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Cavett Rocks On

Posted by sdrury on November 1, 2009

Imagine a talk show where the host’s face is, often, momentarily obscured by a plume of smoke from one of his guest’s cigarettes. Or a boom mike quite obviously dropping into a stoned guest’s personal space so as to better capture his incoherent ramblings. Or the host, again, being caught off guard by an impending commercial and then making little attempt to hide his frustration about yet another interruption to his conversation; crankily, and through rings of smoke, he announces the show will return after a brief commercial message.

Nowadays such qualities in a show would be openly mocked by a media-literate audience. Any imperfections that do occur in the dozens of talk shows that now poison the airwaves are well-planned attempts by the host or producer to keep it “real” or to convey an air of spontaneity or off-the-cuffery. Perhaps that’s why the fall-back technique for most non-fiction programs is to illuminate the production flaws, thereby perpetuating the myth that what is being viewed has not been plotted with meticulous precision. It didn’t used to be this way. People who worked in non-fiction television didn’t always try to dupe their viewers.

Lest anyone suspect I’m about to launch into a nostalgic riff about the glories of live television, that era was well before my time. I’m referring to the Dick Cavett Show, which in its various incarnations aired on seven different networks, most memorably for five years on ABC starting in 1969 and then in a scaled down version on PBS from 1977-1982.

The talk show has been around since the earliest days of television. For as much as television has changed in the last 50 years the talk show has changed very little. Neither have TV executive’s admiration for it. The reason talk shows are held so dear by the suits is not because they are a more highly evolved form of entertainment. It’s because they’re cheap. The only major outlay is the salary of the host, which is not insubstantial, but it pales in comparison to the cost of shooting on location, where a cast and crew must be paid, fed, housed and insured. In a time when viewers of prime time network television are dwindling like a 401k it should come as no surprise that a popular host landed a gig at 10 o’clock five nights a week.

Even though hundreds of channels are now available for every imaginable niche group, as a format, the talk show remains much it like it did at its inception. There is an opening monologue, a sidekick, a desk (usually), a band and invited guests (who are paid a few hundred dollars for their troubles). The guests, generally, are actors, musicians or comics. Occasionally, politicians, authors or athletes find their way onto the seat next to the host. Other variables include skits, stunts, and conceits that invite audience participation.

Dick Cavett made every effort to reject these clichés over the course of a forty year career. 

I recall my mother watching the Dick Cavett Show during the PBS iteration, but I can’t honestly recall a specific episode or guest from that period. Later, I heard my mother draw a comparison between Cavett and Charlie Rose. Since I’ve always admired her taste in anything cultural, I put myself on notice for anything bearing his name.

In 2005 Shout! Factory released several theme-based multi-disc DVD sets of Cavett’s old shows. They include specials with blandish titles like “Hollywood Greats” and “Comic Legends.” I recently rented the three-disc “Rock Icons” set through my Netflix account and I expected that the discs would feature only music performances and interviews, but the shows are available in their entirety, with a brief introduction from Cavett himself. Presently, he writes semi-regularly for The New York Times website and often includes clips from his old shows in his column.

In all the clips I’ve seen of Cavett’s shows I can’t help but having the impression that the only reason he had a talk show to begin with was because it gave him an excuse to meet and chat with a lot of really interesting people. The opening monologues from the ABC shows are terrible. They are too often referring to events germain only to New York, which is where the show was shot; garbage strikes, the incompetence of Mayor John Lindsay and local weather are common topics. He had a bandleader/sidekick who he tried, usually without success, to engage in witty repartee. Cavett himself could barely conceal his distaste in these talk show tropes. The PBS version of his show suited him much better as it dispensed with bandleader banter (there was no band to lead) and the opening monologue was more of an introduction than a series of one-liners. Cavett is at ease in this format, a mood that was probably exacerbated by a very small audience as opposed to the large studio audience that greeted him on the ABC version. There’s little doubt as to which version Cavettheads prefer.

Nevertheless, the ABC show aired during what could be fairly described as the salad days of popular music in America. The first program on the Rock Icons disc aired the day after Woodstock. Jimi Hendrix was slated to appear but had back out since his performance had lasted into the early morning hours of the day of shooting. The guest appeared more or less together. Joni Mitchell, looking childlike, sang three songs, one of which was performed a cappella. She had declined an appearance at Woodstock in favor of preparing for her appearance on Cavett’s show. A scheduling faux pas that her career was able to overcome. The other guests were David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Jefferson Airplane, whose singer, Grace Slick, referred to Cavett as Jim. Crosby is his usual grating self, commanding attention through the quantity, rather than the quality of his thoughts.

What’s interesting about this show is neither the guests nor the now-classic music, it’s Cavett. He and the musicians are seated in a circle, on what look to be pillows. Cavett, ignoring his usual jacket and tie, briefly dons an ascot—which he tosses into the crowd, recognizing the absurdity of its presence around his neck—and opens at least two buttons on his shirt. He looks like a complete square—to use the parlance—yet the musicians see that his curiosity is genuine. Watching this scene, I tried to imagine fellow talk-show host (and fellow Nebraskan) Johnny Carson in such a setting. And this, really, was the essence of the difference between the two men. Carson, who had his beginnings as a game show host was a master at making his guests feel comfortable and the best way to do that was to exude an air of comfort himself. He had great timing as a comic, and his monologues expertly combined self-deprecation with Midwestern sensibilities. Mostly though, Carson loved the Hollywood-ness of being the host of The Tonight Show. Sure, occasionally a topical guest found a spot between him and Ed McMahon, but he loved talking to Jimmy Stewart and Buddy Hackett and Shelley Winters and Phyllis Diller, about their latest movie or vacation or pet or hilarious circumstance. Very few people, besides Tiny Tim, made news on The Tonight Show. Carson specialized in being familiar.

By contrast, Cavett was willing to step out of his comfort zone if it meant he could book non-traditional guests. While it’s possible this was for the sake of ratings, it’s more likely that he was fascinated by people like Salvador Dali and Ingemar Bergman. Not only was Cavett willing to rattle his own cage he was not above rattling his guest’s when he felt it was merited. He interviewed Lester Maddox and Angela Davis, until she was forced to cancel. A guest, Jerome Rodale, died on his show (it was never aired) and he talked bluntly about pornography. He had no reservations about playing a role in the “Symphony of Emotions.” Try to imagine Carson doing this.

The first disc of the “Rock Icons” series concludes with interviews of David Bowie and Sly Stone. I’ve never been much of a fan of Bowie, but his appearance with Cavett was mesmerizing. He’s probably high at the time of the interview and once seated, his frame is so lean his bones seem ready to burst through his suit. As Cavett questions him, he grips a cane for balance, emotional or otherwise. Whether it’s Cavett’s presence or the narcotic effect, Bowie is as forthright any rock star I’ve ever seen. His very British smile (cosmetic dentistry apparently was not among Bowie’s expenses at the time) reveals an air of uncertainty about his well-established career. It’s Bowie as raw as he’s ever been.

Of all the performances on the set, Sly Stone’s is the best. He and the Family Stone are vibrant, enthusiastic and utterly charming. Unfortunately, Sly seems to also be under the influence when chatting with Cavett, his beaming smile providing little clue to what was actually coming from his mouth. At one point, Cavett looks like he has no clue what Sly just said—a very un-Carson like loss of poise—but plows on, knowing that another musical number will render this lapse in coherence irrelevant.

The second disk is dedicated to Janis Joplin. As with Bowie, I’ve admired her music more than I’ve enjoyed it, but here she is heartbreakingly endearing. Of course, I know what fate awaits her, but Cavett, who has acknowledged his own battles with depression, senses that this is a woman worn out. Cavett tries to build her up through praise, but then Janis talks about the loneliness of the road. He sympathizes with her complaint about overly cerebral European audiences. He lights her cigarette. In one memorable sequence, seated among Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, and Chet Huntley, she and Racquel Welch talk about current events and overzealous fans. Try to imagine say, Lady Gaga, talking with, say Harrison Ford, Tom Brokaw and Kate Winslet. It would be impossible in today’s heavily regimented, self-promotion environment, where guests have been trained to speak only of themselves.

Later, Janis finds herself on the same set as Gloria Swanson. Cavett seems to make an effort to include her in every conversation like an older brother guarding his baby sister in her first days in high school. He wants to indulge her and protect her.

The final disk opens with Paul Simon performing, talking about songwriting and working out an early version of “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Once Simon departs Cavett himself is interviewed by three authors—Jerzy Kosinski, Barbara Howar and Anthony Burgess—on the occasion of the printing of his own memoir. The authors critique the book and  Burgess is wonderfully frank while Kosinski attempts, with moderate success, to penetrate Cavett’s psyche. In a moment of meta-media, Howar reminds Cavett that what he does on a nightly basis as a talk show will quickly be forgotten, having written a book will be a more permanent accomplishment. I wonder which sells more these days, the book or DVDs of old shows?

The next artist featured is the effervescent Stevie Wonder. Even when writing about inner-city violence and despair, he manages to remain bubbly. Here, Cavett is somewhat placating, he appears unsure of how to refer, if at all, to Wonder’s blindness. The format of the traditional talk show, demanding some sort of acknowledgement of the obvious, is something Cavett would rather ignore, and I got the feeling that there many questions that went unspoken.

Finally, the series concludes with the quiet Beatle, George Harrison (Cavett’s interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono comprise a separate series on Shout!). Harrison performs anonymously as a guitarist with Gary Wright. The interview with him is all-encompassing. He and Cavett talk about the Concert for Bangladesh (and what a hassle it was to manage the money), why the Beatles broke up (he was tired of his “quota” of one or two songs per album and wanted to perform his own material), drug use and Ravi Shankar. Harrison mocks the convention of talk shows by reading from the commercial cues before Cavett. Cavett groans at every station break like a child being told to go to bed on Christmas Eve. “Commercial??? Can’t you see I’m talking to George Harrison!!!”

Whatever his frustrations, he is clearly enjoying his time with Harrison (and later, Shankar) so much so that he seems sincerely disappointed when Harrison compares his appearance on the show to a performance. “Do you really look at this as a conversation or a performance?” he asks. When Harrison assured him it’s the former, I felt Cavett’s relief. And that really was why Cavett endured. He understood that smart people respond to other smart people and a smart audience would understand and appreciate that. While he never garnered the audience of Carson, the devotion of his fans has never faded.

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