Books: Cultural Amnesia — Dick Cavett | clivejames.com
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DICK  CAVETT

Dick Cavett was born in 1937 in Nebraska. In high school he was a state gymnastics champion and trained himself as a magician. After Yale, he began his television career as a writer for Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, and subsequently ruled as the small screen’s most sophisticated talk show host from the early 1970s onwards. In America, the talk show format depends on a comic monologue at the top of the show, perhaps a few sketches, and then the star interviews. Cavett’s format dissolved the humour into the interviews, and much of his wit was unscripted. The idea that one man could be both playful and serious was never deemed to be quite natural on American television and Cavett was regarded as something of a freak even at the time. Eventually he paid the penalty for being sui generis in a medium that likes its categories to be clearly marked. I should say for the record that his interview with me was one of the least amusing he ever did, and it was my fault. But I learned a lot from him and never forgot him. The book Cavett (1974), which carries on its title page both his own name and that of his friend and amanuensis Christopher Porterfield, is cast mainly in the form of a long interview with the star. One of the best books about show business ever published, there is nothing quite like it, just as there has never been anyone quite like him.

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Howya gonna keep ’ em down on the farm, after they’ve seen the farm?
DICK CAVETT, QUOTING ABE BURROWS

DICK CAVETT may have heard this line from someone else and stored it away for future use, but was certainly capable of thinking it up for himself and delivering it on the spot. In lofty retrospect, the trick of the line seems obvious enough to rank as one of those trouvailles waiting to glorify whoever gets to it first. Abe Burrows merely got lucky. (Abe Burrows also shared the credit for the superb libretto of Guys and Dolls, which was scarcely a matter of mere luck; but that’s by the way.) As a true sophisticate with a daunting intellectual range, Cavett was the most distinguished talk show host in America, if sophistication and an intellecutual range were what you wanted. Johnny Carson was an even bigger celebrity, but Carson was a comedian first and foremost. Cavett’s mental life was so rich that he could do comedy as a sideline. The only persona that he bothered to, or needed to, develop for working to the camera was of a boy from Nebraska dazzled by the bright lights of New York. To fit that persona, he would freely help himself to ideas from his range of influences stretching back to W. C. Fields and beyond. But he also had the capacity to make up great new stuff at terrific speed. He began as a writer for the established hosts and he could write for anybody, matching not only their themes but their tone of voice. When he finally appeared on screen as himself, he had to match his own tone of voice. He found that harder, but soon got awesomely good at it. By the time he got to me, in 1974, he had already interviewed almost every household name in the country, and was ready for the more difficult challenge of interviewing someone whose name wasn’t known at all, and of making something out of that. We were on air, I had hummed and hedged about my reasons for leaving Australia, and he suavely sailed in with his own explanation, which I reproduce above. The throwaway speed of it impressed me: if he had used the line before, he knew just how to make it sound as if he hadn’t. A small, handsome man with an incongruously deep voice, Cavett was deadpan in the sense that he had no special face to signify a funny remark. He just said it, the way that the best conversational wits always do. In conversation, “joke” is a deadly word: anyone who relishes improvised humour will duck for cover if he hears a prepared joke coming. Whether in private or in public, Cavett’s style posed no such danger. He was by far the wittiest of the American talk show television hosts, most of whom have always been dependent on their writers. There is no shame in that: in Britain and Australia, most of the talk shows go on the air once a week for a limited season. In America it is more like once a day forever. The host’s huge salary is his compensation for never being free to spend it. The schedule is crushing, and the top-of-the-show monologue, if the host were to write it on his own, would need a full day’s work, with no time left over for all the other preparation he has to do. Before the American host sits down with his first guest, he must first be a stand-up comedian: a joke teller. Cavett, having started as a writer, understood that condition well. But in his career on camera he was always more interested in the stuff that came after the monologue: the conversation with the guest. In this he was different from Carson and anyone else who has followed in Carson’s tradition, right up to the present day. Even Jon Stewart, who deserves his billing as a rare bird, is more like Carson than like Cavett.

Carson was most at home doing his annual, high-earning stand-up stint in Las Vegas. Sitting down on his show, he could be spontaneously funny if the guest opened an opportunity—the clumsier the guest, the more opportunities there were—but it was strictly counterpunching. When the guest provided no suitable stimuli, Carson’s grovelling feed-man, Ed McMahon, chipped in and Carson counterpunched against him. Carson’s successor on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno, does without the stooge but works essentially the same way: the core of his technique is stand-up joke telling, and he keeps in shape by taking cabaret dates all over America. (When he was my guest in London, Leno was in his element, firing off jokes one after the other. When I was his guest in Los Angeles, he did the same thing. I did my best to come back at him, but it wasn’t a conversation: more like mouth-to-mouth assassination.) Of the star hosts currently operating, David Letterman comes closest to Cavett’s easy-seeming urbanity, but Letterman, for all his quickness of reflex, needs, or anyway takes, a lot of time to tell a story—at the top of the show, he can take ten minutes to get two things said, with much eye-popping and many an audience-milking “Whoo!,” “Hey!” and “Uh-huh!” Nor does Letterman really enjoy it when the guest threatens to be capable of completing a paragraph unassisted, and an eloquent woman races his motor to a frenzy: instead of interrupting after every sentence, he interrupts during the sentence. The interruptions can be very funny, and they increase our opportunities to admire him: but they reduce our opportunities to admire the guest. Among the current bunch, Conan O’Brien gave you, when he was starting out, the best idea of what Cavett’s unemphatic poise used to be like; but O’Brien, as he completes his climb to stardom, gives himself an ever-increasing ration of havin’-fun hollerin’. It’s an imperative of the business, and Cavett defied it at his peril. Cavett never mugged, never whooped it up for the audience, rarely told a formally constructed joke, and listened to the guest. To put it briefly, his style did not suit an American mass audience, and in the course of time a position that had never been firm in the first place was fatally eroded.

Perhaps he was too cultivated. His Upper East Side brownstone was full of good books, which the range of reference in his conversation proved that he had read. (At Yale he had been an erratic student, but one of those erratic students who somehow end up reading the whole of Henry James, probably because somebody advised him not to.) Though temperamentally a nervous wreck by nature, he seemed as much at ease among his civilized surroundings as Jay Leno seems at ease among his classic cars and motorcycles. I was in New York to promote my book Unreliable Memoirs, which I suspected at the start would have little chance of securing an American audience. It was just too hard to classify: most of the first wave of American reviewers had convicted it of trying to be truthful and fanciful at the same time. Since I had clearly had no other aim in mind, I read these indictments with sad bewilderment. The most powerful reviewer, in The New York Review of Books, had seized on my incidental remark “Rilke was a prick” in order to instruct me that Rilke was, on the contrary, an important German poet. These portents were not good. But Cavett had been so nice about the book on air that I allowed myself to imagine he had actually read it, so here was one American reader already in the bag. He asked me to lunch at the Algonquin, where he was delightfully fast and funny; and then later in the week he asked me home for drinks, where he was even better, because he was ready to talk his business instead of mine. I learned a lot from him in a tearing hurry. Discussing his disasters on air (self-deprecation was one of his charms) he put on a tape of an old show and fast-forwarded to an illustrative moment. I can’t remember who the guests were or what they were doing—it could have been Truman Capote attacking Sonny Liston with a handkerchief—but I can remember exactly the question Cavett asked me. “Why did my voice get louder just then?” When I hazarded that it was because the sound engineer had racked up the level, Cavett rewound a minute of the tape and showed me the moment again. “It didn’t get louder,” he said. “The director cut to the close shot.” Then he played me an example of a line getting lost because his director cut to the wide shot. Suddenly I saw it all: the closeness of the shot varies the volume. I had already done years of television without figuring that one out for myself. That was the night I learned to wait for the red light on my camera before launching a would-be zinger. The red light meant go. In later years, isolated individual tapes (called iso-tapes in the trade) did away with the problem, but at the time it was vital information. Cavett, who did a minimum of four shows a week, knew everything about talking in vision.

It made him famous. He was never as famous as Carson, but he was famous enough not to be able to go out except in disguise. With a fishing hat pulled down over his ears he walked me along to Fifth Avenue so I could hail a cab. In that area the sidewalks had just been relaid with a sprinkling of metal dust in the concrete so that they would sparkle under the streetlights. We were walking on a night sky. Years later I did his show again. He was just as welcoming but he had even less time to spare. His show was fighting for renewal. The network executives thought he was finished and they might have been right. Those hundreds of shows a year had worn him out. The joke-telling machines can take that kind of schedule because nothing troubles them in their interior lives except the problem of finding time to spend the money. Cavett’s interior life was more complicated. For too long he had been questioning the value of what he did for a living. I think he really wanted to be a writer, but couldn’t face the risk of failing at it. The idea that he was born for television secretly appalled him. One of his many on-air comments about his lack of inches—“Sony are making people”—had a bitter tinge.

But born for television he was. Even if he had never hosted a talk show, his comedy specials would have been enough to establish him as one of the most original small-screen talents since Ernie Kovacs. I particularly treasure the blissful moment when Cavett was being loomed over by a luscious six-foot blonde. Sheltering under her magnificent bosom, Cavett addressed the audience. “Allow me to present,” he said, “Admiral Harvey Q. Beeswanger USN, master of disguise.” He had the wit’s gift of making the language the hero—the gift of playful seriousness. In America, however, play and seriousness make uneasy bedfellows. Even a supposedly urbane magazine or culture supplement will contract a severe case of editorial nerves if a contributor cracks wise on a serious theme, and in the general run of show business the two elements, as time goes on, grow more and more separate instead of closer together.

It might be said that the United States is the first known case of a civilization developing through disintegration. It might be said, but you wouldn’t want to say it on an entertainment talk show. A licensed iconoclast like Gore Vidal could perhaps get way with it, but no host would dare try—or even, alas, be capable of thinking such a thing. There are special talk shows for that sort of stuff. Charlie Rose has the seriousness business all sewn up. There will be no Dick Cavett of the future. We should count ourselves lucky that there was one in the past. I count myself blessed that I knew him when he was still a small but seductive part of the American landscape. Eventually the American landscape seemed to change its mind about wanting to include him, but it is possible that he had the idea first. At one point, towards the end, he was scheduled to do a set of programmes in England, for later transmission in America. Booked as a guest and champing at the bit, I was one of the many admirers looking forward to his arrival: but he never showed up. Apparently he boarded the Concorde at Kennedy, had a breakdown before the plane took off, and was taken home. I never found out what happened to him afterwards, and have never tried to find out. He would always have been a melancholic if he had given himself time, and perhaps he finally had time. (At the Algonquin he had given me a copy of his marvellous book, Cavett, and on the contents page he wrote “More in Seurat than in Ingres.”) A man looking for oblivion should be allowed to have it. Like Dick Diver at the end of Tender Is the Night, Dick Cavett sank back into America. He had already taught me my biggest lesson about television, far bigger than the one about the light on the camera: doing television can be wonderfully rewarding in every sense, but if there is nothing else in your life, watch out.