Thursday, March 5, 2015

It's Just Talk

"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 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." (Clive James)

Given my nightowl nature, watching The Tonight Show came easy for me in the mid-1970s. In the hick town where I was living, it was the only thing worth watching at that hour. Johnny Carson reigned on NBC. Who knew in the '70s that he would eventually ascend into legend? If I'd known, perhaps I'd have watched him more assiduously. But that would've taken all the fun out of it.

When Carson retired in 1992 I was sequestered in the Navy. I heard about the subsequent squabble over a successor, but I wasn't invested in the outcome. So what if Letterman got screwed. Leno got higher ratings anyway, so NBC made the right choice. When Conan O'Brien was given the reins of The Tonight Show, even with Leno on before him, there was a glimmer of hope that a worthy successor to Johnny had arrived. But when Conan refused NBC's scheduling changes, which would've moved The Tonight Show into tomorrow, they handed it back to Leno briefly. I watched Conan's tearful farewell to The Tonight Show in early 2010, live via satellite here "among the tinkling palm trees."

Carson inherited The Tonight Show in 1962 from Jack Paar. One of Paar's best writers was a kid from Nebraska who shared Carson's love for prestidigitation (magic). He wrote for Johnny for awhile until ABC,  trying to attract younger viewers with shows like The Smothers Brothers, gave him a shot at a late night talk show in 1968. Cavett's format was simple: no sidekick and no big band - just talk. Cavett quickly developed a reputation for more cerebral and witty conversation, and celebrities lined up to appear on his show. Rather than having to put up with the usual parade of movie stars and popular singers plugging their latest work night after night ad infinitum, Cavett offered viewers lengthy and revelatory interviews with often interesting people. And, unlike Carson or any of the others (Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas), Cavett often took sides. Some of the more famous shows on ABC included Groucho Marx, Jimi Hendrix, Ingmar Bergman, Danny Kaye, Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal, and Angela Davis. 

I can't say that I saw much of Cavett's ABC show or his short variety show for CBS, but when I was in college in 1977, he moved to PBS, commercial free public television, and I became a devoted follower. Freed from having to scramble for ratings, Cavett could interview whomever he pleased, resulting in some priceless interviews with Saul Bellow, Kenneth Tynan, John Gielgud, Peter Cook, John Cheever, Federico Fellini, and Marcello Mastroianni. 

After leaving PBS, Cavett drifted from network to network. Now 78, he still lives in Manhattan, makes infrequent TV appearances, demonstrating on every occasion that his wit is as sharp as ever. (Anderson Cooper: "Weren't you up against Johnny?" Cavett: "Not physically." He has a blog on The New York Times website.

His television chronology show just how tough it was for him to stay on the air:
  ABC (1968–1974)
CBS (1975)
PBS (1977–1982)
USA Network (1985–1986)
ABC (1986–1987)
CNBC (1989–1996)
Olympia Broadcasting (syndicated radio show, 1985–1989)
Turner Classic Movies (2006–2007)

 Although Cavett conducted his share of interviews with celebrities (Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, John Lennon), at least he succeeded in exposing the human beings hidden behind the masks. Clive James, in his essay in tribute to Cavett, saw this when he was first interviewed by him:

"By the time he got to me, in 1974, he had already interviewed almost every household name in America, and he 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, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen the farm?" 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. He was by far the wittiest of the American television talk-show hosts, most of whom have always been dependent on their writers. . . There will be no Dick Cavett of the future. We should count ourselves lucky that there was one in the past."

By now, interviews - and the subjects of interviews - have become so commonplace that it's difficult for a person who dedicates himself to the art to make a living at it. That there is such a thing as "the art of the interview at all is thanks largely to Dick Cavett.

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