Fame is a Bee: On Dick Cavett

Fame is a Bee: On Dick Cavett

A talk-show like Dick Cavett’s, intelligent but not intellectual, offered television a new twist.


When Merv Griffin died in 2007, the lion’s share of obituaries emphasized his game-show empire. Griffin created Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! and profited handsomely from both. Today the proliferation of branded global entertainment tailored to local needs is rampant, particularly with reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor. But international versions of Wheel proliferated ten years before the premiere of Survivor, and in 1986 Coca-Cola bought Merv Griffin Enterprises for $250 million, making Griffin one of the most successful and forward-looking entertainment producers in the United States. Yet the average TV viewer saw Griffin in a different light: he was simply "Merv," one of the most popular talk-show hosts in the country.

Looking back, it’s a bit hard to believe. Merv was dull. In fact, SCTV‘s Rick Moranis’s faultless impersonation of him—and his signature sycophantic exclamation, "Fascinating!"—could make watching the real Merv Griffin Show seem pointless. Chat host Mike Douglas was too humdrum even for parody. He and Merv were easygoing, always wearing relaxed smiles and never offending or browbeating their guests. There was one major difference, though. Merv understood himself as a celebrity (or, at least, as a hanger-on) and would casually mention that he had played tennis with Errol Flynn, or had sublet an apartment from Marlon Brando, or that Marilyn Monroe had once jumped up and down on his bed sans foundation garments. Douglas—the "national icon of square chic," as Rick Perlstein puts it in Nixonland—presented himself more as an everyman, an afternoon guest at your coffee klatch who just happened to bring along some swell friends.

Somehow Douglas summoned the nerve to invite John Lennon and Yoko Ono to co-host for a week in 1972. The three discussed topics ranging from racism and women’s lib to biofeedback and macrobiotic cooking, and their guests included Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin and Ralph Nader. It was a ratings coup, but Douglas noted in his autobiography that he had been quite anxious the whole time. He was no doubt worried that his guests were too controversial to appear uninvited in America’s living rooms, but he was damn lucky his own live studio audience did not rise up in revolt upon hearing his Velveeta-smooth performance of "Michelle." Douglas had been the singing voice of Prince Charming in Disney’s Cinderella. Edgy he was not.

Mercifully, Merv sang less than Douglas, though he did sometimes perform a punchy rendition of "I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," his one and only hit, from 1950. He devoted a whole program to examining Transcendental Meditation, but countercultural figures like Yoko Ono were not among his guests. At heart, Merv was dedicated to interviewing an older generation of entertainers, the glamorous Hollywood stars. Unfortunately, he didn’t have anything particularly interesting to ask them. To Sophia Loren, he posed the question "Do emotions like bitterness and hate show on one’s face?" When an obstreperous Richard Burton opined that humankind had made no progress in 2,500 years and that the astronauts who walked on the moon were complete idiots, Merv was flummoxed and tried to smooth things over by asking, with all the finesse of a can of Glade air freshener, "Who were your heroes growing up?"

Merv did have an eye for stand-up comic talent, and he took credit for discovering Jerry Seinfeld. (Seinfeld paid homage to Merv in a final-season episode in which Kramer installs the set of The Merv Griffin Show in his living room.) Both Richard Pryor and George Carlin appeared on Griffin’s show in the ’60s and were brilliant. Merv let funny guys be funny and political figures of all stripes run through their talking points unchallenged. Martin Luther King Jr. explained why economic disparities between Negroes and whites persisted and why the war in Vietnam was a mistake. Ronald Reagan rather outrageously proclaimed that no other administration had ever done so much for women’s issues. Merv has been praised (perhaps mostly by himself) for daring to ask Nixon in 1967 how he could overcome the wide perception that he was "a loser." But this question was the elephant in the room and, really, exactly the one Nixon wanted, since he was, once again, trying to invent a New Nixon. One year later Nixon would steal away a young Mike Douglas Show producer—one Roger Ailes—to package the New Nixon for the media. A few years earlier, Nixon had hired a writer from The Jack Paar Program to craft jokes for his speeches. If Nixon was headhunting talent from talk-shows, he obviously felt that these folks knew how to speak to "the average American."

* * *

It’s hardly surprising that politicians were eager to appeal to the talk-show audience, for this was Middle America in a nutshell. In an era when ABC, NBC and CBS were the only game in town, most TV shows were designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. It was an age of "water cooler TV," when almost everyone in the office could be counted on to have seen the same folks interviewed the night before. And the first late-night personality to really tap into the sensibility of the water cooler crowd was Jack Paar.

Host of The Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962, Paar was generally considered the inventor of the "desk and couch" format of the American talk-show. He had a notable talent for making people feel at ease, treating new kids on the block like the Smothers Brothers with the same respect he showed Bette Davis. Earnest and upright, Paar was sharp but not intellectual. He was too polite to ask pointed questions of his guests, but he was an astute conversationalist. Watching the show was like going to a cocktail party, back in the days when crinolines and cuff links were worn without irony. Paar noted in the opening monologue to a special 1964 London-based episode of The Jack Paar Program, "It is almost impossible to dislike me because I do nothing." Paar wasn’t just being modest. He was also responding to TV critics who regularly griped that he lacked talent. Paar was visibly hurt by unkind reviews, and he earned a reputation for sincerity and unvarnished emotion. A typical show shot in NBC’s New York City studio would open with a Paar monologue on a theme like modern advertising, then might feature a pretty singer warbling a ballad from Oliver!, a comedian like regular Jonathan Winters doing his sissified version of Moby-Dick, a relaxed exchange of stories with Arthur Godfrey and finally, for a touch of class, Richard Burton reciting Churchill’s "Iron Curtain" speech. Most shows, though somewhat improvised, went off without a hitch, with Paar as impresario, genuinely cracking up and not afraid to let his guests be more entertaining than he was.

By the late 1960s, with Griffin’s program chugging along profitably, Paar having gone into early retirement and Johnny Carson at the helm of The Tonight Show favoring comedy over serious discussion (he had impeccable timing and was the only one in the bunch to have a feel for physical comedy), American talk-shows seemed to have settled into a consistent formula: the ideal show had a fast pace, a variety of guests to please a wide range of viewers, and a little vavoom, but nothing too saucy. Between the sketches and songs, the underlying purpose of many of the pre–cable era talk-shows was to probe, though often very gently, at what made real famous people famous: great acting, superior political strategizing, athletic accomplishments, the ability to make people laugh until they cried. Notwithstanding the appearance of an occasional novelty guest—the contortionist, nose flautist or snake wrangler—these shows rarely ventured beyond fame into the realm of pseudofame. Unlike, say, Paris Hilton, the guests on early talk-shows were people with skill sets. The ratings kiss of death was the "has been," for the very presence of such a guest would reveal a painful reality: fame floats like a butterfly and flees like a bee. There were always tell-almost-all star autobiographies to promote, and gimmicky self-help manuals, but otherwise there wasn’t much room for writers as guests on talk-shows. The network suits assumed that the mass audience was uninterested in anything that smacked of the highbrow. An actor doing Shakespeare on Carson’s show was likely to get a pie in the face. Then The Dick Cavett Show threw a wrench into the works. Finally, a talk-show for eggheads.

* * * 

On Cavett, Carson’s corny sketch comedy, Douglas’s feel-good vibe and Griffin’s bland boosterism were banished. Absent, too, was Paar’s open emotion. Cavett admitted to "loathing the kind of phony emotion so common on TV," and in his restraint he often projected cool detachment, though he almost always maintained a humorous tone. Yet it’s clear from the stories he tells in his three books, Cavett (1974), Eye on Cavett (1983)—both written with Christopher Porterfield—and his new book, Talk Show, that he was anything but emotionally detached from stars. In fact, the story of his life is dominated by a fascination with the idea of fame, his own and others’.

As a young man from Nebraska, attending Yale on scholarship, Cavett was in awe of the glamour of live TV. By the time his first talk-show premiered on ABC in 1968, American intellectuals had come to disparage TV as the "tube," the "idiot box," the "vast wasteland"; but in the 1950s they had not yet given up on it. As a student in those years, Cavett would often travel to New York City to attend Broadway and TV performances. He had a talent for sneaking backstage and finagling his way into an audience with actors. He also enjoyed spotting celebrities on the street and had a particular talent for identifying character actors. Anyone could pick out Marlon Brando in a crowd, but Franklin Pangborn? That took a more discriminating eye. It was not enough to spot the famous (or even the slightly famous); you had to talk to them too. Once he was famous Cavett expressed irritation at being approached by complete strangers, yet as an unknown he had had a knack for ingratiating himself with celebrities without alarming them.

After some years of wangling jobs as a TV extra and working as a copy boy at Time, Cavett landed a job with Jack Paar. He secured the position by boldly entering the RCA Building by a back elevator and hanging out in the corridor between Paar’s dressing room and the bathroom. Inevitably, nature called, Paar appeared and Cavett passed him some monologue jokes he had written. He eventually wrote for Carson, Griffin and the short-lived Jerry Lewis Show. Cavett also developed a stand-up routine, with advice from his sometimes-mentor, Groucho Marx, to whom he’d introduced himself on the street in 1961, just moments after George S. Kaufman’s funeral. His default shtick was the incongruity between his Yale education and his simple Nebraska origins, though he was not above a good one-liner. On Chinese-German restaurants Cavett opined, "The food is delicious. The only problem is, an hour later you’re hungry for power."

Cavett eventually secured his own ABC show called This Morning, soon renamed Dick. His first guests were Angela Lansbury, Muhammad Ali and Gore Vidal. ABC was disgusted and told him, "Nobody in the world wants to hear what Gore Vidal or Muhammad Ali thinks about the Vietnam war." Scheduled from 10:30 to noon, the show had trouble finding its audience. (In a letter to Cavett, Groucho lamented that the time slot doomed it to be a "desperation show," watched only by "angry housewives and people who are unemployable.") Cavett’s next venue was a ninety-minute late-night talk-show on the same network. He recalled some years later that Paar had advised him at the time, "Don’t ever do an interview. Ever. That means clipboards and ‘What’s your favorite color?’ and David Frost…. Make it a conversation." Cavett took the advice to heart and engaged in real discussions, not the canned five-minute exchanges and product plugs so common on talk-shows past and present. On the Late Show With David Letterman, almost every interaction reeks of the "pre-interview" in which talking points are plotted out in advance. "So, have you been working out?" is followed by a generally unconvincing "Yes, the funniest thing happened to me at the gym last week!" This kind of canned banter was anathema to Cavett.

He was also unique for not pretending political neutrality. Cavett was openly (if not flamingly) liberal and even hosted an Emmy Award–winning TV special called VD Blues. Negative comments about Vietnam and Nixon were welcome on Cavett’s show, and he even testified in John Lennon’s defense at his deportation hearing, which particularly irked the commander in chief. (The Nixon tapes include an exchange in which the president asks his chief of staff how they can "screw" Cavett.) In an era when most talk-shows kept the chitchat apolitical, guests on Cavett were free to make feminist and prochoice comments. In fact, in the interest of fairness and balance, ABC demanded that Cavett give L. Brent Bozell "equal time" to express the antiabortion perspective. Cavett told Bozell on the air: "I don’t know which I find more repellent, your manner or your ideas." He told Timothy Leary, "I really think you’re full of crap," and he so offended segregationist Lester Maddox that the Georgia governor walked off the show.

If Cavett occasionally ruffled his guests’ feathers, it was in the course of genuine discussion. This was very different from the three-ring circus of insults common on today’s more confrontational talk-shows (or, more aptly, shouting, crying and chair-throwing shows). Such shenanigans were seen as improper in the pre-cable days. When Norman Mailer vented his contempt for fellow guest Gore Vidal on a famous 1971 Dick Cavett episode, a third guest, Janet Flanner (a k a New Yorker regular "Genêt"), told Mailer in no uncertain terms that his manner was boorish and, even worse, boring.

Such personal animosities surfaced only infrequently on the show, but Cavett wasn’t afraid of spirited debate. Nor was he loath to ask guests slightly uncomfortable questions. He may not have pried too far into the most private details of people’s lives, but he also did not limit himself to making guests look good—Mike Douglas’s overt strategy. In some cases, specialists explained a new scientific endeavor or discovery; here, personal issues were irrelevant. Other times, conversation was light and fun. A 1970 show featuring Rex Reed, Mel Brooks, a PR flack from the MPAA ratings board and the young stars of Zabriskie Point, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, offered a little of everything: comic routines, discussion of the politics of the Oscars, debate over film censorship and Cavett at his best, not trying too hard to pun and improvise punch lines, as he often did, but instead reacting hilariously to Frechette and Halprin’s slow-witted nonresponses to his questions, while Brooks desperately pleaded, "Say something!"

The finest shows on the Cavett DVDs currently available are those that feature an incongruous group of guests eager to engage in a genuine conversation. Janis Joplin, Chet Huntley, Raquel Welch and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. on the same dais? Fantastic! Cavett asks about the current status of Hollywood glamour. Fairbanks responds like a businessman: the studios used to promote stars, but now, following the collapse of the studio system, stars have to promote themselves. Joplin provides the countercultural perspective: people want authenticity, not glamour; that’s why they are drawn to Dennis Hopper. Welch worries about improprieties: why are journalists focusing on Hopper’s personal life instead of his tremendous talent? Huntley, drooling over Welch, adds nothing much. The conversation is natural and compelling, and it also engages with a recurrent motif of the entire series, concern about the death of the old Hollywood and the evolution of the entertainment business. Not surprisingly, the old contract players are the ones most concerned about the decline of glamour and the rise of a realism—and sexual frankness—that they find most unpalatable. Bette Davis comments on the new naturalism: "I could never ad-lib. I don’t believe in it." Debbie Reynolds observes, "Things are going a little too nudie for me," while Groucho proclaims, "I think women are sexy when they’ve got their clothes on. And if later they take them off, then you’ve triumphed." Old Hollywood and new—as represented on one show by Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, Frank Capra and Peter Bogdanovich—are deeply concerned about the large conglomerates running Hollywood in the wake of the decline of the old moguls. "I despise…that Kinney Parking Lots are making movies," Brooks declares.

When Cavett was able to devote a whole program to a single star, he often got more serious. Groucho just told funny stories and sang "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," but Carol Burnett, Kate Hepburn and others were willing to reveal something of their private selves. In these cases, Cavett inquired about childhood experiences, Freud and his couch hovering just off camera. He asked about the secrets of good acting, writing or comedy. He wanted to get inside. Paar was too polite to attempt such a thing, Douglas liked to stay closer to the surface to keep things upbeat and Griffin may well have held back out of a deep conviction that privacy was sacrosanct. Cavett was able to push harder, in part, because of his low-key delivery style, although sometimes he would lose his way, becoming too nervous or star-struck. He regrettably fills a gap in his conversation with Burnett by complimenting her on her legs, and he never pushes Alfred Hitchcock beyond the formulaic, giving the director free rein to make misogynist quips: "Somebody asked me the other day how long did I think nudity would last on the screen… I said that all breasts sag eventually." Yet Cavett holds his own when Brando declines to answer almost every question, and one feels that one knows both characters a bit better at the end of the convoluted interview.

Cavett disdained the tube’s more lowbrow content. In his first book he used Let’s Make a Deal as shorthand for all that was idiotic on TV. Nothing could be worse than people dressed up like hamburgers and radishes, he lamented. Needless to say, someone with this attitude could not survive on network TV over the long term, though Cavett’s Emmys carried enough prestige for ABC to stick with him until 1975, when the show was finally canceled. The question is not so much why an intelligent show was killed—it happens all the time. My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks and, most recently, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles all come to mind. Rather, why would ABC run a show targeting brainiacs (albeit brainiacs with a keen sense of humor) for seven years?

Established in 1943, ABC came on the scene late as the third network. ABC had long been TV’s underdog, because NBC and CBS had licenses for all the best viewing areas, and ABC shows simply weren’t accessible to as many people. ABC was particularly open to airing a variety of public affairs programs, often produced by others, because its own news division was wobbly, and talk-shows were a lightweight version of public affairs shows, providing a balanced roster of politicians, entertainers and self-improvement gurus—all at a reasonably low cost. Talk-shows were often pablum, but the very fact that they were unscripted nonfiction gave them an air of authenticity. A talk-show like Cavett’s, intelligent but not intellectual, offered an interesting new twist. Why not?

But could such a show make money? By the mid-1950s, ABC had found success cranking out westerns and had forged a lucrative deal to air Disneyland. This all appealed to a mass audience. The "class" audience presumably earned more income than the mass and was potentially more appealing to advertisers, but could this advantage trump sheer numbers? The Dick Cavett Show simply wasn’t designed to appeal to everyone. It did feature Kirk Douglas, Lucille Ball and Fred Astaire, but there were also more lettered guests like Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow and, when the fancy struck him, Cavett’s favorite undergraduate philosophy professor from Yale. This was niche programming avant la lettre. ABC was onto something, perhaps, but narrowcast programming was doomed in the pre-cable world, finding only an occasional home for itself late at night, far from the advertising rates of primetime. Late night was a dead zone where weird ’70s shows like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; SCTV; and Fernwood 2-Night could make brief appearances. Before cable, niche TV could exist only at the edges of the schedule; and even there, some money had to be made. If Mary Hartman managed to air in a few markets when people were actually awake, it was only because its developer, Norman Lear, bypassed the networks, syndicated the program and negotiated directly with local stations. Lear was a powerful producer who briefly managed to beat the system. Cavett would have no such luck.

Cavett’s first book includes sad stories about meetings with ABC executives who demanded higher ratings yet had never even watched their star’s show. Cavett says he began "to get a faint whiff of goose cooking" when he walked into the office and spotted a photo of the executive on vacation with Monty Hall. This kind of fellow just wasn’t staying up late to listen to interesting discussions of literature, film and politics. There’s an even sadder story in Eye on Cavett. After the cancellation of the ABC program, Fred Silverman, then at CBS, put Cavett under an eighteen-month exclusive contract with the idea of testing him in different venues to see what would stick. Silverman would make Cavett "a household word." Shortly thereafter, Silverman jumped ship for ABC, and Cavett was left adrift as various executives groped about to discern what kind of household word he would become. What finally emerged was a dreadful summer variety show in which Cavett was forced to tap dance and do sketch comedy, anathema to a performer who thrived on spontaneous conversation. In gruesome detail, Cavett explains how the writers and executives mucked up the entire endeavor, in effect trying to dress up Cavett like a radish. It is a tortuous tale of incompetence.

From 1977 to 1982, Cavett would find a home on PBS, a more hospitably bookish climate than the networks, before receding in large part from the public view, although he did appear on Broadway in the early 2000s as narrator of The Rocky Horror Show. He made a guest appearance as himself on The Simpsons in 1995—a key marker of cultural cachet—and has written a New York Times online editorial column since 2007. Of course, narrowcast media have finally won out, and with his Times blog Cavett has found his way back to a niche following of fans who appreciate plentiful Shakespeare references and highfalutin words like "horripilate," "lagniappe" and "adenoidal" and don’t need to interrupt their reading to Google luminaries such as Mort Sahl, Don Rickles, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Soupy Sales and Milton Berle.

Cavett’s new book, Talk Show, offers a selection of some three years of blog entries. Unfortunately, his hodgepodge comments on why the Iraq War is a disaster, pronunciation errors are irksome and obesity is bad are not particularly revelatory. His stories about celebrities are often recaps, or simply reiterations, of stories told in his previous books, though a few descriptions of shows not available on DVD do whet one’s appetite for more. Who would have guessed there would be a fine rapport between Tony Randall and Bobby Fischer?

The conversations on display on Cavett’s show, besides offering a window on the celebrities, politics and culture of the late 1960s and early ’70s, at the height of the monolithic network era, also provide a frame of reference for understanding the dominance of talk in today’s fragmented media marketplace. For, notwithstanding all the tawdry action featured on reality TV—Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends planning theme parties, Sharon Osbourne lobbing a ham into her neighbor’s yard, randy nobodies hooking up in hot tubs—talk is what really drives today’s "unscripted" shows: therapeutic talk, instructional talk, strategic talk, trash talk. With their endless betrayals, plot reversals and love triangles, these newfangled shows are deeply indebted to the soap opera tradition. Equally important, though, is their debt to the talk-show and to the very old idea that it is interesting to watch celebrities—perfect strangers, really—reveal what makes them tick, in a putatively "natural" manner, without a script. Cavett’s guests, following his lead, did this quite brilliantly much of the time. Bette Davis may not have ad-libbed in the movies, but on Cavett’s stage, decked out in go-go boots, a fur capelet and diamonds, she spoke off the cuff and was absolutely brilliant. Creating a comfortable space for all kinds of guests to talk about politics, culture and fame, Cavett gave us both the moon and the stars.

Ad Policy