after a while, and realized he was stuck with a 200-ton bomb.
AVC: Do you have a favorite Groucho anecdote?
DC: It's hard to think of a favorite. Oh, we were in Lindy's one day having lunch, when I was still in disbelief that I knew Groucho and that he would call me and ask if I wanted to have lunch. A famous columnist came over while we were waiting to be seated and said, "Hey, Groucho, say something funny." And rather than knocking him down, Groucho just said, "Oh for Christ's sake." And he began to talk, and he finally said something that the guy thought was funny enough, so he walked away with his pencil and pad, no "thank you" or anything. This columnist was famous for getting things wrong. So I said to Groucho, "You know he'll screw it up." He says "Yeah, I know, the only way to get him to print a joke right is to tell it to him wrong." What a mind!
AVC: Speaking of one-liners, do you have a favorite joke that stands out from your stand-up routine?
DC: No, I don't, but if I had to pick one, it might be the fact that Woody saw my fledgling act, and I had written one or two new things, and he said about one of them, "Great joke, Cavett." That's how Woody laughed. It was about a Chinese-German restaurant. Greenwich Village had all these restaurants with two nationalities, an Italian-German restaurant and all that, and "There's a Chinese-German restaurant," I said, "The food is great, but the problem is, an hour later, you're hungry for power." That joke was stolen by a couple of comedians. Guys would come see Woody's act, then sell his jokes to columnists and comics because he hadn't used them yet on television. His jokes appeared on The Red Skelton Show and that great thievery-of-material center, Laugh-In. They had a great business in stolen comic merchandise.
AVC: What was it like seeing Woody Allen perform for the first time?
DC: It was astonishing, because I had never heard him before. The Tonight Show told me to go down and see this comic at The Blue Angel, and when I heard that he wrote for Sid Caesar when he was 17, I thought, "I want to make a friend of this guy, whoever he is." Saw his act, it was new, he was new to stand-up, hating most of it. He would stand with the mic covering his face or most of it, and he did his act, and it was one brilliant joke after another, just like a string of pearls. Every joke was better than any one joke that any other comic had in his act, and the audience talked mostly. We were there in a big ballroom, and there was a speaker, and he starts, and about two minutes in, the audience starts talking to each other. They weren't listening, they tuned him out, except for me standing in the back. He's a tough fellow and he took all that. He vomited a few times, he admitted.
AVC: Did you get stage fright when you were a comedian?
DC: Only at the beginning. Or opening in a new place when I went to a real nightclub like Mr. Kelly's in Chicago, or the hungry i in San Francisco. Although Woody had written me a note exploding the myth of the hungry i. He was there way ahead of me. He said it's not hip any more, it's not the place that gave birth to Mort Sahl and Nichols & May. It's a tourist audience, largely. It had fallen from grace. That was all I needed on my way there, a pep talk.
AVC: What was it like watching all the old episodes of The Dick Cavett Show on DVD?
DC: It was curious. It was strange, because it was almost all new to me. I didn't remember it in detail. God, it's been a long time. Often I would say, "God, I hope he's gonna say this," meaning me, and I either did or I didn't. Sometimes I thought of an answer and I'd go, "Shit, why didn't I say that there?" In another way, it's greatly entertaining; I can watch it as an audience member now rather than as the other guy on the screen. I'm often pleasantly surprised at how good they are. Maybe you can put that in your mouth.