Dick Cavett does his homework. An interview about the release of his new book TALK SHOW: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary and Off-Screen Secrets quickly turns into a conversation in which he refers to this author's blogs. It's easy to see why America's biggest names of the 1960s, 70s and 80s would vie for a seat on his late-night talk show. From Groucho Marx to John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Orson Welles, Cavett engaged them in conversations that the rest of us were invited to listen in on. He was less of a talk show host than an erudite listener and witty conversationalist.
Cavett's new book is being released at a time when reality shows and gotcha journalism reign supreme, and reminds us that "real TV" is so much more satisfying than reality TV. In one memorable episode of Cavett's show from 1971, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal hurl insults at one another as the New Yorker's Janet Flanner and Dick Cavett insert bon mots. More riveting than any of the interchangeable Housewives or Snooki and the gang, the segment is rife with tension, artfully crafted insults and a sense of imminent danger. Cavett distinguishes it from all current programming by saying, "On an entertainment show these days, can you imagine anyone inviting three authors?"
Dealing with the kind of risk that comes with inviting unpredictable guests such as Lester Maddox onto a talk show turned out to be Cavett's strength. "I later found out that I liked difficulty and enjoyed telling people what I thought of them publicly. I once told Timothy Leary that he was full of crap and got a huge laugh," he recalls. "I also once asked one of FDR's unremarkable sons, 'What part of what I just said did you fail to hear?'" He also credits former boss Jack Paar with giving him the greatest advice of his career. "He said, 'Don't do interviews.' And he was right; I make it a conversation."
Getting to the point where he could merely converse with guests took a while, says Cavett. "The first week when I was thrown into the arena, I remember a complex jam of the brain. At one point, I remember the guest's lips had stopped moving. What do I do now? Someone told me to have a standby universal question for such moments: Do you pee in the shower?"
For the past few years, Dick Cavett has been penning a popular blog for The New York Times, covering a broad range of topics which form the core of the new book. Lately, with many of his contemporaries passing on, he has offered up memories of old-timers such as Tony Curtis, Eddie Fisher and Arthur Godfrey to new generations of Americans. His writing is as sharp, witty and engaging as his talk show hosting was -- begging the question: Why is this man not currently hosting a TV show? Even without guests, his stories of old friends such as James Mason, Groucho and Woody Allen would make riveting television. "Call me anything but intellectual," he says with a laugh but, in the same breath, admits to reading all his guests' books before interviewing them. Who does that?
Thankfully, the November 9 release of the new book is a catalyst for numerous upcoming Dick Cavett guest appearances, something he seems to relish. "I'm always a good guest," says Cavett. "That's fact, not opinion. I couldn't always be a good host, but I'm always a good guest." Until some television exec has the sense to give Cavett another show, I urge you to check out DVDs of his old shows or even watch excerpts on YouTube. The man managed to shine even when putting the spotlight on his guests. Today, who does that?