Clive's Lives

Dick Cavett

The secret art of the talk-show host

The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen the farm?
—Dick Cavett, quoting Abe Burrows

Dick Cavett

Dick Cavett was born in 1937 in Nebraska. In high school, he was a state gymnastics champion and trained himself as a magician. After Yale, he began his television career as a writer for Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, and subsequently ruled as the small screen’s most sophisticated talk-show host from the early 1970s onward. The talk-show format depends on a comic monologue at the top of the show, perhaps a few sketches, and then the star interviews. Cavett’s format dissolved the humor into the interviews, and much of his wit was unscripted. The idea that one man could be both playful and serious was never deemed to be quite natural on American television, and Cavett was regarded as something of a freak even at the time. Eventually he paid the penalty for being sui generis in a medium that likes its categories to be clearly marked. His marvelous book Cavett (1974), composed along with his amanuensis Christopher Porterfield, is cast mainly in the form of a long interview; there is nothing quite like it, just as there has never been anyone quite like him.

As a true sophisticate with a daunting intellectual range, Cavett was the most distinguished talk-show host in America, if sophistication and an intellectual breadth were what you wanted. The only persona that he bothered to, or needed to, develop for working on camera was of a boy from Nebraska dazzled by the bright lights of New York. To fit that persona, he would freely help himself to ideas from his range of influences, stretching back to W.C. Fields and beyond. But he also had the capacity to make up great new stuff at terrific speed.

Cavett began as a writer for the established hosts and he could write for anybody, matching not only their themes but their tone of voice. When he finally appeared on screen as himself, he had to match his own tone. He found that harder, but soon got awesomely good at it. 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, which I reproduce in the quotation above. 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.

Before the American host sits down with his first guest, he must first be a ­stand-­up comedian: a joke teller. Cavett, having started as a writer, understood that condition well. But in his career on camera he was always more interested in the stuff that came after the monologue: the conversation with the guest. In this, he was different from Carson and anyone else who has followed in Carson’s tradition, right up to the present day. Even Carson could be spontaneously funny if the guest (or his groveling feed man, Ed McMahon) opened an opportunity—the clumsier the guest, the more opportunities there were—but it was strictly counterpunching. Carson’s successor on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno, does without the stooge but works the same way: The core of his technique is stand-­up joke-telling, and he keeps in shape by taking cabaret dates all over America. (When I was his guest in Los Angeles, he fired off jokes one after the other. I did my best to come back at him, but it wasn’t a conversation: more like ­mouth-­to-­mouth assassination.) Of the star hosts currently operating, David Letterman comes closest to Cavett’s ­easy-­seeming urbanity, but Letterman, for all his quickness of reflex, takes a lot of time to tell a story—with much eye-­popping and many an audience-­milking “Whoo!” and “Uh-huh!” Conan O’Brien, when he was starting out, gave you the best idea of what Cavett’s unemphatic poise used to be like; but, as he completes his climb to stardom, he allows himself an ­ever-­increasing ration of havin’-fun hollerin’. It’s an imperative of the business, and Cavett defied it at his peril.

Cavett never mugged, never whooped it up for the audience, rarely told a formally constructed joke, and listened to the guest. To put it briefly, his style did not suit a mass audience, and in the course of time a position that had never been firm in the first place was fatally eroded. Perhaps he was too cultivated. His Upper East Side brownstone was full of good books, which the range of reference in his conversation proved he had read. (At Yale he had been an erratic student, but one of those erratic students who somehow end up reading the whole of Henry James, probably because somebody advised him not to.) Though temperamentally a nervous wreck, he seemed as much at ease among his civilized surroundings as Jay Leno seems at ease among his classic cars and motorcycles. When I appeared on his show, I was in New York to promote my book Unreliable Memoirs, which I suspected at the start would have little chance of securing an American audience. It was just too hard to classify: Most of the first wave of American reviewers had convicted it of trying to be truthful and fanciful at the same time. (A reviewer for the New York Review ofBooks had seized on my incidental remark “Rilke was a prick” in order to instruct me that Rilke was, on the contrary, an important German poet.)

But Cavett had been so nice about the book on-air that I allowed myself to imagine he had actually read it. He asked me to lunch at the Algonquin, where he was delightfully fast and funny; and then later in the week he asked me home for drinks, where he was even better, because he was ready to talk his business instead of mine. I learned a lot from him in a tearing hurry. Discussing his disasters on-air ­(self-­deprecation was one of his charms), he put on a tape of an old show and ­fast-­forwarded to an illustrative moment. I can’t remember who the guests were or what they were doing—it could have been Truman Capote attacking Sonny Liston with a handkerchief—but I can remember the question Cavett asked me: “Why did my voice get louder just then?” When I hazarded that it was because the sound engineer had racked up the level, Cavett rewound a minute of the tape and showed me the moment again. “It didn’t get louder,” he said. “The director cut to the close shot.” Then he played me an example of a line getting lost because his director cut to the wide shot. Suddenly I saw it: The closeness of the shot varies the volume. I had already done years of television without figuring that one out for myself. That was the night I learned to wait for the red light on my camera before launching a ­would-­be zinger. The red light meant go. In later years, isolated individual tapes (called ­iso-­tapes in the trade) did away with the problem, but at the time it was vital information. Cavett, who did a minimum of four shows a week, knew everything about talking on television.

It made him famous. He was never as famous as Carson, but he was famous enough not to be able to go out except in disguise. With a fishing hat pulled down over his ears he walked me along to Fifth Avenue so I could hail a cab. Years later I did his show again. He was just as welcoming, but he had even less time to spare; his show was fighting for renewal. The network executives thought he was finished and they might have been right. Those hundreds of shows a year had worn him out. 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.

Cavett’s interior life was more complicated. For too long he had been questioning the value of what he did for a living. I think he really wanted to be a writer but couldn’t face the risk of failing at it. The idea that he was born for television secretly appalled him. But born for television he was; even his comedy specials would have been enough to establish him as one of the most original ­small-­screen talents since Ernie Kovacs. I particularly treasure the blissful moment when Cavett was being loomed over by a luscious ­6-­foot blonde. Sheltering under her magnificent bosom, Cavett addressed the audience: “Allow me to present Admiral Harvey Q. Beeswanger USN, master of disguise.” He had the wit’s gift of making the language the hero—the gift of playful seriousness.

In America, however, play and seriousness make uneasy bedfellows. Even a supposedly urbane magazine will contract a severe case of editorial nerves if a contributor cracks wise on a serious theme, and in show business the two elements, as time goes on, grow more and more separate instead of closer together. It might be said that the United States is the first known case of a civilization developing through disintegration. It might be said, but you wouldn’t want to say it on an entertainment talk show. A licensed iconoclast like Gore Vidal could perhaps get away with it, but no Tonight Show host would dare try—or even, alas, be capable of thinking such a thing. There are special shows for that sort of stuff; Charlie Rose has the seriousness business all sewn up.

There will be no Dick Cavett of the future. We should count ourselves lucky that there was one in the past. I count myself blessed that I knew him when he was still a small but seductive part of the American landscape. Eventually that landscape seemed to change its mind about wanting to include him, but it is possible that he had the idea first. At one point, toward the end, he was scheduled to do a set of programs in England for later transmission in America. I was one of the many admirers looking forward to his arrival, but he never showed up. Apparently he boarded the Concorde at Kennedy, had a breakdown before the plane took off, and was taken home. I never found out what happened to him afterward, and have never tried to find out. He would always have been a melancholic if he had given himself time, and perhaps he finally had time. A man looking for oblivion should be allowed to have it. Like Dick Diver at the end of Tender Is the Night, Dick Cavett sank back into America. He had already taught me my biggest lesson about television, far bigger than the one about the light on the camera: Doing television can be wonderfully rewarding in every sense, but if there is nothing else in your life, watch out.