Why Norman Mailer Was So Infuriating

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 here--but so you've 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.

The famous clash between the author and Dick Cavett was triggered, in part, by Mailer’s misunderstanding of what an "interview" is supposed to be.

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