If you were born after 1965 and came across any of these offerings you might wonder what the big deal is. Why would anyone care about this old guy, whose writing is so infused with self-depreciation and overly dry jokiness? But if you were born earlier. you might smile and think back to the days when a late-night talk show could be a cultural phenomenon.
Maybe I’m overthinking this because I came of age just as Cavett got his late-night talk show on ABC, and watching that show as a teenager helped expand my horizons – as a good teacher or sophisticated aunt might have done for someone else. When Katharine Hepburn famously appeared on the show, I’d never even HEARD of her. Nor had I heard of Orson Welles, Dizzy Gillespie or John Simon until they were introduced to me by Cavett.
In the 1960s, late night was dominated by “The Tonight Show,” hosted by Jack Parr and then Johnny Carson. Cavett had been a writer for both Parr and Carson, and ABC, always trying to figure out what to do in that time slot, rolled the dice and gave Cavett a shot. For network television this was an unusual choice. Cavett was Yale-educated and didn’t try to hide it. His intellectual pretensions and erudition would have been annoying without his quick wit and legitimate love of the old-time performers who were only too happy to appear on his show and bask in his adoration.
The prime-time version of “The Dick Cavett Show” premiered in May 1969 and moved to late night that December, right as the culture wars of the 60s were reaching their climax. If you watched “The Tonight Show,” you’d never guess that revolution was in the air, but the 60s were fought out on the set of “The Dick Cavett Show.”
Cavett himself was as square as they came, but he had his pulse on the zeitgeist. The day after Woodstock ended, his show featured appearances by Joni Mitchell, The Jefferson Airplane and David Crosby and Stephen Stills, all of whom performed and discussed the festival. Many of his guests were controversial, including members of the “Chicago Seven” (including Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin), who were charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I also remember the night I heard on the car radio that Georgia’s racist governor Lester Maddox had walked out of a taping, after which I raced home to see it air later that night. Can you imagine any talk show today being controversial enough to have its highlights reported in the news before it even aired?
Then there’s the night that Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner had a huge catfight on the show, and Mailer in his frustration snottily told Cavett, "Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask your question?” Cavett’s response was legendary: “Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?” But as quick-witted as that was, the follow-up was even funnier. Trying to regain the momentum, Mailer asked: “Mr. Cavett, on your word of honor, did you just make that up, or have you had it canned for years, and you were waiting for the best moment to use it?” To which Cavett replied: “I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?”
The “Dick Cavett Show” only lasted on ABC through 1975, when it succumbed to so-so ratings and corporate fear of controversy, although it was revived later on PBS, USA and CNBC to much less acclaim. Watching the old shows now, we are struck not just by the adult approach to talk, but by the fact that guests came on simply to talk, not just to promote projects. The sad truth today is that too many guests are booked only when they have a new movie, TV show, book or line of clothing coming out.
Jimmy Fallon has succeeded to a certain extent in breaking the stranglehold of publicists who insist on booking guests solely for promotional purposes, and some of his guests appear just because they want to be on. But still, it’s hard to imagine Fallon conducting a serious interview with the contemporary equivalent of Tennessee Williams or Bruno Bettelheim.
What we need today is a contemporary version of Dick Cavett, a wit whose interests span entertainment, politics, music and literature. We need a show where you can be introduced to new talent, relive the exploits of old masters, and watch a couple of literary rivals mix it up.
That’s why I’ve got my fingers crossed for the debut of the new Steven Colbert in September. Even on the rigidly formatted “Colbert Report,” Colbert was able to rekindle a little of the Cavett magic, with imaginative guests and serious writers. I hope he’ll cede the silly, albeit good-natured shtick to Fallon and try for a slightly more cerebral show.