Although he’s been away from television for a long time, people still respond to the mention of his name with, “He was the best thing on television” or “He really knew how to interview people.”
In Talk Show, he recalls how his mentor, Jack Paar, told him that to be a good interviewer, you have to learn to listen.
Talk Show is a compilation of Cavett’s columns that he blogs for The New York Times. His recollections are priceless. Over the years, he built friendships with Groucho Marx, William F. Buckley and Woody Allen, among many others. His connection to Woody Allen would get those rare TV interviews.
Cavett’s affection for Buckley makes sense, all politics aside. Cavett simply likes smart people. Cavett was a comedy writer for Jack Paar, who set a high standard for TV on his show by booking intelligent and articulate people with something substantive to say. I wonder where those standards went.
One of the funniest lines I heard Cavett deliver on his PBS show went something like this: “I’ve been getting complaints from a number of viewers who think this program is too intellectual. We’re going to make it up to you tonight by getting an English professor from Columbia to come here where we can shoot at his feet to make him dance.”
Cavett recalls great interviews with Jonathan Miller, who is the ultimate overachiever. He abandoned his vocation as an opera director to return to his neuropathology practice. Sounds serious. But Miller is seriously funny, having started (along with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett) Beyond the Fringe, the hit comedy review of the sixties. Jonathan Miller is the perfect guest for a Dick Cavett program.
In Talk Show, Cavett lists a few things that annoy him deeply: “Weathermen who can’t pronounce ‘meteorologist’ and say ‘meterologist.’ These same ones have never noticed that the word ‘Arctic’ has two c’s and so should their ‘Ant-ART-ic.’” Cavett also dislikes men’s shirts with no pocket (I have to agree) and President Bush.
But Cavett saves a special sort of disdain for Sarah Palin, whom he describes as The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla. There are many examples of crime against language that this “serial syntax killer of Wasilla High” committed: When Palin was running for vice president, she was asked about the dire condition of Darfur. Palin: “Never, ever did I talk about, well, gee, is it a country or a continent, I just don’t know about this issue.” On her exuberance for hunting, Cavett asks, “Has anyone noticed that hunting animals with high-powered guns could only be described as sport if both sides were equally armed?” Cavett means no malice toward Palin, he says. At first he liked her looks – “not an uncomely frontal appearance.”
“Now, as the Brits say, ‘I’ll be glad to see the back of her.’”
Cavett takes a passionate and candid position on something that has plagued him all his life, and I don’t mean people who say “NUKE-yoo-lar.” It’s clinical depression. Millions suffer from it. Depression is a serious illness that is often dismissed. Cavett says electroconvulsive therapy or ECT, which is sometimes wrongly called “shock therapy,” has been highly effective (Carrie Fisher says the same thing). Cavett gets serious here (good comedians really are serious people). Suicide is sometimes the answer to severe clinical depression. He writes: “Don’t mess with it. Run for help – whether it’s talk therapy, drug therapy, or ECT.” Rod Steiger had bouts of it. He told Cavett, “If I brushed my teeth, it was a big day.”
Cavett affords little patience to those who would dismiss depression as a weakness. At Oxford, Cavett encountered a stuffed shirt professor who sniffed, “Depression is for sniveling little neurotics.”
“How then,” asked Cavett, “have you escaped it?”
Talk Show is a funny, insightful, and an absorbingly entertaining book. If you’re not already a Dick Cavett fan, you likely will be after reading it.