Dick Cavett can tell a great story. The best ones center on his long friendship with Groucho Marx, who he met after the funeral of playwright George S. Kaufman. In one, Groucho was about to introduce his brother Chico to Tallulah Bankhead, the reigning Queen of Broadway and daughter of then-Speaker of the House William Bankhead. To understand Chico Marx (which is pronounced Chick-o), he was a profligate skirt chaser, vaudevillian, gambler, and orchestra leader whose wife knew that he slept with anything that moved.
Tallulah Bankhead, who was at the start of her career, was no slouch herself in that department, but few knew it yet. She was an attractive and wild force of nature, the kind of tornado that took out farms, mobile home parks, and marriages of all shapes and sizes. To describe Bankhead to a modern audience, she was the “Mother of all Train Wrecks,” equal parts Paris Hilton, Amy Winehouse and Lindsay Lohan but also had a tremendous talent that spanned four decades on stage and screen. Even after death she lives on, being played by Kathleen Turner and others in various stage productions of her life.
That night, Groucho pleaded with his brother not to sully the reputation of Miss Bankhead and he promised to behave. According to Cavett’s book, the conversation began innocently enough with a simple introduction.
“Miss Bankhead,” Chico said. “Mr. Marx,” Tallulah replied.
Grateful the storm had passed, everybody relaxed until Chico said, “You know, I really want to sleep with you (which was the PG version).” Without missing a beat, she replied, “And so you shall, you old-fashioned boy.”
Now, that’s a story.
Back to New York. On Friday February 19th, The Luncheon Society convened in Manhattan for a luncheon with Dick Cavett and a dinner that evening with former Governor Mario Cuomo.
Gatherings like those with Cavett are why The Luncheon Society came to New York. Unlike San Francisco and Los Angeles, we can’t just pop into Manhattan for a quick luncheon and head home for dinner. We know that putting together gatherings in New York takes a special challenge. It’s a marathon at a sprinter’s pace, but well worth it for the conversation of friends around the table.
A Different Guy for Late Night. Long before there were hundred of basic channels and anybody with a good agent could fake their way to host a late night venue, there were people like Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Marv Griffin, and Dick Cavett. When you watch clips of the old Carson show, what survives are short comedic spurts, like Ed Ames throwing a tomahawk into a cardboard cutout of a cowboy, Don Rickles and the broken cigarette box incident, or poems by Jimmy Stewart.
However, Dick Cavett was different because he aimed for long form conversation. Watching Norman Mailer fight with Gore Vidal and The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner was un unscripted delight. Watching Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier go at each other at great length had an air of danger, something that would never make it to television today. The interviews with John Lennon or Groucho are as fresh and alive as when they were taped, but the Carson pieces exist like dated period pieces.
Cavett’s shows were “dinner parties of the air” and one person might be interviewed for the entire 90 minutes, back when that was “par” for late night entertainment. The format was more free-wheeling than Carson’s assembly line approach, where authors were relegated to the final half hour. Cavett aimed for highbrow conversation when advertisers wanted a competitor to Carson. It was a surprise he lasted as long as he did on ABC.
The Fame Train. When Cavett was much younger, he envisioned one long “fame train” that would take him from Nebraska off to New York and things would work out naturally for him. He had a radio show as a high school student and like Carson before him, was a magician. He also found himself in television at a time when the medium was maturing. After graduating from Yale on a scholarship, he found himself bouncing around in a number of menial jobs, including a copyboy at Time Magazine. Before long he slipped some jokes to Jack Paar in a Time Magazine envelope and quietly joined the studio audience. While they did not make it into the monologue, Paar used them to ad lib his was through the evening and soon Cavett found himself working for The Tonight Show.
Jack Paar, like Carson, Letterman, and Cavett all hailed from the Midwest. Unlike Carson and Letterman, Paar played at the edge and some wondered if he might have a full-blown mental breakdown on the air. In fact, Paar walked off the air on live television because a joke had been censored the night before. He soon returned but was worn out by the daily process of putting together a 90 minute show. Cavett wrote jokes for him and others but soon found himself back on the Tonight Show as a writer for Johnny Carson.
After a growing career in stand-up comedy, Cavett soon found himself in greater demand. ABC found a daytime slot for him and within 18 months, he replaced Joey Bishop in the late night spot. He brought a sophisticated quality to late-night talk with critically acclaimed guests. Although there was a decade age difference between Cavett and Carson, it was huge against the backdrop of the 1960’s.
Even during the recent public relations disaster between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, the mainstream audience who watched Tonight wanted predictable fare as opposed to edgier content. Jay Leno and Carson fell on the mainstream side, while Cavett and O’Brien stuck to edgier material. Letterman fell somewhere in the middle. In certain respects, Letterman followed the Cavett model, but at 12:30 after Carson signed off for the night.
It would be hard to imagine Carson or Merv Griffin inviting musicians who just got off the stage at Woodstock to join the show for the evening but that’s what Cavett did. It was “bleeding edge” stuff while Carson warmed up to Shecky Greene. The knock against Cavett was that he appeared as too intellectual, too Eastern establishment, too Yale and it reflected in the ratings, whose 3.4 million viewers were dwarfed by Johnny’s nightly 7.7 million. I am told that within the upscale urban demographics, Carson and Cavett ran head to head but it was another thing in Middle America.
Cavett was able to peel away some of Carson’s younger, hipper audience by doing his own thing as opposed to simply copying the King of Late Night. He hired the first women writers for late night television. The show’s writing was anchored by Pat McCormick and John Lloyd, who later wrote the famous episode for the Mary Tyler Moore Show where Chuckles the Clown met his death.
In fact, Cavett’s approach on ABC provided a road map for Charlie Rose of PBS and Terry Gross of NPR, where a single guest format in literature or the arts could find a winning formula for long term survival. Like an independent running up against a franchise grocer, Cavett found himself diminished to once a week and left ABC in 1975. He later had shows on PBS, USA, and CNBC. As for NBC, The Carson formula still operates and a mainstream comedian like Leno can sustain the franchise on autopilot.
Yet for Cavett, the interviews shine even if they are hard to find. Future Senator and Presidential Candidate John Kerry and John O’Neill on a show that would re-emerge during the 2004 Presidential campaign. John Lennon and Yoko Ono smoked their way through packs of Viceroys during the first few minutes of their interviews on Cavett. Even for the movie Forrest Gump, the title character found himself in a fake interview with Cavett and John Lennon, not on Carson.
Why it worked. What made Cavett interesting is that he was able to transfer his own charm to others in a way that made his guest appear more interesting that they normally were in day-to-day life. Also you sense that he got to spend time with those he idolized as a child. Cavett has this look as if in utter disbelief that Groucho, a person he idolized as a child, would become a regular guest and long-time friend.
Bring him back. What is disappointing is that now that Cavett’s style has found long term sustainability in a basic cable format, Cavett is without a show. He seems to be enjoying life’s autumn breezes and writes for the New York Times on occasion. With MSNBC recycling earlier broadcasts of its weekday schedule of current events programming with weekends full of prison documentaries, perhaps now is the time to return Cavett to the midnight hour.
Next Up. Dinner with Mario Cuomo