Big Think Interview With Dick Cavett

A conversation with the legendary talk show host.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: How would you prepare for your shows?

Dick Cavett: Oh, preparation, well, the Paar Tonight Show sort of set the model for how talk shows worked and they had what would be called the talent coordinator and that person's job was to meet with, if possible, the star or the author, or the historian, or the psychiatrist, or whoever was going to be the guest, and talk to them a little bit, or at least call them on the phone and talk a bit, and just get some stuff down on paper. Like, ask him about the fact that his daughter just won a prize, or he wants you to be sure and mention that the Hanseatic League, or--I'm sorry, I'm really reaching it--but so you got something for you to look down at, and I finally learned that that's great to have, but not even that is necessary if things roll the way you're supposed to and you have an engaging person, conversation moves as conversation does in real life and you don't necessarily have to look down and read off a note.

Maybe that's why on a notorious show of mine where Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal tried to eviscerate each other, when Mailer got pissed, well, he got pissed before he came to the studio, but annoyed at me on the air and I at him, and the thing, I guess, that really got me was when he said, "Why don't you just read the next question off the question sheet?" And that's when I said, somewhat famously now, "Why don't you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don't shine?" This got one of the longest laughs in my career and certainly in television and it went on from there. But the idea that the show was, he knew to pick on the thing that would anger a host the most, that he can't think of anything to say and has to read questions off a sheet.

Question: What was Norman Mailer like?

Dick Cavett: Oh, Norman was many, oh, my God, that woman again.  Has anything we've done been caught on tape? I've had that happen by the way. Oh, I like Norman Mailer and I loved his writing and long before I knew him and he was not gifted in the area of humor, thus on that notorious show of mine, Gore Vidal was able to get laughs off of him without--but Gore wasn't picking on him, he would just say things like, but Norman was pissed, I think drunk is the word I'm looking for, and came on to get even with Gore for something he said Gore had written about him.

But at one point he said, "Gore, can't you just talk to me instead of talking to the audience? Can't you just talk to me?" And Gore, in that elegant way that he has, said almost the following, I'll probably get 80% on it, a wonderful sentence, that got applause, it was, approximately, "Of course, I'd be happy to talk to you, Norman, but we don't find ourselves in the friendly neighborhood bar, but by election in front of a studio audience and it would be dishonest of us to pretend otherwise." And this great, one of those things, got a big hand, which of course, stung Norman. But he was on a later show, people said, "I bet you never spoke to him again!" Yeah, I did, I saw him a number of times after that and we remained friends, if not buddies

Question: Do you feel that the talk show form will ever change?

Dick Cavett: I doubt that it'll change. My set, I've had it fixed so that the minute an actress comes off to talk about her latest movie, it switches to any other channel, because you know she's going to use the word exciting at least five times in the first segment, if there is a second one, and she's so excited about her new director and it's the most exciting script she's ever read, and exciting people to work with, as if excitement were the desired state for all of us, to go around in a constant state of excitement. I expect someone to come on and say, "I've had the most exciting nap I've ever had." That should be expunged from the language, along with," let me ask you this," and, "some of my best friends are show people."

Question: What does it take to get on stage every night?

Dick Cavett: It takes something, to get out there every night, yeah, in the sense of five days a week. When I first started, it felt like being caught in the surf, where you go in a little rougher surf than you thought you did and you get knocked down, and you get up to your knees and you get knocked down again and again. It seemed like the next show came 20 minutes after the one you had just done, even though it was--well, in one case it was. In those days, when real men did talk shows and did 90 minutes a week, a night, I mean, I, feeling I needed a longer weekend, did two on Thursday. Five on five days is hard enough, two on Thursday, I never got to the end of the second one fully conscious. I remember I just would sort of sit there thinking, "This person's lips are moving, thank goodness, they must be saying something. Maybe I can detect what it is and answer." After that, I would go out to the country and for the first 30 miles of being driven out of town, my body gave off heat like a radiator from all that light for 180 minutes, it was the strangest thing.

But yeah, it's also great, great fun when it works and if you have the life that certain show people do, the time they're on is the only time they're vaguely happy. Like poor Judy Garland, or, well, Johnny was happiest on the air, by great measure than he was any other time of the day, and I liked Johnny so much, we were really good friends. He liked me a surprising amount and whenever a show of mine would go off, which happened several times, Johnny would have me on that Monday, the next Monday, on the Tonight Show, and say, "If this next one doesn't work, it's going to be Armed Forces Radio for Richard," but we had great fun together and got on well. But he had a rough life, off, as so many show people do, and he had a wife on the ledge at one point and he was drinking a bit, which is not a secret any more and wasn't then, really, about him, but boy, did he pull himself together for the show.

Question: What place does the late night talk show have in our culture?

Dick Cavett: God, I haven't the slightest idea. I guess maybe I don't think in those terms. I've just always known it to be there from as far back as I, almost as far back as I can remember, with Jerry Lester and Dagmar, two more asterisks, then Steve Allen, but it just always seemed like a natural--the fact is, of course, it didn't come about naturally, it had to be invented and the great Pat Weaver, Sigourney Weaver's dad, at NBC, really gave us, at one stroke, the Tonight Show, the Today Show, and there was one in the day time, I believe they all sort of started at the same time, called the Home Show, I think it was. That one fell by the wayside, but Today and Tonight remained. And they seemed to natural, it's hard to think somebody had to invent them, and added the desk and the chair for the tonight show. I varied at one point by sitting people in a circle, and you don't have to have a desk. Every time I started a new show, the press people would say, "How are you going to make this show new and different?" And it used to get me, why does it have to be new and different? The format's been around for years. But finally they persisted and I would say, "Well, the guests are going to stand and you'll think this is silly, maybe, but we're going to have the guests seated on blocks of ice, that tends to stimulate people to talk more and be more interesting." And the numskulls in the group would write these things down as if they were true.

Question: What are your thoughts on what happened between Leno and Conan O’Brien?

Dick Cavett: Well, what did? I haven't read any papers for at least a month. Yeah, oh, that's at once two things. One of the dumbest moves I've ever heard of being made by a network and also it's what I knew when I first heard about it, back when they were telling Jay, "Although your ratings are great, we don't need you forever," so, a wonderful way to treat the psyche of the performer, which is one thing that people never have a clue about, and I knew when I first heard it, this is never going to work. I don't know how exactly, I don't pretend to know why 10:00 proved to be such an awful time for a talk show, but it is. The psychology of that much later, when the Tonight Show's on and people have had a drink or two and are about to go to bed and watch some entertainment before nodding off, is very different from how you feel at 10:00 when you can see Law and Order, and other such shows, and it's just unnatural to turn over to the mess Jay inherited.

I thought Conan was interesting when he pointed out that, that hijack offer they offered him, the cynical thing that no one in his right mind would accept, to get rid of him, when he said that, "You can have the Tonight Show at 12:05." Well, somebody, including Conan, pointed out that 12:05 is no longer tonight, it's tomorrow, so it would have to be called The Early, Early Show, but anything but the Tonight Show, and they managed, I think, to damage, to make somewhat damaged goods of both artists involved. And they also succeeded in making their enemy David Letterman, NBC's competition, more successful than ever. So whoever is responsible for this boneheaded move will, as we know from watching these things, certainly within a week or two, be promoted and given a big raise.

Question: Was there a guest you really wanted but were never able to book?

Dick Cavett: There are a couple that stand out and I regret. I didn't try hard enough with Cary Grant. I remember on the phone with him once and he said, "Oh, they'll find out how dumb I am and Kate was so great on your show," and I tried to say, "Mr. Grant, you can only be so dumb, I'm sure, and you don't have to worry about that," and I think I sort of dropped that ball. And I know how much fun I would have had with Frank Sinatra and how he would've been glad he did it, and I don't know for sure why he didn't. I called once, tried to reach him and got one of his goons, who said, "I don't know who the hell you are," and, you know, "Frank doesn't do this stuff just everybody," or something like that, and that set me back a little. I didn't say goons, did I? I meant associates. But I got on swell with him in private life, that is at Friar's roasts, where we'd chat and laugh and stuff and I didn't try hard enough on those two.

But I was sort of famous for getting everybody I ever wanted and did. I'm not sure Barbara Walters ever forgave me for getting Katherine Hepburn first.

Question: Who was your favorite guest?

Dick Cavett :I should say that Groucho meant the most to me. I missed him as a kid, I grew up on the game show, my generation, my dad's generation grew up on the Marx Brother's movies and then, You Bet Your Life, but I had it the other way around. And we were in Hollywood once when I was a kid, about 10, visiting relatives and the farmer's market, I bought a chicken leg at one of those stands, and the lady said, "Hey, kid, you should've been here about two minutes ago, Groucho Marx was standing right where you are." And I thought, "There is no God. There is no God, or he would've not let me pee or stopped doing something I did, but to get here two minutes earlier and meet Groucho Marx." But I met him many years later, and for quite a number of years, so that was nice.

Leaving a party once, I went to movies with him, I can't believe it, I went to plays with him, I had dinner at his house and worked for him two weeks once. He didn't really much care for Hollywood society, or actors. He loved writers, he loved to hang out with writers, he was a born writer. And leaving a party once in California, he says, "Let's get out of here," and sneaking out and the hostess came over and said, "Well, Groucho, leaving so soon?" He said, "I've had a wonderful evening, but this wasn't it." Anyway, there you are.

Question: How did you get along with Bobby Fischer?

Dick Cavett: Bobby Fischer the chess artist, yes. I got along great with, I think I loved Bobby Fischer, he was such a sweet guy and such an absolute total diametrical contrast to the horror that he became with paranoid schizophrenia and wild hair and having his fillings removed because he thought nefarious types were sending messages to his head. He went completely nuts and I wish I had known when he might have been verging on it, I would've found him and tried to help him or get him to some, did nobody try to get him any therapy or any, whatever he needed, I don't know. I just lost touch with him and the next thing I learned, it was all over, virtually. He was brilliant on the show, he had a great sense of humor on the show, and he was obviously a genius and obviously had certain sides of him that were undeveloped, because his life was chess. Sometimes he stayed up all night and the next day, with all he knew, studying chess, studying more chess, older chess, other country's chess, it was a sad case of a man with, apparently a fragile mental condition who tipped over into madness. But I sure liked him and I wish I'd called him up and gone to movies with him or something, because it got so he would only do my show, he didn't like other people that he was on with, he said, and he did it three or four times before and after the match.

Question: What was John Lennon like?

Dick Cavett: He wasn't like anything, he was unique. I've always wanted to hear somebody say that, and I picked you as the victim. I liked John, I didn't get to know him a lot. Almost all the time I spent with him was on the show, but also a couple other meetings and I'm still looking for two long letters he wrote me and I met him, of course, when I went down to the courthouses that we see on Law and Order to talk, to say he shouldn't be deported. I didn't have the wit to say, the president should, but he sort of was later, so that's okay. But a highly intelligent, very available guy. Very accessible, easy to talk to the first time you met him, it was that old thing, you felt like you'd known him a while, that kind of thing.

Question: What about Orson Welles?

Dick Cavett: What about Orson Wells? Oh, there's no way to encompass Orson Wells, and this is not a joke about his weighing 400 pounds or so when he died, but the dream talk show guest, of course, I still have a letter from a woman saying, "Thank you, thank you, Mr. Cavett, for bringing Orson Wells back to his American audience." And I didn't see Citizen Kane until I was in college somehow, and of course, I knew who Wells was from all sorts of other things. I saw him do King Leer on stage, City Center in New York, and he was a great, great guest. And tragic figure, too. Funny how two great theater artists like Wells and Brando became morbidly obese, and if there's a category beyond morbidly, they both became that. I'd love to know what the combination, what the connection between them might have been. Partly it was a professed despising of their professions. But it's much too complex for my mind to fathom.

Question: Is it true that somebody died on your show?

Dick Cavett: Die on the show? What are you talking about? Yes. I'm the only talk show host, I think, if there's such a category in, what's called, the book of records, to have a guest die while we were taping the show, yeah. And of course, if the gods are going to exercise their sense of humor as usual and have a guess die on a talk show, it would have to be a health expert, which he was. It was Jay I. Rodale, Rodale Press, Prevention Magazine, all those, that publishing industry, and he was very funny for half an hour, brought out the next guess, Pete Hammel, Hammel talking about writing his column and this and that, and then Hammel suddenly turned to his right, and the audience at home, if the show had ever aired, but the audience in the studio heard, **** and they cut and Rodale was having a massive coronary.

Question: Do you think your difficult questions played a role in this?

Dick Cavett: Yeah, it was, and there's always a sick humor aspect to these things. We watched the show, of course it didn't air, it happened almost two hours before airtime, so they threw it into the show, but, as I wrote about that in one of the blogs, at least every month I run into someone who says, "I'll never forget the look on your face when that guy died right on your show." And of course, they never saw it, but they could pass a lie detector test they did. I don't know whether I described it so brilliantly the next night, it was in all the papers, of course, and people just, shows your the value of eyewitnesses. That there are people who could people who could pass a polygraph that they saw this.

Question: Why did Nixon dislike you?

Dick Cavett: The former, the erstwhile president and great un-indicted co-conspirator? I'm not sure exactly. The reason I find myself, and I learned this a couple years ago, and you can see it on You Tube, Cavett decides, Nixon Decides To Screw Cavett, I think it's titled, from the Nixon tapes, there he and Haldeman, his, for young folks, this was one of Richard Nixon's assistants, henchman and lick spittles, said, "We've got to get Cavett." You know, who is, what is Cavett? Haldeman says, "Well, he's the worst, he's always loading the show with the Nixon cuts in with, but what are we going to do?" Anyway, it contains the immortal line by the chief executive, "How can we screw him?" And Nixon's inevitable delivery, "Well, we're working on that," I think is how it went.

Partly it had to do with the fact that I testified that John Lennon should not be deported from the US, although Richard Nixon's administration and Richard Nixon wanted to. That again was Haldeman, there's a tape somewhere where Haldeman says, "You know, this Lennon, he could sway an election." And that was enough for Tricky Dick to hear. It's a shame about Nixon, I wrote two really good blogs about him in my New York Times online blogs, Dick Cavett NY Times, I just read them, and they're better than I thought when I wrote them. One of them is very funny, very embarrassing at the same time, but I mention in them, the shame about Nixon is that he was certainly the most intelligent president we had had in a long time and his remarkable brains and legal grasp and intelligence were so tragically wasted by his criminal personality.

Question: What was your career as a magician like?

Dick Cavett: A magician? Oh yeah, I was a magician and I made, in those days, a fortune sometimes while in high school, of $20, $25 a night at a church or, you know, a company celebration or something. You know, I was very good, I had some good teachers and I bought, I was able to lend my school teacher parents $800 as the down payment on a new car when I was in 10th grade.

Question: What tricks did you do?

Dick Cavett: I did some apparatus magic, I did some, I have a genius rope routine that I do, taught to me by a genius magician. At 15, I won a trophy at an International Brotherhood of Magicians convention, beating out, in the same category, the president of the Society of American Magicians, which allowed my home town paper, the Lincoln Journal and Star, to do the headline with three pictures of me in my bow tie and my rope and my scissors, "Young Lincoln sharpie, best magician's group head," that just perfectly fit.

Question: Did you and Johnny Carson share a bond over magic?

Dick Cavett: There was a link between Carson and me and magic because we used to, sometimes I would say, "Johnny, teach me to do a double lift with the deck, I can never master it." And he would come back to the dressing room after we taped the show and demonstrate. And one night he had me to dinner at his house, a thing his staff couldn't believe, since he didn't do really stuff like that, and he was producing lit cigarettes when I arrived and showing me how. And then we smelled something, and looking down, there was almost by then, a quarter size black burn spreading on the brand new Aubusson carpet that his wife had bought two days earlier. So there was a bit of tension at dinner.

Question: How did you get into the talk show business?

Dick Cavett: Who me? You know, I've never been entirely sure, except I wrote for them, Johnny and Jack and Merv and others, and my highest ambition was to be a guest. That maybe I get to the point where I could be the one they, "Now, here's our friend, Dick Cavett, who's been on before," but ABC had a pilot of five half-hours called “The Star” and “The Story,” and they got Van Johnson and told part of his life each of these five episodes and submitted this as a pilot, and they hated the show, but they liked the young man who hosted it, that was myself. And so they thought, let's try him in a daytime talk format, and they did. And that became a nighttime talk show format, Rob. And that's why I say, "When you're smiling!" There's a stand up comic on your staff and knows that many crap comics who have no opening or closing for their acts come out singing, When You're Smiling. And then they end with, "She's so bowlegged, when she sits around the house, she sits around the house. And that's why I say, When You're Smiling," and gets off. Sorry, you didn't need that, did you?

Question: How were you able to balance intelligence with comedy?

Dick Cavett: Well, I had to fight the intellectual label when I started in television, because, first of all, it's not going to help you commercially, and also, it wasn't particularly true of me. I mean, if anybody thought I was an intellectual, they probably had never really seen one. Maybe because I didn't know any better than to think you were supposed to read the guest's books before you had them on. And I remember plowing through 400-page books to have a guest on for 15 minutes or less and somebody pointed out, "You know, you didn't use all that homework and you don't need it." I'm intelligent, but I'm not an intellectual, and I may have, because I was in the Ivy League, I might have had a better liberal arts education than a lot of people, but I don't think of myself as extraordinary intelligent or intellectual, just reasonably so.

Question: How did you deliver jokes that do not come off as mechanical?

Dick Cavett: Deliver jokes so they're not mechanical, if you deliver them so they're mechanical, you're in the wrong business, you're born with what it is to make a comic and if you don't have a good ear and you don't have an instinctual way to say the line, and I mean an instinctive way to say the line, I guess, an intellectual would have gotten the word right--I don't know. Nobody can learn it, there have been shisters who have, and con-artists who have had comedy schools where they teach you how to delivery a punch line, that's preying on the un-talented and taking their money. If you're good, you'll do it right and you'll make it.

Question: Is it easier to write jokes for yourself or others?

Dick Cavett: It's horrible to try to write jokes for yourself, unless you're just writing jokes. But if you're trying to--I thought it would be easy because I wrote for people, and thought, "Why don't I just write for myself?" And then you're faced with, who am I? On stage as a comic. I'm not the guy with the enormous comedy nose or the big feet or the bad posture or the whatever, a physical comic has certain things. Durante's nose, Durante had a lot more than a nose, he had a fabulous personality that came right out and got you in the audience. You'll have to put an asterisk for your younger viewers as to who Durante was, I don't have time to tell them.

The whole thing is inborn, really. Those who are destined to make it were born with it, and probably will, unless they have bad breaks or alcoholism or nervous breakdowns from the pressures of being in show business.

Question: What is the best way to prepare for an interview?

Dick Cavett: Well, let me attack one word in your question and it will include the best advice I ever got. When I was about to do a talk show, the great legendary boss of mine, Jack Paar, to me the most electric, exciting, neurotic, strange, thrilling personality ever to appear on television, he had finished by then and I was about to do a show and he said, he called up and he said, "Kid, let me give you some advice. Oh, there's my stammer back," he said, "But anyway, forget it. Don't do interviews. Interviews are clipboard and Q & A and David Frost and crap like that. Just don't do interviews, make it a conversation. There's the secret." Now, it's all right for press people to do interviews because they want to get the ten facts and so forth, but I just wrote something about this and I was thinking, you could do an entire show following Jack's advice without ever that dreadful phrase, "Let me ask you this," which seems to be required of everyone on CNN, MSNBC, and almost everywhere else. Whenever they say, "Let me ask you this," I want to yell, "Who's stopping you? Just ask it."

Question: What is your advice to those suffering from depression?

Dick Cavett: Yeah, get help immediately. If you have a relative who's lost interest in everything and doesn't get out of bed, who doesn't care for things they used to, can't imagine anything that would give them any pleasure, don't fool around with it, get therapy, get help, get medication if that's right for you, or talk therapy, or something. But the very simple reason that you don't want to fool with it is, people with depression commit suicide. There's a lot more to know about depression than that glib answer, but that's not, I'm not glad I've had depression, but the pay off, if there's any, has been the fact that I've talked about it and that people have said, on the street even, "You saved my dad's life, he thought if this could happen to you, it's all right for it to happen to him." One of the uses of celebrity, perhaps? Or, "Well, you saved my daughter who always liked you and then she said, 'Gee, he's had this,'" and then, whatever.

But it's a ticking time bomb, it ends and it does not help to tell the person suffering it, "Get up and get out and have some fun and forget it, stop thinking about yourself and pull up your socks and play some tennis and you'll be fine." It'll help to play tennis, because you'll have some endorphins moving and you'll feel a little better. But you don't do any favors to the depressed person by saying, "Come on, snap out of it."

Question: Did you get help quickly?

Dick Cavett: I didn't get help very--no, I should've gotten help a lot earlier, I did, I suppose the first and second times, because you think, this can't be happening again. But the help is there and it must be used.

Question: Does blogging come easily to you?

Dick Cavett: Oh, blogging, I thought you said blocking, because of my football career. I love doing it, when I'm doing it. I hate it when it's coming up again and I don't have a subject. And it's delightful reading the online responses that people write, especially when they're positive. When it's goodbye forever, Mr. Cavett, it's stimulating in another way.

But yeah, I had no idea I would have anything more than three columns in me about any subject on earth, any subjects on earth, when it began, and so far, I've managed to keep going, I don't know if two years is or are up or not. It's been a lot of them, and they will be gathered into a book, so that people without computers--

Whoever they are, will be able to turn the pages and read about Nixon and Bobby Fischer and depression and John Wayne and Richard Burton and hundreds, God, I guess, almost hundreds of subjects. Sarah Palin's column got, sort of shattered the all-time record for responses, forwardings to other people, and receiving from other people. One woman wrote, "I got the column from 12 friends and sent it to 12 friends." But when you write something and it's quoted back to you, it's satisfying in a way that it isn't if you say it on TV or do it in your night club act and the Sarah Palin one, almost everybody, if they quoted a line, said it was, "She seems to have no first language." And I went on about the fact that how irresponsible it was of a presidential candidate to put a know-nothing in position to be the president of the United States and said, in fact, I felt sorry for John McCain, that he aimed low and missed.

Recorded on February 2, 2010