Forty years ago, The Dick Cavett Show was a place where luminaries sparred (e.g., Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer), where reclusive stars lowered their guard (Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier), and where musicians were actually interviewed about their music (David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon). Cavett’s show put an early spotlight on the Watergate scandal, even taping a special episode with the senators in the very chambers where the hearings were taking place. It’s hard to imagine today’s major-network late-night shows doing anything similar.
The Nebraska-born Cavett began in New York as a broke Yale grad attempting an acting career while working as a copy boy at Time magazine. One afternoon, with a Time envelope in hand, he bluffed his way into The Tonight Show studios and handed said envelope, filled with jokes, to Jack Paar, who was then the show’s host. Paar used some of the material that night; Cavett was hired, and booked talent for Paar, briefly, until a writing staff slot opened up. Later, he wrote for fellow Nesbaskan Johnny Carson before going out on his own, so to speak.
Cavett, at seventy-seven, keeps busy—for the past several years he’s moonlighted as a columnist for the New York Times, and earlier this year he starred in Hellman v. McCarthy, a play off Broadway at the Abingdon Theater Company that explores the legal fallout from a time in ’79 when Cavett had the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy on his show. McCarthy lambasted Lillian Hellman: “She really belongs to the past. As I said in an interview, she’s such a dishonest writer that even her ands and thes are lies.” Cavett plays himself in the play. “The funny thing is,” he told the Times when it debuted, “I was the second choice for the role.”
In July, Cavett made a popular video with Dave Hill and Malcolm Gladwell about the Amazon-Hachette dispute; he followed this with an op-ed in Time about the prevalence of depression in show business (“Robin Williams Won’t Be the Last Suicidal Star”). That same week, PBS aired a special, “Dick Cavett’s Watergate,” about his role in having publicized the scandal.
Finally, last week saw the publication of Cavett’s new memoir, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks, with a foreword by Jimmy Fallon. To discuss the book, late-night television, and his writing process, I rang Cavett at his house in Montauk.
In Cavett, your book from 1974, you quite vehemently said you had no interest in being a cultural critic. But that’s an arguably accurate descriptor for you.
I would never think of that as a description of me. It has a nice sound, I like the alliteration, but other than that, it surprises me when I’m called that. Honestly, I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me to think of myself as a writer/commentator/ cultural critic /columnist. Especially for The New York Times. I’ve had op-ed pieces in the Times over the years when I was pissed off about something. But I always felt alien to friends who knew exactly what they wanted to be. I’m still wondering.
Anyway, the Times offer came over the transom—or out of the blue. (Is it National Cliché Week?) and I took the dive. (Another one.) I’ve been told I write well, maybe thanks to two English teacher parents who wrote well, so I took the job. It’s not for the money, I assure you. Someone said, do you want to try a column for the Times? And I thought, Sure, I guess. How much. And they said two days a week. Most writers would have meant how much money, I guess. And I said, that seems easy enough, and it was—for about three weeks when I was doing two a week. Then I started to get desperate, because I felt I had said everything I would ever be able to say in a column of any kind. It’s always nice when someone remembers a line correctly from something you’ve written. In a Sarah Palin column, I said, “She seems to have no first language.” And this is much remembered to this very day, I find. Strange.
You’ve said that when you were writing for Jack Paar and Johnny Carson you were very prolific, that it just came out of you. But then when you turned to write for yourself, for your nightclub act, you struggled and sweated, as Woody Allen had warned you you might, since writing for yourself is the hardest of chores.
That was a real shock—to learn that I could fill a page and annoy the other writers on the staff of The Tonight Show by having my stuff ready and handed in before they were half finished. But it is that essential thing, you’ve gotta hear the person you’re writing for in your head accurately with his or her—dreadful phrase, isn’t it?—intonations, phrasing, punctuation, rhythm, all of those essential things so that you don’t hand a Jack Benny joke to Bob Hope. (Need asterisks, young folks, on those names?) So imagine the awfulness of learning that I can’t just put my name at the top of the page and write stuff for my nightclub act at zip speed. It was like—this is a little overdramatic—C. S. Lewis’s book about his wife’s death, where you turn to God for help and you have a door slammed in your face. I had the awful realization, I don’t know what I sound like. Eventually, mercifully, you learn, because you have to.
Has that voice changed? Do you find it easier to write in your voice now?
I don’t think so, but sometimes I wonder what my “voice” may consist of or what in it might be unconsciously borrowed. Sometimes I think, Hey, that sounds like my old friend, Jean Stafford—flattering myself. A former-producer friend of mine, Ron Fried, said he keeps seeing overtones of S. J. Perelman in my columns. I’ve never tried to sound like S. J. Perelman, and yet sometimes I too see the influence, at least. But no one could come near that lapidary comic genius of Uncle Sid. I asked him once if he—or I—had thought up the title “Down by the Old Maelstrom.” His “I wish I had” warmed me to the toes.
Let’s talk about late night. The people who are able to do the types of interviews you used to do—with authors, senators, intellectuals—are the comedians, people on Comedy Central, or the product of it. Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, et cetera. Mainstream late-night shows on traditional networks are pure entertainment talk shows now. Yours sort of straddled the line between the two.
Well, as you will readily agree, Stewart and Colbert and Kimmel and Bill Maher and Conan would be all over Watergate if they’d have been lucky enough to have been there at the time. As for a long-form show, I keep hearing people say that we don’t seem to have those any more, of the kind, they’d say, that I did with Katharine Hepburn or George Harrison or Brando and Welles and so on. I love doing a long-form interview—it’s much easier than doing seven minutes.
Your show faced criticisms about having so many commercial breaks, or issues with plugging a movie that you didn’t personally like—but shows now seem to be in and of themselves commercials for their guests.
To be avoided. Between commercials, a starlet, as we used to say, comes on with a very short dress and visible gam, makes a joke about it, and then uses the word excited four times in the next four sentences. About how excited she is about her producer, and excited about the script, and the exciting towel she got at the gym. And she’s super excited to be there. As if all of life strives for a state of perpetual excitement. Excitement isn’t necessarily a good thing for the blood pressure. So you sit through a bewildering, out of context film clip for a movie that will go right past movie theaters on its way to limbo and will badly need the applause sign at the end. And then, with a snap of her gum, she’s off, and you’re on to somebody else. Anybody.
Excited is almost as overused as amazing and the misused literally. News correspondent—“The senator literally exploded with anger.” Yeah? Well, who cleaned up the mess?