Dick Cavett and his friend and one-time boss Johnny Carson. Once, when Cavett was a long time between gigs, he was a guest on The Tonight Show and Carson asked him what he was up to these days. Cavett said, “I’m working on an idea for a sitcom, Johnny. It’s a humorous version of Gilligan’s Island.” That little moment of bridled hilarity is one of many from Cavett’s new book Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets.
I’m in the middle of reading too many books at once, as usual, and I’ve been up late at night a lot recently going back and forth from a mystery I’m not enjoying featuring an angry, angst-ridden detective, to a narrative history of New York City in the 1960s that does not focus on the ‘69 Mets, the Beatles playing Shea Stadium, the blackout of ‘66, or Pavarotti’s debut at the Met ---it’s all urban decay and racial strife and police corruption and the Black Panthers marching down the street with rifles on their shoulders---to a book on how we have no souls, there is no God, and we will die, to a biography of Socrates that doesn’t paint a golden picture of ancient Athens during the Golden Age, and then back to the angry detective. This sort of reading can wear down the spirit. One night---more like three in the morning---feeling especially worn down, I reached for a book I’d been saving for just such a moment of weariness. I let it fall open at random and was soon reading this:
As a sort of sweetener from the brutality of the above blowgun darts aimed at fellow human beings, let us close this subject---but only for now—with something a bit milder. It’s from the man who once complained to me, “I can’t insult anyone anymore.”
Mistakenly, I thought Groucho was being contrite. But no. It was that things he said when seriously angry, and meaning to wound and leave a scar, failed to injure. Instead, he got the reaction, “Oh, thank you, Groucho! Wait till I tell my friends what Groucho Marx said to me”
“It’s almost ruined my life,” Mr. Marx only partially jested.
The book was Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets by Dick Cavett, and the effect was immediately soothing and comforting. Reading along, I forgot the woes and cares brought on by contemplating the ravages of plagues and wars in Hellenic Greece and the oblivion that awaits when the soul-less brain finally shorts out. I also forgot the loneliness that afflicts the three a.m. insomniac. In fact, I forgot I was alone.
Reading the essays collected in Talk Show made me feel like I was in good company, listening happily to some very smart and witty friends telling jokes, exchanging stories, discussing their work and their jobs and their careers, arguing good naturedly about matters big and small.
It was a lot like turning on the TV and coming across a talk show where the guests and the host are having such a pleasant time of it that you’re immediately drawn in and put at ease, as if welcomed into someone’s home and handed a drink. It was, I imagine, like watching Cavett’s talk show in its hey-day.
“Don’t do interviews,” Cavett’s hero, idol, friend, and mentor and favorite boss Jack Paar advised him in a phone call when Cavett was beginning his own talk show. Cavett didn’t follow, at first.
What could Jack mean? To do the whole show myself? Show movies? Read to the viewers. That exciting, nervous, famous voice continued: “I mean don’t just do interviews, pal. You know. ‘Interview’ smacks of Q-and-A and David Frost and his clipboard and ‘What’s your favorite color?’ and crap like ‘most embarrassing moments.’ Don’t do any of that. Make it a conversation.”
The light bulb blinked on.
In a way, it’s the whole secret. Conversation is when people simply talk; not take a test on the air with Q-and-A. It’s when something said spontaneously prompts a thought and a reply in someone else. When several people’s talk moves around a subject, changes directions, and produces spontaneous and entertaining comments and unexpected insights, and takes surprising turns.
That definitely describes what became the signature style of Cavett’s talk shows. But it’s also a good description of the style and flow of Talk Show. Cavett’s writing moves around subjects, changes directions, produces entertaining comments (some of them probably spontaneous; he implies he often writes pushing a deadline), and takes some surprising turns. And he doesn’t do the whole show alone. Cavett has a gift for bringing other people to life on the page. You can hear the famous voices as Cavett writes about them, Groucho’s, of course, Johnny Carson’s, Katharine Hepburn’s, William F. Buckley’s, John Wayne’s, Richard Burton’s, Richard Nixon’s---Nixon wasn’t a guest on the show but he figures prominently in several passages in this book--- Paul Newman’s. Newman’s voice maybe you didn’t know you knew, not the way you know those others’. You will after you read Cavett replaying it for you. But then he started his professional career as a comedy writer inventing jokes to be told by other comedians, and getting their voices right is the trick.
Writing for Groucho Marx, or Johnny Carson, or Jack Benny, or any comic with a strong, familiar voice requires being able to turn them on in your head, so that what comes out is in their words and nobody else’s. A misplaced or omitted certainly or at any rate or y’know will make the line wrong. For them. “You could have fooled me.” is less Groucho than “Well, you certainly could have fooled me.”
When Groucho guest-hosted The Tonight Show way back, the first laugh I got for him was an aside I wrote: “But enough of this bridled hilarity…” In Groucho’s voice it got a laugh well out of proportion to its merits.
Groucho, by the way, was, according to Cavett, “our major comic genius. That’s just a fact not an opinion.”
Sitting next to him, I was struck with the delightful fact that he heard his witty remarks and answers at the same time we did. I need to make this point clear. He didn’t think of funny things first and then say them. They were reflexive, almost unconscious responses, and it was fun to see his surprised enjoyment of them at the same moment as ours.
Cavett gets Groucho’s voice and all the others’ voices right, but he gets his own right too. His prose talks just like him.
Not all the pieces in Talk Show are about Cavett’s talk shows. There are reminiscences of his childhood in Nebraska and the early days of his career in show business. There’s a great one about his high school career as a magician when, he says, he was the richest he’s ever been. There are some that touch on current events---the essays were written over a three year period that includes the 2008 Presidential campaign and John McCain and Sarah Palin make irritating appearances; they irritated Cavett to the point that he couldn’t write about either one with any amusement. There are ghost stories and travel stories. There are meditations on sex, The Sopranos, death, and anger management or, more accurately, mismanagement. There are two pieces on Don Imus in which Cavett makes a fairly persuasive case that outraged liberals (like me) over-reacted to Imus’ insulting of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team and we may not have done the cause any favors by running him off the air the way we wished we could Rush Limbaugh. But of course the talk shows and their guests are at the center of the book and most of the pieces are about them in one way or another.
Cavett doesn’t rehash particular shows and only goes into detail in remembering a few particular interviews---or conversations. Shows either come up in the course of his writing about other things or he uses them to launch himself onto other subjects. Mostly, though, the shows are the reason for his being able to write about what he really wants to write about, the people who came on the show who were his friends or with whom he became friendly after they appeared as guests.
Cavett wants to tell us things about these famous people we would not have learned from watching them on his show. He wants us to know that Norman Mailer did not hold that infamous on-air argument with Gore Vidal, the one in which Cavett told Mailer to fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine, against either Cavett or Vidal, that Mailer actually felt bad about what happened while it was happening. He wants us to know that before he went off his rocker, Bobby Fischer was a cheerful, decent, funny man. He wants us to know that Bill Buckley was a good friend and not just in the sense of being Cavett’s good friend but as in a good friend. He wants us to know that Richard Burton was kindly and humble and a loving family man, not necessarily a good husband and besides being a good father. Burton was a loving son and brother, perhaps happiest when in the company of his many relatives back home in Wales.
He wants us to know John Wayne played chess and played it pretty well.
According to a note on the copyright page, the essays in Talk Show “originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the Web site of The New York Times”. There’s a two word name for essays that appear on a web site. Blog posts. I’ve had the link on my blog roll for a couple of years. Cavett began posting for the Times in early 2007. He agreed to post weekly but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Closer to every other week, with a week missed here, an extra added there. Still, it’s added up to a full book’s worth of material. The last essay/post in the book is dated April 9. 2010, but I can’t be sure if Talk Show includes every single post Cavett wrote over those three years. Some might have been left out, and a number of the longer “essays” in the book appear to be several sequential posts edited, for the most part seamlessly, together, but there’s no editor’s note to tell me one way or the other. Still, by my count, there are sixty-eight unnumbered chapters, plus the introduction. That dark night of the soul—or soulless, as the author of the brain book keeps insisting, to my middle of the night dismay---after racing through three essays of Talk Show, full of gratitude and relief, I shut the book. Not out of disappointment, disgust, anger, or boredom. Out of fear. I was afraid that if I didn’t make myself stop I would stay up all night and finish Talk Show in one sitting. I didn’t want to do that because I’d had an inspiration.
If I restrained myself and read only one chapter a night, skipping weekends, I could enjoy Cavett’s company for the next two months. Think of all the dark, lonely hours this would get me through.
My plan was working fine for a couple of weeks. Then a little more than halfway in I read this:
[Last week] I addressed a group of noble citizens whose job is aiding and counseling poor devils suffering from depression. CAVETT RETURNS HOME TO DISCUSS ‘THE WORST AGONY DEVISED FOR MAN’ read the next day’s headline in the Lincoln paper. depsite the subject matter, I got quite a lot of laughs. My credentials? Having been there myself.
The year before I had talked to a similar group of caregivers in Omaha in front of an audience that included what you’d think would be an entertainer’s nightmare: a hundred or more people in the throes of the disease. I expected no laughs.
Miraculously, I kept them laughing for perhaps and hour. clearly the fact that I knew about their plight from own experience had a lot---or maybe everything---to do with it.
I was able to say to them, I know that everyone here knows that feeling when people say to you, “Hey, shape up! Stop thinking about your troubles What’s to be depressed about? Go swimming or lay tennis and you’ll feel a lot better. Pull up your socks!” And how you, hearing this, would like nothing more than to remove one of those socks and choke them to death with it.
(Such inane advice of the “socks up” variety, by the way, can only be excused by the fact that if you’ve never had it you can never begin to imagine the depth of the ailment’s black despair. Another tip: Do not ask the victim what he has “to be depressed about.” The malady doesn’t care if you’re broke and alone or successful and surrounded by a loving family. It does its democratic dirty work to your brain chemistry regardless of your “position.”)
I didn’t know this about Cavett, that he suffered from depression.
As I mentioned, Cavett’s blog has been on my blog roll for a while so I’d read many of the posts that have promoted to essays for the book. But not all of them. I missed a bunch including the two in which he wrote about depression. Coming across them unexpectedly and as news in Talk Show changed my perception of the book and my feelings about it. I stopped reading it as light extemporania and started thinking of it as more of a memoir. He isn’t just writing about famous people he has known whom he’d like us to know better as people, no modifier.
There are things, it turns out, that Cavett wants us to know about himself.
Talk Show is not a memoir of depression. I wouldn’t call it a depressive’s book. But the fact of Cavett’s depression is a reminder of the fact of the man. This is a particular man’s book and it was written out of that man’s moods and experiences. Once I was alert to the fact that he has suffered from depression, I began to be on the lookout for other things he might be feeling. And I came to see that often what he might have been feeling as he wrote was sad and lonely.
As Cavett was quick to remind one of his doctors, sadness and depression are different, with sadness not coming close in its debilitating effects on a person. Also, something else he points out, for some reason people are much better able to mask their depression than they are their sadness. He remembers Woody Allen asking him one time, in all seriousness, wanting to know, “How am I supposed to know you’re depressed?” Cavett had no answer, because you’re not supposed to know. With that in mind, you might wonder if the funniest, liveliest, breeziest pieces in the book were written when, to use one of Cavett’s own phrases for it, his “brain was busted.”
You might really wonder when you read his account of what happened the time he interviewed Lawrence Olivier with a busted brain.
But while Talk Show is far from a melancholy book, it is touched throughout by sadness. And how could it not be? Start making a list of all the people Cavett writes about with such affection who are dead. It’ll be a long one, and it’ll start with his wife, the actress Carrie Nye, who died of lung cancer five years ago, less than a year before Cavett began writing these pieces for the Times. It isn’t surprising that so many of his subjects are dead. Our interest in them has a lot to do with their being dead. We want to know about them because their reputations, their legends, and their bodies of work have lived on so long after them. And several---Newman, Buckley, Bobby Fischer---are in here because they’d just died and Cavett naturally took the occasion to eulogize his now absent friends. But the dead far outnumber the living in these pages and Talk Show is a book crowded with ghosts. For all I know Cavett has scores of friends and relatives still solidly walking the earth, but only a few show up here with any frequency, and Woody Allen seems to be keeping a wary distance, while Cavett and his best friend from his childhood and youth back in Nebraska see each other on rare occasions, and his old comedy writing friend David Lloyd has died since the last essay in the book was written. I can’t imagine that Cavett could have written about his departed without feeling their absence and that’s a lot of absence to feel. Once I became aware of that, Cavett began to seem a man alone with his ghosts.
I started reading Talk Show for the pleasure of the company, but I can’t get over the feeling that Cavett was writing in order to have some company for himself. Since he wrote them originally to be posted online, he in fact did have company. The posts have comment sections and Cavett is aware of his commenters and solicitous of their opinions and quite clearly grateful for their company.
All this meant for me, though, is that Talk Show no longer worked as a an antidote to the dead of night ennui and malaise caused by those other books. Which was too bad, but not too too bad, because it gave me permission to abandon my plan and read on through to the end in a couple more sittings.
I don’t have a clear memory of watching The Dick Cavett Show back when it was on. I’ve since seen many clips and watched most of the shows included in the DVD collections . But I didn’t watch it regularly when I was a kid, although I remember that when I did going into school the next morning feeling awfully impressed with myself and just bursting to spring one of Cavett’s or his guest’s witticisms on my friends. My parents would sometimes let me stay up to watch with them when Cavett had on a guest they were interested in, after they changed the channel from NBC when Johnny had finished his monologue. The only single show I remember vividly is the Mailer-Vidal dustup and it turns out that I don’t remember that as clearly as I thought. I’d forgotten the writer Janet Flanner was also a guest that night and Mailer offended her as well. The chapter about that night in Talk Show reminded me about Flanner but I still can’t “see” her there in my mind’s eye.
What I’m getting at is that although a lot of what’s in Talk Show is about things I might have seen, a lot of what’s in the book is new to me. I expect that if you’re older than I am and have a better memory and were a fan, much of the material is going to seem familiar, but I don’t think it will feel old-hat. As I said, Cavett doesn’t rehash the shows, he uses the memories as springboards.
If you weren’t a fan or were too young at the time to remember it well now or to have watched it at all then, reading Talk Show will probably make you wish you could watch some of those shows now and, fortunately, you can. Cavett helpfully includes the URLs so you can go online and find clips and even entire interviews from shows he refers to in the book.
I recommend you look up the shows featuring Richard Burton. In them you can see Cavett leading Burton into the sort of conversation Jack Paar recommended Cavett try to have with his guests instead of interviewing them.
The interview---conversation---starts out awkwardly. Neither Cavett nor Burton know where to begin or have an idea where to go with things. But Cavett is patient. He doesn’t reach for any tricks to make Burton talk. He waits out the occasional silences and eventually what he gets from Burton is not Burton’s stock in trade as a gifted raconteur, the hilarious tall tales of nights of heroic drinking with Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris and ribald stories of erotic misadventure. Cavett soon has Burton talking, warmly, about his childhood and his large, extended family back home in Wales. A clip from that show is below, but first here’s something Cavett wants you to know about Richard Burton:
He was ailing during those shows, but I didn’t know it and he didn’t show it. He had been praised in the “Camelot” he was then appearing in for his “economy of motion” — a phrase that recurred in the reviews. Swinging the heavy sword onstage with a slow-motion deliberateness was effective in the way Kurosawa’s ingeniously conceived slow-motion sinking to earth of a mortally wounded swordsman in “The Seven Samurai” — the dust slowly rising as he fell — was so inventive and effective. (And so flatteringly stolen in countless dramas and westerns thereafter.)
Few knew that Richard’s limited physical ability at the time accounted in large part for those effective slowed motions. His “choices,” as actors call them, were in part bred of pain. That “accomplishing the largest effect with the smallest effort” he referred to in our interview was not, in this case, entirely by choice. All this had been kept from public knowledge.
Shortly after the shows with him, I heard details about the illness from an actor friend of his. I think it was Richard Harris. A surgeon I knew, skirting medical ethics perhaps, filled me in: “The poor guy needs a bad operation.” (Maybe not his exact words. He probably used the popular medical euphemism, “procedure.” Sounds a lot more fun than “surgery” or “operation.”)
“Don’t you touch him!” I wanted to say. I asked what specifically needed to be done to Richard. It was then and there that I learned the chilling word “laminectomy.” When I admitted to being “unfamiliar” with the term (and why don’t we ever just say, “I don’t know that word”?), the sawbones dropped euphemism dramatically: “We go in through your neck and take out part of your back.”
If I didn’t pale, it felt like it.
“Camelot” finished its run, and Burton was in Los Angeles, preparing for his surgical ordeal. I learned he was in L.A. the same day I was about to leave there for New York, and called his agent, hoping to pass on good wishes. Coincidence strikes again.
She answered with, “Dick Cavett! I simply cannot believe it’s you calling!” She went on:
“Less than 20 seconds ago, I just finished showing the last of your four shows with Richard to a group of his brothers who’ve come over from Wales for the operation. Maybe 10 seconds ago. Your theme song is just fading from the screen.”
History shows, by the way, that the operation was a success and a pain-relieved Richard lived out the rest of his too-brief life span.
But before hanging up, I asked the agent if I could talk to one of the Burton brothers, wanting to see if he sounded like Richard. He didn’t, of course. The lilting Welsh accent I find so pleasing to the ear was, unlike Richard’s, unadulterated. He was a slyly amusing man and I laughed when he accused me of “calling from the next room,” because of the uncanny timing. And he got off on a laugh.
“Ya know somethin’, Mr. Cavett? We never knew Richard was so interestin’!”
Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets by Dick Cavett, published by Times Books, is available in hardback and kindle editions from Amazon.
Now the clip: